Uchouten Kazoku – 11

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One of the hardest things about watching Uchouten Kazoku is figuring out just who pisses me off the most.

But I think it’s Benten.

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?

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21 comments

  1. R

    I've never held any sympathy for Benten like a lot of viewers seem to, I've always regarded her as an evil character.

    And the finale next week? Doesn't it have two more episodes?

  2. Syoboi and ANN reported 12, but it seems as if there is going to be a 13th. Post corrected.

  3. a

    I think it's not so much sympathy, just a recognition that she stands apart from the tanuki/human/tengu order alluded to in the OP. She's a force of nature, an agent of whim and chaos with no loyalty to anyone but herself because she no longer fit in anywhere.

  4. R

    Unfortunately, I have watched the preview and am worried — very worried and wonder if the brothers will lose the one whose love holds them together… The tanuki hot pot is not going to go away, and I, for sure, will cry my heart out if any one of the Shimogamos or Kaisei is in it.

    I totally agree with your judgement about Benten. I can't find any emotional attachment with her the whole time. It's nice of her to save Yasaborou, but to me, evil is what she's meant to be. However, I admit that she's a very attractive character — so attractive that she has captured the hearts and minds of many. Some even romanticize and rationalize her selfishness and evil-doings. I'm not interested in her backstory, but I am sure many may call Uchouten incomplete because they can't get enough of her and want to have something that seems empathic or rational — even remotely — to substantial Benten's "whimsical" actions.

    Mama tanuki has always been my favourite female character — how can she not be for being such a loving, caring, understanding, and supportive mother. As for Kaisei, I am really liking her more and more — for not only her saviour role to the Shimogamos, but also the justice and the torn feelings that she's been keeping to herself.

    Only two episodes left — in two weeks this great story about love, life, death, and family is going to end. I will totally miss it…

  5. G

    I'm hoping its the evil Uncle that ends up in the hotpot, poetic justice/Karma if there ever was such a thing.

  6. Seems to be a popular sentiment, but I don't really want to see anybody wind up in the hotpot. I want to see the hotpot abolished altogether as far as tanuki are concerned.

  7. R

    I would love seeing the hotpot banned completely and immediately — the tanuki can then co-exist with the humans and tengu peacefully, enjoy the journey of a natural life, and have fun acting out of their idiot blood everyday.

    My imagination is that some stupid staff at the Ebisugawa shop sends Mama tanuki to the restaurant by mistake but then gets her a chance to talk to Yodogawa-sensei. Yodogawa, at the risk of being kicked out from the Friday Club, saves both Mama tanuki and Yaichirou from being boiled. Yajirou, in his disguise of the False Eizan Electric Railway, carries his family away, while Akadama-sensei, using the last of his power, whips up his tengu winds to clear the path for the Shimogamos. Shortly after, Yodogawa somehow successfully abolishes the stupid rule of having tanuki hotpot, and Souun's evil scheme is exposed, leaving Yaichirou to succeed Nise-emom. The Ebisugawas, being abandoned by the tanuki society, go bankrupt, but the Shimogamos, like Souichirou who had a big heart, look after them and help them learn the meaning of family. Peace is restored, and the tanuki society is united once again. The Shimogamos — and the rest of the tanuki — live happily after in the beautiful city of Kyoto. The end…lol. I know this sounds stupid and out-of-character, but I really wish to see the merry-making tanuki having fun with their lives.

  8. Z

    That would be too ideal though.

  9. R

    Yes, and that would no longer be Morimi's story but mine in my perfect world…lol.

  10. B

    Enzo, what you've said in your review really makes sense to me. I'm not very knowledgeable in Japanese folklore or traditions, so I fail to appreciate a lot of the nuances present in the relationships and characters, but seeing Benten as "the very definition of a capricious and remote God-figure for whom the lives of mortals (especially men) are a plaything" helps me to understand her a lot. I still think she's evil and just too damn untouchable by everything going on around her.

    I thought that maybe the title of this episode might be referring to Akadama-sensei, but now I realize that his character has been on the sidelines for too long for his return to make any sense in the story.

    I have a feeling that this anime will end on a sad note, somehow. I fear for the safety of the whole family. I do not desire Souun's death as I feel that would somehow be inconsistent with the flow of the story . . . for me the true enemy and moral focus is that hotpot.

  11. Thanks for posting. I actually felt better about the ending thinking next week was going to be the end, but now that I know we have 13 coming I'm a bit more worried.

    As for Benten, I suppose one might argue that she's neither good nor evil – a "true neutral" in a sense, for whom the morals of mortals are meaningless. But for me, she's a pretty loathsome piece of work – I dislike her much more than the pathetic Ebisugawas.

  12. R

    I am with you, Enzo. As a fan of Uchouten, I think Benten is more evil than evil and an extreme exemplification of selfishness — I don't like her, and I don't care about her. As an anime fan (or a reader), I think Benten is a wittily crafted character that elicits so much response without much of her character being fleshed out. As much as I dislike her, it's interesting to see how some fantasize about her. You calling her a femme fatale is very right for her role in and beyond the story.

  13. F

    I still think that Benten will have an important role to play, and in the present, at least, she isn't evil – or even all that remote. I note there's one important revelation here that hasn't been mentioned: her admission that she's been back to Professor Akadama's place. And I'm not actually sure she's previously referred to herself as a tengu. Given that her coldness towards Akadama, and her rejection of the supernatural to favour the human is what we began the series with, I think there's definitely something happening with her.

    Maybe we should try to read her as a Tengu. She's pretty damn opaque, for sure. Remember Yasaburo's interactions with Akadama? The trick to getting Tengu to cooperate with you is to make it seem like it was their idea to begin with. While Akadama no doubt has a lot of affection for Yasaburo, he cannot for the purpose of his Tengu pride clearly express it. And I think Benten is similar – it is not merely by chance that she has helped Yasaburo twice so far, seemingly on a whim both times, despite the efforts of the Ebisugawas to bribe her to their cause. Ultimately, I suspect the 'Uchouten Kazoku' of the title refers not just to the tanuki, but also Benten.

  14. C

    Even though Benten does little good, the trade-off seems to be her own happiness so it's hard for me to hate her. Besides, the Ebisugawa are far more vile and 'evil' in most senses of the term.

    Also, I wonder what great powers Yasaburo has that makes everyone assume he's the biggest threat and most likely to save the day? There have just been so many mysteries hinted at that I am going to miss this show that much more :(

  15. i

    Uchouten Kazoku really is like a good meal, so I fast for a few days before devouring it. I truly do love it so much that I want to eat it.

    As Yasaburuo has said he carries the idiocy of his father and thus was surprisingly caught with ease. I think what the Ebisugawas feared though was his bravery. Yashirou I think will obviously go to Yaijirou as he simply doesn't have the power or courage to free Yasaburuo from Kinkaku and Ginkaku. Once the three are united, they, possibly with Kaisei and Sensei will no doubt bash the Friday club.

    As to who will, as it does not seem likely that no one will, end up it the hot pot: Souun is popular choice and plot-wise the right one but I think sick Mother Tanuki, Yaijirou and now Yasuburuo will end up in it. There has been so much talk in early episodes from both Benten and Yodogawa about eating him and his speech at the end felt ominous. I also wonder why is it him that narrates this story and I truly feel that he will end up as the hot pot. Maybe the message was never about the Friday Club and its deeds, maybe it was always about family and moving on, or rather forwards To The New World.

  16. i

    Sorry, any one of Mother Tanuki, Yaijirou and Yasuburuo will end up as hot pot not all three at once.

  17. R

    Lol…I also love it so much that I want to eat it, but the weather here is still too hot for nabe — maybe I should try backyard barbecue…

    As much as I hate to see, I also think that either Mother Tanuki, Yajirou, or Yasaborou has a higher chance of ending up in the hot pot, while Yaichirou will be saved. I don't know…am too worried to think logically, and I am not good at logical thinking to begin with.

  18. a

    Although I can understand the hate, but I just find Benten so fascinating and flawed that I just can't. I thought it was refreshing to have a character here who is portrayed in such an un-selfconscious way. The way I see it, she's portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain, and that's completely a breath of fresh air (for anime at least).

    I wish the rest of the characters were as thoughtfully written as hers though (I'm looking at you, Ebisugawas!) though I seem to recall Ozu from The Tatami Galaxy was seemingly one-dimensional nefarious in the beginning as well. *Crosses my fingers*

  19. T

    My interpretation of Benten is quite different from yours, perhaps because I didn't come into the episode with dislike towards the character. When she rescued Yasaburou, I think she truly wants to help him out of affection, but she doesn't have the courage to go all the way, considering her "sin" in the past, and her position in the Kinyoubi club.

    Also, I don't think she is "content to be whatever she wants to be whenever it suits her". For some reason, she seems to insist that Yasaburou acknowledges her as a tengu (perhaps she wants to be more involved in that world? or to imply that she's above the baseness of human?), but is offended when he tells her that she's still just human. When she uses Yasaburou's remark against him, we can clearly see his frustrated reaction.

  20. L

    Benten is the evil character nonetheless. Not a villain or antagonist, But EVIL.
    She intently kill their father for god sake, breaking their family apart.
    For just the reason of attaining the social circle for her own sake (which is unknown why?).
    She did horrible and unforgivable thing but get away with it because she's powerful, almighty.

    Her character resemble the Japanese GOD which do everything on a whim and for their own selfishness whether good or bad, those actions can't be admired.

    And All she did with a smile without any sense of guilt, even though she know him and talk to him, mercilessly kill him as if he is the livestock and EAT him.

    Maybe yosaburo's family did really lost their mind. They grieves for their father so much. But the culprit that kill him is unveiled. They (especially yosaburo) still seems to be too forgiving and has no hatred towards the culprit at all but direct the anger only to their uncle which obviously, even though take part in the plan, It's BENTEN who plotted the plan in order for her to be able to get in the friday club.

  21. L

    What i want to know is why she changes from lovely girl into the cunning merciless god. But I doubt there'll be any.

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