Uchouten Kazoku – 03

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Uchouten Kazoku remains one of the most inscrutable shows of the year, but I find myself slowly falling for it.

Because of my obsessive personality finding one-word summations of anime is something I do, well – obsessively.  If I apply that formula to Uchouten Kazoku the one that spring immediately to mind is “magical”.  There really is something to the way this series teases out the layers of its reality as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.  The very best fantasies at world-building slowly bring you to the point where the only thing that would seem strange is if you didn’t see their fantasy world as reality, and that’s the way things are building here.

It doesn’t hurt that the setting for Uchouzoku is Kyoto, a pretty magical place to begin with – and yet one where the grimy, shockingly mundane reality of modern urban Japan coexists in uneasy harmony with the ethereal ghosts of the Heian Period.  It’s not hard to see why the novelist Morimi Tomihiko finds Kyoto the perfect muse for his surrealist flights of fancy.  I’m finding Uchouzoku more approachable than Morimi’s Tatami Galaxy, which was spectacularly intellectual but for me, too caught up in its own cleverness to consistently connect on an emotional level.  There’s a gentle, wistful quality to this show that Tatami Galaxy lacked – and the bonds between characters are uncommonly strong for a show only three episodes into its run.  Even a show about tanuki and tengu needs to connect on an emotional level to succeed, and the bonds between the Shimogamo family that form the spine of the series could hardly be more universal.

As overused as the term is, slice-of-life really does seem to be in the ascendancy this season, and Uchouten Kazoku represents the best qualities of the genre.  There were basically two scenes of consequence in this episode, both wonderful and both largely composed of people (well, beings) sitting quietly and talking.  The first was a visit by Yasaburou and Yashirou (I can’t help but note the irony that Nakahara Mai is playing a character who looks not at all unlike Assistant-kun) to Akadama-sensei – this time joined by the former head tengu of Iwayayama-san, now retired and “running a camera shop in Osaka just for fun”.  There are elements I suspect to be important to the plot in this conversation, among them the talk of the tengu of Kurama-san (I posted many pics and videos of the snowy day I spent there in January) and how they seem to be a bunch of troublemakers (I suspect them to be involved with the Kin-youbi Club).  It’s also interesting to note the dismissive tone in Akadama’s words about the tanuki, contributing to a growing sense that they’re far down the totem pole compared to the humans and tengu they share the city with.

Mostly, though, this is remarkable simply as a quiet conversation where two old men do most of the talking, and two youngsters the listening.  The purpose of the visit it to borrow Akadama-sensei’s “inner parlor” – a kind of flying teahouse the Shimogamo need for their annual pleasure cruise on the occasion of the Gozan Fire Festival (this takes place every August 16 as part of Obon, as huge fires are lit on the hillsides surrounding Kyoto, in the shapes of three Kanji, a boat, and a torii gate).  The only problem is that the old tengu has given the inner parlor to – who else – Benten.  This necessitates a trip by the brothers to ask to borrow it, which leads to an even better and more magical moment as the young tanuki enter a strange world that only adds to the mysterious aura surrounding Benten.

This is very much a different sort of series for P.A.Works and nowhere is it more in evidence than in this scene.  It’s not as if the animation is especially fluid, and the backgrounds detailed or even conventionally beautiful.  But the look of the scene is mesmerizing just the same, as it’s practically overflowing with imagination.  Every step the boys take once they leave the streets of modern Kyoto and enter Benten’s strange reality is presented in real-time detail, mostly from their perspective.  There’s a walk through a lovely sensu shop, down a long and foggy corridor (once they enter Yashirou can’t stop coughing, though I’m not sure if there’s any foreshadowing in this) which leads them to the shores of a large lake – or ocean – that’s clearly a part of another reality.  And Benten awaits them on an old clock tower in the middle of the water, which Yasaburou must row out to.

There, she does her usual dance – first verbally, leading Yasaburou (who’s clearly in love with her) by the nose, and then quite literally in the form of a fan dance.  I haven’t figured Benten out at all yet.  Human she may be, but we know she can fly, we know she has strong connections with the youkai species and she can manipulate the weather, too (inside her reality, anyway).  She’s apparently involved in the boiling of Yasaburou’s father in the hot pot, yet he seems to take no offense when she jests about doing the same to him.  She also doffs all her clothes and takes a spin on a whale’s tail, just for the experience.  There’s much, much more to her that we don’t know – but what we do know is that of course she’s going to say yes to allowing Yasaburou to use the inner parlor, because it’s fun for her to do so.  And so she takes the pups for a spin, explaining how to start the parlor up with alcohol, and they fly out over the Kyoto evening.  As Yasaburou and Yashirou dangle their legs over the side and enjoy the view, Benten goes out for a flight herself – an amazingly gripping moment and a true flight of fancy.

Uchouzen Kazoku is still largely a mystery, but at this point I’m almost hoping we don’t learn too many of its secrets because I’m afraid of breaking its spell.  Sometimes you’re happier not knowing how the trick is done, and I like the idea of this show’s world as one that guards its mysteries a little.  Part of the appeal of fantasies such as this is the longing for it to be true, because the world we live in would be so much more interesting if it was.  Because the series’ reality and our own are so seamlessly woven together and because the characters are so relatable (ironically, it’s the only major human character we’ve met who seems by far the most enigmatic and alien) it’s easy to get caught up in this world and accept it at face value.  We’ll see if the magic will hold once the mysteries start being solved for us, but in the meantime I’m looking forward to seeing more of more of this Kyoto and the creatures who inhabit it.

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8 comments

  1. r

    I find it really hard to describe this show. It's about a family of shapeshifting tanuki, people who eat tanukis, a cranky old-man tengu and flying boats and weather controller fans, and yet the one word that pops into my head is that it feels "real". Like, the world they're presenting and the character interactions just feels really good. I feel sucked in, and I feel that for something that's only been 3 episodes so far, that's quite a feat.

  2. l

    Definitely my favorite new series of the season, truly a magical narrative adapted by a fine studio. Even when P.A. Works is pulling simple strings such as playing the same insert track at the end of every episode, it's still oh so effective.

    I think Benten can assuredly manipulate the weather even outside her own little realm of a world, so long as she has the Raijin/Fujin fan that is. It would be weird if such a sacred object given to her by quite the significant tengu didn't amaze at universal standards.

  3. R

    Thanks Enzo for choosing to blog Uchouten Kazoku. I suspect that this show won't be amongst the most popular — especially for viewers who prefer plot-driven or "page-turner" kind of stories. However, I am very drawn to it — to me, it's a little like love at first sight since it premiered. We were thrown in the middle of events when it started, and this could be confusing, but I like it — it's like the characters are living their lives. I think the exposition in the last two episodes was nicely done — it slowly drew us into the characters' world. What has drawn me in the most is the characters — they feel so real, be it in their dialogue, interactions or behaviour — and I love the deep feelings that the characters have for one another.

    This week is another good one. We see more about their world, the characters, and their intertwining relationships. What I like the most is how the Shimogamo family is portrayed here — it's supposed to be the "eccentric" family, but everything about them is so real and relatable. As siblings, we all like to get on each other's nerves sometimes, while mom will insert her gentle meddling — or sovereign position — to make us all good again. When I was watching the conversation between Yasaburou and Yajirou, I couldn't help but think of everything that I could and wanted to share with my sister.

    To be honest, I don't mind if there is a bigger plot behind the slice-of-life story here. I am happy for as long as it keeps focusing on the characters and their feelings for one another. I very much enjoy the subtle narrative, and I want to see more of the Shimogamo family, the well-written dialogue and awesome character interactions.

  4. C

    I don't know about you, but I'm getting some Hyouka ish feelings from Uchouten! The pretty, PRETTY art doesn't hurt, but I like the lull and adventure and lazy fun that both of anime and main characters embody. This and WATAMOTE are the two that I look forward to the most this season. <3

  5. N

    Easily the best new show of this season for me.

  6. A

    Is it just me or does anyone else get a Ghibli feel from this show?

  7. R

    A lot of people are saying that while I am slow in making the connection…lol. I just love the well-written dialogue — be it the tongue-in-cheek exchange or the simple conversations — and the so-darn-believable behaviours of the characters. They all add so much depth to the characters and the bonds that they share making it so natural and easy to connect emotionally.

  8. M

    That sunken clock tower was very reminiscent of Spirited Away.

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