It’s ironic given that Morimi Tomihiko – not undeservedly – has a reputation for being one of the subtlest and most difficult writers whose work has been adapted into anime, but I’ve rarely seen a series that so gleefully (and successfully) casts itself as a good vs. evil story. The Shimogamo are perhaps the most likeable and charismatic anime family in a long time – both for their individual quirks and especially for their deep and powerful bond of love. With each passing episode the Ebisugawa (with one obvious exception) become more and more despicable. They do unspeakable things for unspeakably petty reasons, and they’ve become as easy to hate as the Shimogamo are to like.
But there is a fulcrum that exists in-between these two poles, and that’s where Morimi’s trademark opacity plays out. It’s primarily Benten, of course, though both Akadama and Yodogawa-sensei are grey characters as well. I’ll get to Yodogawa, but it’s Benten who’s role is in focus at the start of the episode – in fact, at first I thought the “Back in the Game” title referred to her, as she’s been ominously absent for so long. Whatever you want to call her – femme fatale, tengu, human – she’s a capricious and mysterious presence at the heart of events in Uchouten Kazoku. The title of “tengu” seems to be a half-joking/half-complimentary honorific based on the skills she learned from Akadama-sensei – and one she doesn’t discourage – but she seems content to be whatever she wants to be whenever it suits her.
I think Benten’s role in this story is the most galling for me, because the Ebisugawa are easy to read. They have crass and base motivations for what they do, based on envy and greed and personal resentment – the only surprise is just how unchecked by any hint of decency they seem to be. But when I see Yasaburou dancing at the end of Benten’s string, that really pisses me off. It pisses me off that he’s so easy to manipulate when she’s the one pulling the strings, and that she can so easily toy with the lives and deaths of others on her own whim. Yes, she does save Yasaburou momentarily – but it seems very likely that his puppyish adoration and entertaining levels of idiocy amuse her. She’s only playing the role she’s cast in, of course, and as brilliantly as any character has for ages – she’s the very definition of a capricious and remote God-figure for whom the lives of mortals (especially men) are a plaything.
As it happens, Yasaburou’s escape doesn’t do a whole lot of good as he promptly gets himself captured by Kinkaju and Ginkaku. It doesn’t speak much for Yasaburou that he could let himself be outsmarted by those two, to be honest, though I suppose with a year to come up with something even Kinkaju can marshal a competent scheme. Meanwhile we have Yaichirou and Mother being held by Souun at Denki Brandy’s shop (where we briefly meet another of the Seven Lucky Gods, Jurojin – ironically, the God of Longevity), where the despicable old knob reveals his true intent – it’s the pot for Yaichirou (and I presume Yasaburou, though this isn’t made 100% clear) but he has other ideas for Mother. Clearly this is a major part of Souun’s grand design, because she as much as anything is what he feels Souichirou has “stolen” from him. Souun’s story could hardly be a more classic Buddhist parable – everything he does is driven by attachments to the material, and on some level it appears he’s aware of what a foul beast he’s become. But he seems beyond remorse at this point – Mother’s pleas to spare her children fall on deaf ears.
The role I expected for Yajirou didn’t arrive this week, but it seems as if it will come. Kaisei remains the bright light of the Ebisugawa, the apple that fell far from the tree, and thanks to his electric personality she discovers where Yashirou is being held captive and helps him escape. He’s the first of the brothers to face his crucible moment, it seems – to “put his tail away and run for it”, just for starters. Yashirou has been protected and sheltered all his life, up to and including his rescue by Kaisei – but now he finds himself truly alone and with the fate of the Shimogamo in his small, trembling hands. She advises him to head to Chikurintei, the soba-ya where Yasaburou is being held (a fact revealed to Kaisei by a slightly too convenient phone call from Kinkaju) but in fact, it makes more sense to head for the big brother who still has his freedom – the frog in the well. For the first time Yashirou, who “inherited nothing but the innocence” of his father, is forced to make a decision on his own with the highest possible stakes.
I’d advise not to watch the preview (which is pretty rare for me) as it gives away quite a lot about what’s going to happen in the
finale (Edit: turns out Syoboi was incorrect and there will be a 13th episode on 9/29). But what it doesn’t reveal is whether Uchouten Kazoku is going to confront the larger questions it teases so effectively, most importantly the role of tanuki in this mythology and the entire question of the Kin-youbi Club’s practice of boiling them in hotpot. Yasaburou’s voice-over refers to falling into the boiling iron pot as something to be proud of, not ashamed – and that “we brothers must know that there is honor in having pride, even and especially if our eyes are full of tears.” I hope that enigmatic statement is explored further in the finale next two episodes – there’s certainly a difference between honor and pride, though they’re too often treated synonymously. Just what does in mean to be a tanuki in this world – and what it Morimi using that question to try and say about the real one?