Once every great, great while, an anime episode comes along that’s so perfect that I literally hate to write about it, because there’s no way I can do anything but poor homage to it with whatever I write, and that’s a best-case scenario. But this is what I do, and honestly, it’s episodes like this that I live for as an anime fan. They’re what keeps me connected to the medium and reminds me why I love it so much, and keeps me coming back in the hope that I’ll be so privileged as to see their like again. So I guess I have no choice but to try.
I needed to take some time to compose myself after watching this episode of Uchouten Kazoku, because I was profoundly immersed in it from the first moment to the last. In retrospect I think this may very well be among my ten favorite individual anime episodes of all-time, and there’s not a trace of exaggeration in that statement. I said a couple of weeks ago that episode 6 of this show was my favorite anime episode of any new show this season – for many of the same reasons as this one – but this week’s ep surpassed it. And I said of last week’s episode that while it lacked the enchanting, magical power of this series’ best, it “felt like a heavy-lifting, “take one for the team” episode that does the dirty work to kick the story into high gear.” Little did I realize just how prophetic that statement would be, and how soon it would be proven true in such spectacular fashion.
In truth, I found myself on the verge of tears so many times during this episode that I lost count, to the point where it was an almost uninterrupted stream of emotion. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that I love Kyoto itself so dearly, and Uchouten Kazoku is so brilliant at showing off the city. Morimi-sensei clearly has both an encyclopedic knowledge of and a deep, abiding love for Kyoto, and it shows through in all his work – but most especially here, as re-imagined through the lens of P.A. Works. When I see a fanciful panorama of Gion Corner late at night, or Kiyomizudera, or even one of the seemingly limitless machiya townhouses in the city – so beautiful for their simplicity – that alone is enough to feel something deeply. Kyoto is an incredibly magical place even without any overt acknowledgement of the sort of magic that’s stipulated to in this series’ mythology.
There’s obviously more to Uchouten Kazoku’s emotional resonance, much more. I’ve come to feel over the last few weeks that despite all its fantasy trappings and deep philosophical musings, this series is plain and simply a study of love. There’s the possessive sort of love that Yodogawa-sensei and Benten talk about so eloquently, oddly but powerfully expressed in the symbolic desire to consume that which they love. There’s Akadama-sensei’s love of beauty, and the lustful hunger for young and beautiful women it inspires in him. There’s the ill-fated, hopeless infatuation of the young for a mysterious and beautiful adult, as Yasaburo feels for Benten. The tragic love of one young person for someone that loves another, expressed in both Yajirou and Kaisei. There’s the shared love of siblings, so conflicted and complicated, and the deep and abiding adoration of a child towards the parents who gave them everything. And there’s the love of the parent for the child, and the desire to see their happiness continue after the parent has passed from the Earth.
Of all the moments that hit me hard this week – and there were many – I think the most devastating was the farewell scene between Souichirou and Akadama-sensei. It’s a scene full of mystery – was this a tengu seeing the spirit of a dead tanuki, about to pass into the afterlife, or did Souichirou come to Akadama before the fact in order to make his final request? I don’t know the answer yet, but I know it was a beautiful moment, both for the selfless nature of the request Souichirou made and for Akadama’s reaction. This hard, angry and bitter man, so vociferously disdainful of the idiocy of tanuki, was saying goodbye to a friend, one of the few he has in the world – yet another powerful form of love on display in this story, that of one old friend for another. Warmth and open emotion isn’t Akadama’s style, but his simple declaration of what a shame it was that he and Souichirou would have to part was enough – it clearly means the world to Souichirou too, and that simple and absurd image of the old man shaking hands with the tiny, fat tanuki is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Whether it’s the intended message of Uchouten Kazoku that humans have magical fellow travelers with whom me have much in common or whether the tengu and tanuki are simply a vehicle to enlighten the human condition almost doesn’t matter, because the human condition is enlightened either way. Call tengu and tanuki what you will, very, very few series have been able to depict pure, straightforward human emotion the way this show has. For all its trappings this is an incredibly naturalistic experience, the dialogue sequences as effortless and emotionally accurate as any in recent memory. Slowly, incrementally, we come to see inside each of these characters, especially the Shimogamo brothers and their mother. Yajirou’s terrible weight of guilt and self-loathing, Yaichirou’s spirit stooped and weary from the burdens he tries to carry alone – these were on full display this week.
“When saying goodbye to this world,” Yasaburou tells us, “Our father split his blood into four. The eldest inherited only his sense of responsibility; the second only his easygoing personality; our little brother only his innocence; as for me, I inherited only his idiocy. What held us diverse brothers together was the love of our mother deeper than the sea, and parting with our great father. One large departure can connect the ones left behind.” Honestly, this is such a beautiful sentiment expressed so beautifully that even now, I can’t think of it without tearing up a little. This is truly profound stuff, deep and personal and completely and innately true. We are each of us alone in our journey, able to perceive the world only through our own lens. Yet some of us are lucky enough to have others with whom we share something that binds us, as different as we are, if we choose to allow them to share our burdens.
When I speak of heartbreaking this is what I mean, and it’s not necessarily a negative term. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to see Yajirou isolate himself, despite his father’s greatest wish being that his sons would always care for each other and be together, and for Yaichirou to finally set aside his responsibility to be the strong one and allow himself to grieve. And certainly, it was heartbreaking to see Yasaburou’s carefree facade crack, as he finally allowed himself to feel the pain of losing the father his loved so much, and in the process the older brother he loved as well. But beauty is heartbreaking too – and much of what makes an episode like this so profound is the simple power of the emotions on display, and the way they’re communicated through superb acting and gorgeous music and imagery. To see Yasaburou exhale into the cool Autumn night and study the vapor, thinking of his departed father doing the same years earlier, is to be connected to something deep and elemental that we all share. Whatever magic resides in the Kyoto this series presents every week, that is the truly magical part of Uchouten Kazoku.