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
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.
ED: “Qué Será, Será (ケセラセラ)” by fhána