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.