It’s not easy to put into words just why, but that was probably my favorite episode of any Summer series – must be a manifestation of my idiot blood. Uchouten Kazoku was definitely not love at first sight for me – more of a slow build – but the series has a way of crawling into your consciousness and building a nest. It’s a truly magical, enchanting experience – fiercely intelligent, emotionally laser-accurate and heartbreakingly beautiful.
I spent some time in Kyoto last week, and there’s no question that revisiting some of the sights that I love after watching this series is an interesting experience. Anyone who’s spent any time there is likely to tell you that Kyoto is a magical, enchanting place – not in the sense of a museum piece, like Venice, but a working, sometimes grimy city where the incalculable weight and beauty of the past co-exists with the mundanities – and wonders – of the modern world. There’s something of that in the essence of what makes Japan as a whole so compelling but nowhere is it more profound and inescapable than Kyoto. Spending time there you sometimes feel as if the city and the inhabitants know secrets you don’t, and that there’s an alchemy to the place that causes beauty to appear anywhere and at any time, even where you least expect it. And Uchouten Kazoku captures what it feels like to be in Kyoto, feeling that sensation, better than any recent anime has.
A poster on Animesuki (RollingPenguin) made a comment about Uchouten Kazoku that I quite like: the show is very weird, but it actually has no idea that it’s weird. I would take it further and say that it’s a series that quite intentionally presents overt surrealism in a strongly realistic way, and that combination is vital to its success. This series would never have worked if it’d been directed by Yuasa Masaaki, as Tatami Galaxy was – or at least, it would lack the emotional resonance and sincerity that elevates it above that title. It’s the earnest depiction of events that makes this show so effective – the depth and believability of the bonds between the characters (especially the Shimogamo family) and the embrace of the simple details of everyday life, even when it’s being lived by tengu and tanuki. At its best fantasy can often reveal truths in ways that more “realistic” genres cannot, and so it is here.
Make no mistake, Uchouten Kazoku is a difficult series. I think the addition of Yodogawa-sensei has changed the dynamic in a very fundamental way by bringing the strange and vexing notion of being eaten to the surface. Yodogawa himself acknowledges the contradiction – to love something, yet want to consume it. He talks of his trips around the world, eating strange things wherever he goes, and how it reflects his respect for that which he consumes, and of his love for eating “kawaiimono” – cute things. He also talks of how much he’d rather be eaten by a tanuki himself than be cremated and eaten by microbes, a “lonely” fate. Yasaburou – who has every reason to resent and even hate the Professor – rightly points out that for humans, it’s easy to say such things because they have no worry about being eaten. Yet Yasaburou doesn’t hate Yodogawa, even likes him – and certainly doesn’t hate Benten, who also dined on Souichirou. In fact he even admits what’s been obvious to me from the first episode, that he’s in love with her.
Yodogawa is a strange one, a man who watches Benten fly from rooftop to rooftop and holds conversations with tanuki he’s about to consume, yet at least pretends to have no direct knowledge of the mystical world that underpins this premise. These literal flights of fancy with Benten are quickly becoming highlights of the anime year, full of gorgeous imagery (such as Benten framed in a dreamlike haze of moonbeams and tobacco smoke) and difficult emotions, and the conversation between Yasaburou and Yodogawa after Benten left them on a rooftop in the full glory of the Koyo autumn colors was one of the most beguiling in anime this year. The topic of their talk is strange and there’s a palpable discomfort in watching Yasaburou endure it, yet it’s incredibly natural and flows as smoothly as the Kamogawa. This is indeed a kind of “naturalistic surrealism” – something if not unique to Uchouten then at least extremely rare in anime, and even more so when done this well.
What, then, of this notion of the nobility of being consumed – a sentiment that Souichirou expresses himself to Yodogawa on the night of his death? “I’ve fulfilled everything I have to live for. I’ve sowed my seeds and nurtured them to an extent, and fulfilled my role as a tanuki.” he tells the Professor. Indeed, his biggest worry is that he might taste bad, and it’s no coincidence that we see so much of what Souichirou was manifest in Yodogawa in the present, as he speaks to Souichirou’s son. It’s tempting to pass this off as some kind of profound Buddhist notion of the cycles of existence, but of course it’s more complicated than that – many schools of Buddhism are resolutely vegetarian, and of the Buddha himself it seems that while for a time he accepted the eating of meat, he never condoned the killing of animals oneself, and his final scriptures seem to indicate an unconditional opposition to the eating of meat. I think it’s still too early to say just where Morimi intends to go with this theme, but it should certainly be fascinating to find out.
Uchouten Kazoku exists in a world between waking and dreams, where reality meets myth and love and death are intrinsically linked. Why does Benten sit by the edge of Yajirou’s well and cry alone at night – is she the “child who cries for no reason”, or someone who cries for very specific reasons? She’s the nexus of this story, the true femme fatale who beguiles men and boys human, tengu and tanuki and leads them down a path of danger and despair – perhaps that’s why she sits and cries, knowing this to be her inescapable fate. Is it worse to be eaten, or to be compelled to consume and live with the weight of the lives you’ve consumed? Benten is the faerie light that leads Yasaburou into peril, Kaisei the ladder which returns him to safety – yet it’s the fire he chases, even knowing the danger. It’s our fate, it seems, to be drawn to that which burns and consumes us – an essential contradiction of our existence, and Uchouten Kazoku is a series that’s built on contradictions.