This is a strange series to say the least. It’s not particularly sinister or disturbing, but it seems to have no interest in squeezing itself into any boxes we might be familiar with. That fits with Morimi Tomihiko’s writing style, but this series is quite different from Tatami Galaxy. That was a more overtly subversive show, likewise intentionally obtuse but a lot more in your face about it. Uchouten Kazoku is subversive in its own way, but it’s a subtler thing – a sense of sadness that underlies it’s breezy and whimsical demeanor.
Though it’s clear that there is a larger narrative that’s playing out, it feels as if we’re seeing snapshots of a continuously playing film. It’s not as if the events of one episode don’t lead into those of the next, but like some series have, this one has the sense that things don’t stop between episodes – they keep happening and we pop in for a visit and check where they stand a week later. What Uchouten Kazoku doesn’t have a lot of is explanations. It asks a lot of suspension of disbelief, but if you don’t buy into the magic of the premise I don’t think you’re going to find the series the enchanting transportive experience it sets out to be anyway.
If you have a good memory or a habit for noting things down, there are clues dropped about what’s going on in this fantastical Kyoto that are left for the audience every week. The “False Nyogitake Incident” seems to be a central, transformational event – a massive con pulled off by Tanuki-papa Shimogamo Souichiro (finally given the voice of Ishihara Bon this week) at the expense of the Kurama Tengu, as payback (seemingly) for their brutal hazing of Akadama-sensei. Akadama-sensei is a tough guy to love – he’s an irascible old coot, and seems determined to denigrate and belittle tanuki at every turn, and his gruff display of gratitude towards Souichirou after that event was about as warm as he seems to get.
Where things don’t quite fall together yet is in Souchirou’s death and the “Friday Fellows”. I suppose they’re the Kurama Tengu or affiliated with them, but it seems as if the Ebisugawa Tanuki might have been involved in that, too. They’re the emergent villains of the piece, starting with Ginkaju and Kinkaju’s bullying of Yashirou and going downhill from there. They and family patriarch Souun (Tobita Nobuo) had the most to gain from Souichirou’s death, and indeed they did – seemingly usurping the Shimogamo’s place on the top rung of Kyoto tanuki society. And since the tanuki seem to be at the bottom rung of the ladder to begin with, that floor clearance is even more important.
Indeed, the tanuki identity is a theme of Uchouten Kazoku that seems to be growing in importance every episode (it’s certainly telegraphed in the OP and ED). Would the Ebisugawa betray one of their own in concert with tengu? Judging by their attempts to blow the Shimogamo out of the sky with fireworks on the night of the Gozan Fire Festival it doesn’t seem much of a stretch. The Shimogamo – especially Yasaburou and his mother – seem like “purist” tanuki. Be fools, and be proud of it. Don’t be boring. Make a scene, and have a good time. It gets tanuki looked down on the magical side of the tracks and there’s a sense that they’ve become experts at playing the role of the humble jesters of the youkai world, not offending the powerful and accepting their dismissive arrogance with a sad smile.
But I sense a fierce pride in this family that I suspect all “proper” tanuki (and thus probably not the Ebisugawa, cousins though they are) share, starting with Souchirou and passing on to his wife and son. He was a “great” tanuki not just because he was kind and loved his family, but because he pulled off the greatest prank in modern tanuki history. And with Yaichirou being over-concerned with propriety, Yajirou being the family screwup and little Yashirou seemingly just a baby when he died, it’s no surprise that he would have designated Yasaburou as his heir – he has the sense of whimsy about him that seems so essential to the tanuki nature. It’s this eccentric family of the title that really drives the show the way booze drives the inner parlor. Their fierce devotion to each other is about as strong a display of pure familial love as I’ve seen in anime for a long time.
That’s a pretty strong pillar to build a show around, and when you factor in the truly mesmerizing world-building ability of Uchouten Kazoku, it’s a compelling mix. Last week’s clock-tower segment and this week’s Gozan flight of fancy had a real Ghibli quality to them – “magical” is really the best word, so I’ll use it yet again. While the series soars on wings of imagination, it’s the strong family bonds and the authenticity of the character interaction that keeps it grounded – Akadama-sensei may not be loveable but he comes off as very real, and his conversations with the Shimogamo are incredibly natural. The greatest mystery of course remains Benten, who was right there on-board the Ebisugawa flying yacht (though she floated to safety when the fireworks started). For all that she’s referred to as a human I’m beginning to wonder of her name might not be an affectation, but that in fact she’s the Goddess Benten herself. Akadama-sensei’s fruitless love for her has already led him into trouble (directly or indirectly, it causes the injuries that render him unable to fly) and I suspect Yasaburou’s own infatuation with her is going to lead him into big problems, too. She’s trouble, this one – she has all the air of a capricious Kami who’s greatest enemy is boredom, and who isn’t bashful about ruining a few lives in order to keep it at bay.