First Impressions – Uchouten Kazoku

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Uchouten Kazoku is a series which holds tremendous promise, but it’s too early to see how the pieces are going to fit.

OP: “Uchouten Jinsei (有頂天人生)” by milktub

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Going in, it seemed as if Uchouten Kazuku might be one of the tougher Summer series to nail down, and the premiere lives up to that – it’s fascinating but quite inscrutable.  We have a story from surrealist novelist Morimi Tomihiko (The Tatami Galaxy).  We have original designs from Kumeta Kouji (Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei) and Character Designer/Art Director Kawazura Kousuke’s resume is a laundy list of visually brilliant anime – Seirei no Moribito, Sword of the Stranger, Dennou Coil, GITS:SAC, True Tears.  And the series is produced by P.A. Works, a studio that as much as any has a signature “in-house” look and style – one that’s seemingly at-odds with the bulk of the work by the above staff members.

In practice, the first episode is a bit of a mystery.  For setting you can hardly beat Kyoto – it’s always surprised me that it isn’t used as the location for more anime given how incredibly photogenic and atmospheric it is.  As you’d expect from Morimi-sensei this Kyoto isn’t quite our Kyoto – in this version the city has for Centuries existed amidst a precarious balance of power between humans, tengu and tanuki.  The tone of the show very much centers on the contrast between the mythical and the mundane, as the lives of its characters are very much integrated with the human-dominated trappings of modern Kyoto.  And it seems as if with a few rare exceptions, the humans are unaware of the existence of the other two races.

Really, the premiere was quite spartan in terms of content – perhaps something of a surprise from Morimi.  We get a very basic introduction to the premise, and much of the rest of the episode is spent in “day in the life” format following main character Shimogamo Yasaburou (Sakurai Takahiro).  His tanuki clan is the “Kazoku” of the series title, and in the premiere we also meet his timid younger brother Yashirou (Nakahara Mai) and stern, disapproving elder brother Yaichirou (Suwabe Junichi).  Yasaburou is an impish sort who enjoys showing off his shapeshifting skills, spending much of the day in the guise of a schoolgirl in an impossibly skimpy uniform – including during his visit to his tengu “master” Akadama-sensei (Umezu Hideyuki).  Akadama seems to be in love with human live-wire Suzuki Satomi (Noto Mamiko), also known as Benten (a popular Kami of wealth and happiness).  He seems to have taught her to fly tengu-style, but can no longer do so himself – apparently due to an accident caused by Benten and Yasaburou that injured his back.

That may sound like a lot, but in truth there’s very little exposition given to any of it – events merely happen and are left unexplained.  Most of the episode is really about developing atmosphere and giving a broad sense of this wedge of the cast and how they interact, and at that it does quite well.  Yasaburou seems like a fairly typical capricious youkai, but it’s clear in his interactions with Akadama that he cares deeply for the old man.  Why is a tengu a tanuki’s master, and what is he training him in?  Why is Benten able to fly, and why is Yaichirou so concerned about propriety and Yashirou so skittish?  There are a few hints but nothing concrete – with Morimi, I suppose, we should expect not to really understand what’s happening until the end.  It seems likely that the Kin-you Kurubbu (Friday Club) that Suzuki Satomi hangs around with is a major factor and possibly not a beneficent one going forward, but in terms of a larger conflict driving the plot there’s just not much to go on.

All in all, this works pretty well, but I can’t say I was blown away by the episode.  It certainly looks quite different from any other P.A. Works series – apart from some lovely shots of Pontochou and other Kamo River locales, mostly absent is the P.A. signature mono no aware scenery porn, giving way to a more whimsical and fantastical look.  The BGM is quite engaging, the OP by the ever-winning Milktub is excellent, and the cast is mostly as good as you’d expect – it’ll be interesting to see how Nakahara does with a male role.  As for Sakurai-san, he’s a very good seiyuu indeed but seems miscast more often than most – an I’m not sold on him as Yasaburou.  He projects more sincerity – and age – than the role seems to call for, and I’m having trouble hearing him as the sort of Puckish scamp he seems intended to be.

In truth, more so than any series I’ve seen so far this season Uchouten Kazoku is impossible to judge after one episode – both because it projects a lot of potential and because the aims of the premiere seem to have been very modest.  It’s clearly very different from the flavor-of-the-month series dominating the schedule, and Morimi’s intelligence is impossible to miss in the writing – that we’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg in this premise seems a given.  There were also some quietly clever moments, like Benten’s slide down a hill and Yasaburou shrinking his boobs so he could properly aim his bow, that give me hope that director Yoshihara Masayuki has the flair to give the series the quirky stylishness it’s going to need to really be effective.  Right now Uchouten Kazoku is still mostly promise, but there’s reason to hope much of that promise will bear fruit.

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ED: “Qué Será, Será (ケセラセラ)” by fhána

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  1. M

    I'm glad P.A.Works took major liberties with their style. Looks to be the first show I'm decisively keen on this season.

  2. i

    'spending much of the day in the guise of a schoolgirl in an impossibly skimpy uniform' – Ikkitousen dude, Ikkitousen.

    It just flew overhead at a Mach 1 didn't it? All I understood was that the Tanuki was capricious and liked cross-transforming?! but cared for his crippled Tengu master who was in love with a bodacious flying human who is quite mysterious herself.

    I liked Tatami Galaxy quite a lot for how different it was to most anime at the time like how the original SZS was but there was a great infusion of comedy both of satrical and meta in those shows. However PA doesn't make Uchouten Kazoku as funny as it should be. Can't blame them though, they've never been good at comedy.

    Also Sakurai Takahiro sounds weird as a girl but at least its not FukuJun trying it.

  3. I don't think he was ever trying to sound like a girl, or at least that was my impression. My issue was that he didn't sound right as the character himself. I think he was supposed to be this wisecracking gaminerie, but there's just too much lived life and gravity in Sakurai's voice to pull it off.

  4. i

    It is surreal after all, maybe him sounding like a male in a girl's body was a part of that.

    Also I've wanted to ask since Genshiken came back but do you watch anime on the original channel at midnight or download subbed versions online? Thought there would be some fun in at least watching Noitamina on Fuji.

  5. As of now I don't own a TV set, though I'm looking to change that. TBH I don't feel I could watch most series raw for blogging purposes in any case, though I do occasionally for practice – I can get the gist of what's going on but not to the extent that I feel comfortable writing about it.

  6. G

    First this my first time posting, but I have always enjoyed your reading your post as we have similar taste and for the first time am trying to put words to what I feel about the series.

    I feel that his voice worked perfectly. I felt there was this undercurrent through the whole episode that even though he was trying to bring relief and comedy that the "old ways" prevail and that at the end of the day the expectations or the way of life for his kind are harsh and that lends to him sounding older/more mature then what we may expect.

    I tried to explain what I got out of the episode, but I just don't know yet if I can properly explain my take away just yet.

    I may be reading too much into it, but that is also why I am finding this series extremely interesting, hopefully I can say that at the end.

  7. K

    I would assume that he can shape shift, but not change his actual voice. That would probably make the most sense.

  8. i

    I actually enjoy watching shows in raw, being a challenge as well improving my nihongo. I still do it from time to time with shows I really like and ones which have seiyuu I like. I did it with Hataraku but admittedly found it difficult at times while the like of SnS and Toaru are ny impossible. Series like Free, SxS, Genshiken and HxH are well within my limits so if the sub isn't out when I have some time I watch the raw. I keep subbed versions on the harddrive though for peer use.

  9. Z

    The funny thing about what you said, the "lived life and gravity" that Sakurai projects, is that it feels extremely fitting for the character to me. The wisecracks only feels like a front, or perhaps more accurately, just a side of him that we see in the episode. In the flashback, his personality appeared more down-to-earth, and much more humbled. To his younger brother, he shows an incredibly gentle side. And from the various clues in the episode, we already know Yasuburou's gone through some very tough times; certainly just baseless speculation for now, but I think this history led him to adopt his current light-hearted persona.

    And being a tanuki, he seems to have lived far longer than what first impressions might imply; Benten herself seemed to have aged considerably since the time of the flashback.

  10. I don't disagree with what you said, but my take is this – wouldn't that disconnect be even more poignant if the character had a voice that matched his physical appearance?

    I don't doubt that he's older than he looks in human terms, as youkai tend to be, but it would also be true that that's a relative thing. In tanuki terms he's still a kid.

  11. C

    I actually loved this premier which is rather mysterious because normally I fall for the thrilling adrenaline fueling types. There was just something oddly real,complicated and engaging with the characters and I found the visuals simple but beautiful in their own subtle way. I don't know everything just felt like it came together for me.

    Here's hoping it lives up to its promise!

  12. l

    Not quite a guaranteed follow (only Servant x Service has got that distinction so far), but I'll be catching the next episode for sure.

    Enjoyed it quite a bit. Has a Noitamina-esque vibe going for it. Art direction was decent. The simplistic character designs contrast well against the detailed backdrops, though I'm not quite feeling the blocky ears. Some of the BGM work, particularly towards the end of the episode, was very tasteful.

    Too little exposition. Seeing as we are clearly dropped into it after a lot of sh*t has gone down – the introductory description (his father being eaten by the Friday Club), the tension between the characters, the scenes from the ED – this could really go either way.

    If it sounds like I'm apprehensive, well, I am, to be frank. I never quite enjoyed The Tatami Galaxy as much (loved Kemonozume and Kaiba, though that's not relevant here since Masaaki Yuasa isn't directing) because there was just something about each of the characters and their reasoning/actions that irritated me, and ultimately made me feel rather detached from it all. Objectively, it was still a very good series, just not one I could come to love. Benten and the Tengu geezer give off a very similar vibes here, and I can't help but feel that Yasaburou will just be taken on an agonizingly pointless ride for most of the episodes, his character being made a 'checkpoint-flag' for revelations the further we go. Hope I'm wrong.

    I'm assuming this is a 1-cour (12 or 13 ep) series? Anyways, looking forward to the second episode.

  13. I pretty much agree with your take on Tatami Galaxy – those are among the reasons I liked but didn't love it, and why I have reservations about Uchouten Kazoku.

  14. d

    Visually this was very beautiful and the nighttime cityscapes had that wistful summer into fall quality of everything changing that so many summer nights seem to have. Atmosphere as much as character wins me over each time.

  15. R

    I really like it…really like it a lot. I couldn't explain why but probably because of a level of maturity that I felt. There is certainly a lot that we don't know yet, but it may probably weave the pieces together as the story progresses. One thing that I really like is the characters — they feel like people (or tengu or tanuki) living their lives. I also like how Benten came back to Akadama quietly at night and gently fanned him — there's a bit of subtlety there. The art is quite beautiful, and it's unusual to see a different character design from P.A. against their usual beautiful and detailed background work.

    I love Kawazura Kousuke's Seirei no Moribito and Sword of the Stranger, and I think I will have faith in him again. I doesn't matter to me if this show is a slice-of-life, fantasy, or drama, but I am going to stick with it because I just love it when the characters are written with thoughts and respect.

  16. L

    Maturity… that's one word I haven't heard, but totally fits. I've heard vivid, whimsical, fantastical… and the titular eccentric.

    The color palette, the art style, the atmosphere—it all reminds me of one of my favorite Ghibli films, Spirited Away, and Madhouse's Summer Wars. It's got that quaint feeling going on, and if it's like the previous two novel adaptations this year, it's got a good story to tell. I still worry that it only has ~12 episodes, if ANN's count is right.

  17. K

    I agree. Maturity is a good word to describe this. The art style is simple, yet elegant, which is quite nostalgic, and probably one of the reasons why I liked this as much as I did.

    I'm not too worried about Uchouten being only 12 episodes long if it focuses mostly on the characters, which are very compelling and intriguing.

  18. K

    The background, and especially the BGM, really stood out to me. I found the première to be quite captivating. The maturity and subtlety of the themes and characters really drew me in. This will also be one of the few series I'm keen on following this summer.

    The only minor annoyance to me are the ear designs of the characters. The character designs are excellent and fit quite well with the fantasy theme, but the way the ears are drawn is very distracting for me.

  19. S

    I had the exact same issue with the ears. Loved the little nuances of the episode, but the ears rubbed me the wrong way.

  20. i

    I know you probably will post a First Impressions of WakaMote soon but can I just say that it is gut busting hilarious. You don't often find female orientated comedy animes and while Hataraku was better than great, as a change of pace its just as good. It was my pick for comedy alongside Gin no Saiji and I feel it exceeded all of my expectations.

    Will be really interesting to see which is actually funnier: the male comedy Blood Lad or the female one WakaMote. I lean to the side of the girls.

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