In some ways, this felt like the most conventional episode of Uchouten Kazoku to me. And that’s saying something about the show in general, as it was still pretty unorthodox in terms of narrative structure, acting as a sort of montage of loosely connected scenes (this is a familiar pattern with the series so far) which lead into each in a relaxed, meandering style. But once the plot kicked in here, it kicked in pretty hard – which I suppose was inevitable, given that we’re past the midway point already and we still have very little concrete evidence of what’s going on in this strange and enchanting world.
And what a boatload of questions we still have to chew on. If this episode felt less magical and enchanting than any since the premiere – and I would argue it did – I think it’s because it feels like a heavy-lifting, “take one for the team” episode that does the dirty work to kick the story into high gear. This is a dangerous time for any wistful, atmospheric show like Uchouten, as it transitions from simply being a beguiling place to spend time in and becomes something more orthodox and plot-driven.
There was certainly a share of Uchouten magic in the air, starting with the pre-open – not directly connected with the events of the episode in any obvious way – which showed Yasaburou mesmerized as he watched Benten take wing on an autumn breeze and soar above the brilliant momiji. After that the focus turned to a character who’s been out of the spotlight for a couple of episodes, Akadama-sensei, as the first half of the episode deals mostly with the Shimogamo Brothers desperate attempts to get him to take a bath (this is accomplished, by the way, at a sento I’ve visited, Cho Ja Yu). This segment is more akin to what we’ve come to expect from the series – naturalistic surrealism as three tanuki interact with a tengu in a public bath. If anything, it seems to cement the notion that Akadama considers Yasaburou his favorite (just as Yasaburou’s father did, seemingly).
It’s with the arrival of Ginkaju and Kinkaju that things kick into another gear. Those two certainly provide comic relief with every appearance, with Nishiji Shuuya and Hatakeyama Kosuke (the 16 year-old who played Nitorin in Hourou Musuko) doing superb work here – this time is mostly comes in the form of iron underpants the elder has devised as a countermeasure after Yaichirou bit them in the ass at their last encounter (they have one obvious drawback). But the idiot brothers are also here to remind us that the election of the new top Tanuki is days away, with Yaichirou pitted against his Uncle for the job. They’re also present to deliver their “ace in the hole”, what I would consider the first true bombshell of the series – that it was the middle “frog” brother, Yajirou, that was indirectly responsible for getting Souichirou captured and eaten by the Kin-youbi Club by joining him for a night of drinking and leaving him alone.
This is obviously a big deal in terms of plot – yet I can’t help but feel as if it’s a half-reveal, at best. It was always clear that Yajirou must have had a darker, more concrete reason for choosing (apparently) to spend his life as a frog at the bottom of a well. But just why is it that this particular truth should be the undoing of Yaichirou’s chances in the tanuki-lection? Is this related to Benten’s solitary nighttime crying sessions at said well? I’m also convinced there’s more to the story in terms of what actually happened. Akadama-sensei was conspicuously present – and silent – during Kinkaju’s entire gloating session, and while Morimi-sensei certainly isn’t bound by convention, it might not be coincidence that he was in that bath at that moment (framed rather obviously, too) and said nothing. In fact, the Souichirou story has had an odd feeling to it from the beginning, most especially Yasaburou’s resigned tone about the subject and his seeming lack of rancor towards Benten or the other Friday Fellows (well, there’s an obvious external factor in Benten’s case).
This is obviously a very strange series in a good number of ways. Soucihirou is one of those characters who seems very much a presence despite being dead, and I’ve sometimes wondered if this is simply a function of Uchouten Kazoku’s relaxed time structure or a hint of some deeper meaning. More than anything, what strikes me is that much of the magic of the series seems based on not knowing the answers. This is an immersive show, one that transports you inside its world and enchants you with strange and wonderful visions that make little sense yet somehow project an essential truthfulness. My worry is that as we enter the final five episodes and some of those answers inevitably become known, some of the spell may wear off and Uchouten will feel just a bit less magical and special. There’s a great deal of talent in the mix here, though, and thus every reason to hope that doesn’t come to pass.