I don’t think there’s any question Uchouten Kazoku is one of the finest anime of 2013, and when I consider the Fall season it clearly belongs in the top tier with Watamote, Gin no Saji and Rozen Maiden. Ask me which was my favorite and my answer might depend on my mood at the moment you ask, but I will say this much – of all those shows, Uchouten achieved the highest highs. For my money episodes six and eight of this series are the best of any anime this season, and the latter is definitely in my top 10 episodes of all-time.
In truth, this series was not at its best with either its first or last episodes. It was intriguing and enchanting right out of the gate but took a few weeks to truly ensnare me in an emotional grip it would never loosen. And the last episode doesn’t have a lot of emotional high points, the manic energy of last week’s ep or the astoundingly deep intellectual content Morimi-sensei can deliver at the top of his game. Rather, it seems to fully embrace the notion of being a manifestation of the tanukis’ idiot blood – it’s mostly an irreverent tribute to the “be interesting” mantra that guides the Shimogamo family, most obviously Yasaburou. Is that a metaphor for a certain type of human being in the real world, or simply admiration for a mythical creature? Everyone can judge that for themselves.
As expected, the episode boiled down to the gathering storm at Sensuiro (this was clearly not a good night for restaurants in the Pontocho). The tanukis are in one room, trying to meekly stay quiet with an unknown party in the room next door, but with a roiling debate between Souun and Yaichirou gaining ferocity with each like Souun tells. Meanwhile Mother Shimogamo arrives in her cage where the Friday Fellows are gathered, much to the delight of Jurojin and the horror of Yodagawa-sensei, who recognizes immediately that this is the beautiful tanuki he nursed back to health all those years ago. And waiting in the wings, a certain tengu who hates to be ignored grows increasingly irritated at being ignored…
It’s a perfect storm, all right – and the general tone of the finale is one of madcap chaos. It’s one of the most comedic episodes of the series, in fact, for better or for worse given that it’s the final episode. There’s no denying that Uchouten can deliver in humorous mode, and it did so several times here – like watching all the tanuki transform en masse when Yaichirou knocks down the door and they see Benten in the next room. I would have liked a little more time spent on the reunion of the Shimogamo family, to be honest, as I think that emotional powerhouse of a bond is the strongest part of the series. But there seems to have been a conscious decision to end on an upbeat note, both in terms of emotion and tone, and any issues I have with it are purely a matter of personal preference. This ending definitely feels thematically consistent with the show as a whole.
I can say pretty confidently that whatever members of the Kin-youbi Club didn’t already know about the existence of tengu and tanuki in Kyoto certainly do now. As to the deeper question of that organization and their tanuki-boiling proclivities, I think it’s fair to say that the show took a pass on meaningfully addressing that. Yodagawa-sensei does a complete 180 when the tanuki in question is the one he fell in love with (I’m sure reconciling that has been a full-time job for him all these years), and declares that he’s abandoning his “eat what you love” theory, a “total defeat”. But in reality it does sound, as his fellows accuse him of, as if he’s saying whatever suits him in his moment of need. And while they boot him out of their club for his about-face and attempts to rescue Mama, one assumes they’re going to resume their hotpot tradition as soon as things settle down and another unfortunate tanuki falls into their hands.
Yodagawa’s change-of-heart does pose fascinating moral questions, as it seems he’s really applying a subjective morality based on his personal feelings about one tanuki rather than the general practice of boiling them. But the episode doesn’t make any attempt to explore those questions, (for example as compared to Gin no Saji, which – whatever you think of the stance it took – took the stance that Porkbowl was no different than any other pig simply because Hachiken loved him) and it doesn’t make any attempt to judge Benten either. She’s pretty much let off the hook for what she did to Souichirou – she smiles her way through the chaos at Sensuiro, then steps up and talks Akadama-sensei down from his rage-induced reign of terror. She’ll abandon him again when the mood suits her – likely when she becomes bored again, and likely soon. And she still has her sights set on Yasaburou, as she makes clear with her wish at the shrine on New Years. She’s an inscrutable figure to the end, an alluring mystery – but it rankles to see her escape any consequences for the role she played in murdering Souchirou (including the consequence of anger or resentment from his son at the very least).
As for Souun, he again proves himself a vile scoundrel indeed, continuing to deny any involvement in Souichirou’s death and to try and pin the blame on Yajirou (who hasn’t regained enough mojo to transform yet). It seems that the arrival of Mama on Jurojin’s orders is what unmasks him, though – he seems to have admitted to enough in his confrontation with Jurojin that he’ll never be trusted by tanuki society again. We’re told that he’s “gone to a hot spring” and not returned, and the implication is that in his shame he won’t be coming back. With Souun gone, Ginkaju and Kinkaju are cast in much less ominous roles, which suits them better than being the villains in a game where life and death are the stakes – they’re just too hilarious to hate. And Kaisei clearly still loves Yasaburou, though she won’t relent in her refusal to be seen by him – yet.
The strongest moments of the finale are the brief ones where we see the Shimogamo brothers together, especially when Yashirou calls their mother on his cell phone to check on her (which he’s proudly charged in front of all his brothers), and it’s eventually handed (well, figuratively) to Yajirou. There’s also a scene of the five Shimogamos at the shrine, where they meet first Yodagawa, then Akadama and Benten (where Akadama delivers what one suspects he feels are the wishes of Souichirou to each of Yasaburou’s brothers), then Ginkaju and Kinkaju, and finally Kaisei. It’s wonderful to see the family together and smiling -Yashirou restlessly tugs on his mother’s hands as she embraces him from behind, and it’s a completely real and natural moment. This family is the title of the series for a reason – their bond is its heart and soul, and rarely have we seen this kind of relationship depicted so powerfully and authentically in anime.
Uchouten Kazoku is proof – as if we needed more – than anime adapted from non-traditional sources are a wonderful thing. Not only is it free of almost every cliche and affectation that most series adapted from light novels and even manga seem unable to escape, it progresses with amazing fluidity – it feels neither a moment too long or too short, and each episode tells a self-contained story with its own themes. This show feels complete in a way very few traditional adaptations do, but that we often see with original series and shows adapted from novels. P. A. Works poured a lot into this series – a lot of care, a lot of budget, and a lot of time and exceedingly careful preparation – and it really shows.
There are a lot of words I could use to describe Uchouten, and “refreshing” is certainly one of them, not least for the reasons described above. This show is a breath of fresh air, so different from the bulk of what we see in so many ways. It’s also in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, and nearly always magical and enchanting. Kyoto is a remarkable and dreamlike place to begin with, and the Kyoto imagined by Morimi and the anime staff is a wonder. I’m still pretty happy with “naturalistic surrealism” as a genre for Uchouten Kazoku – there’s much fantasy and mysticism here, but the emotions could hardly be more real. No matter how bizarre things get, the characters always behave in a way that’s true to their nature. “There’s no telling how many of these people are actually tengu and tanuki.” Indeed, being in Kyoto anyone with a trace of tanuki blood in them surely feels as if that could be true. And it’s in capturing that about the place – and about the people who dream such dreams – that Uchouten Kazoku finds its singular voice. It certainly speaks to me, in a very profound and personal way. Must be a manifestation of my idiot blood.