In any given season there are always a few series that can fully engage me on an intellectual level, and a few that can do so on an emotional level. But the list of anime than can do both is always very, very short – there have been seasons where no shows at all could, and years where only one or two managed it. So far Kyousogiga is a powerhouse on both fronts, a wildly imaginative and intellectually dense thrill ride that massages the right and left hemispheres in equal parts. As I said last week ambition is in itself no guarantor of achievement, but if no shows ever tried to be as great as this one is trying to be anime would be a much sadder place.
As we dive deeper into Kyousogiga, I’m more and more convinced that it shares a good deal with the brilliant Kyoto series of this summer, Uchouten Kazoku. These are both surrealistic shows that love to chew on big ideas, but ultimately I think they’re both love stories – family love to be specific. While I’m somewhat familiar with the mythology and symbolism I haven’t read Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland which Kyousogiga seemingly uses as a jumping-off point), so no doubt I miss some of the connections. But while the stylistic similarities with Lewis Carroll are unavoidable, the more I see of this story the more the connection I see is the one with Uchouten: the more outrageous it gets on the surface, the more obvious it becomes that the real story is about the universal human emotions of the core cast.
The series continues its strategy of putting together the story like adding tracks in a recording studio, one instrument at a time. The focus this week is on the eldest child of Inari and Lady Koto, Kurama, and his “cheerful and nerdy” subordinates led by Shouko (Chiwa Saitou) and Fushimi (Takemoto Eiji). I’ve loved all the segments that focused on the time of the three siblings’ childhood – they’ve been some of the most emotionally powerful in the series, and offered the most insight into the larger picture as well as the characters that drive the story. Kurama is the eldest, and in the present he’s the one in-charge – Yase at the very least and probably Myoue too seem to resent this a little, but not so much that they’re willing to push back hard. Why? Perhaps it’s that they realize he does, as he says, always try and do what’s best for all of them – but I think the larger reason is that they see the weight of the burdens he carries, and are happy enough to let him be the one to do so.
This is another parallel with Uchouten, where we saw the burden of expectations that an eldest sibling must bear, but this is an odd situation to say the least. Myoue – Yakushimaru as he was known as a boy – was clearly the first, though we don’t know yet if he’s the natural born son of Inari and Koto (indeed, if that’s even possible) or adopted. The others were made from Inari’s brush, presumably at least in part to keep Yakushimaru company, yet are immediately declared his older siblings. Yakushimaru is human and Yase definitively not, but while she seems to have little interest in the human world it’s different with the likewise not-human Kurama. While there are no signs he was ever less than kind and protective of his otouto, Kurama from childhood longed for the freedom Yakushimaru had – the freedom to come and go to the human capital of Kyoto. Kurama spends his time copying sutras and sculpting, and that doesn’t seem to change much after the family goes to Mirror Kyoto. Yase clearly prefers this new world but while Kurama is thrilled and grateful to his father for this place that was created, at least in part, for his benefit he understands that this is still not the “real” Kyoto that he longed so badly to see.
A big part of the success of Kurama’s character comes from Nakahara Shigeru’s brilliant performance, which perfectly captures a soul of bottomless depths swimming with notions incomprehensible to the rest of the world. It also captures the hurt beneath the endlessly projected patience and strength, the hurt at being abandoned and forever denied the world that his brother had the chance to experience. Kurama is both the observer and the analytic in the cast, and has been from his artificially created boyhood – though if you hoped to gain any clues from his “History of the Takayamadera Family” (is that the first time we’ve heard them referred to as such?) the strategically placed “Stuff Happened” entries put the kibosh on that notion. Kurama wants very badly to see that Kyoto he was denied, and while I have no doubt his love for his family is genuine that burning desire makes his character perhaps the most enigmatic and dangerous in the cast.
As for Shouko and Fushimi, while it’s the former that makes the big noise it’s the latter that seems like the crucial figure in the story. As much as I love Saitou-san I’m not as crazy for Shouko as the rest of the cast – she seems the most like a traditional anime character, and seems to operate mostly on the comic relief level (albeit effectively) where the others swim in deeper waters. But while Fushimi plays the put-upon assistant well, he’s got the interesting story – apparently a defector from Shrine, he reports directly to Kurama. If one were conspiracy-minded, one might speculate that the real power figures in this story share names with the great Shrines and Temples of Kyoto – Inari, Yase, Kurama et al – and it’s interesting that it’s Fushimi and Inari whose names are linked by the legendary Shrine in South Kyoto (an Inari Shrine in the village of Fushimi) which bears their names.
The story continues to expand the ONA canon next week as it turns to Yase, but as the contents of the other two ONA episodes seem largely to have been addressed by the TV episodes, we may move into completely new territory after that. A big part of the story is no doubt going to be watching how all the puzzle pieces that have been shaken out onto the table so far fit together – Kurama estimates that it’s 80% likely that Koto is related to Inari, and while the exact nature of that relationship remains a mystery I’m pretty confident that it exists. There’s a strong sense (which is stronger with original anime than with adapted in general) that Kyousogiga is a complete story that’s been very exactingly constructed, where nothing is left to chance and everything we see is there for a reason. We have indeed fallen through the looking glass and become part of the fascinating world on the other side, and it’s the sort of journey that anime is uniquely suited to guide us on – if only it would aspire to do so more often.