Every season seems to have a series that sneaks up on you – the kind that seems pleasant and relatively trivial at-first, but eventually reveals a depth that surprises you the moment the reality of it hits. These kind of shows often have Shitno/mystical themes, too, which I don’t think is remotely coincidental. I’ve compared this show to Inu X Boku SS, but sometimes it also makes me think of the likes of Kamisama Hajimemashita and Gingitsune – and while Gugure! is certainly different than any of those series, I think it shares elements with all of them. And it’s quietly emerged as the under-appreciated gem of the season. If you’re not watching this series you should be. And if you are and dismiss it as a pleasant fuwa-fuwa trifle, you shouldn’t – there’s a lot more here than that.
A lot of what I like about this series was on display in this episode. The humor is pretty much fearless, for starters – the shotacon Tengu (Toriumi Kousuke) bit being a hilarious example. It’s relentlessly literate and obscure (this week’s Google-sensei trip was to find Elizabeth Bathory – a Hungarian countess regarded as one of the worst serial killers in history). And the sense of contrast – between the highbrow and lowbrow humor, obviously, but also that the tone always seems perched on the precipice between comedy and melancholy. That especially strikes me as an extremely Japanese thing, and in any fiction I generally find it to be very engaging.
This week is something of a left turn for Gugure! (though less so than one might think, in more ways than one). Mostly, it’s the story of Kureha (Satou Rina) a lovely maiden in antiquated dress who waits underneath a Momiji whose leaves are red, though winter has come to the surrounding forest. Kokkuri-san and Kohina meet her while hiking over the mountains in order to catch a sale at a far-off supermarket (cup noodles are ¥5 off) and she tells them she’s waiting for a young man (Hino Satoshi) who’d promised to meet her under the tree. How long she’s been waiting isn’t clear, but it’s long enough that she’s forgotten what he looked like. Fortunately she drew a portrait long ago, and she bribes Kokkuri-san with rice coupons to search for the man in town and send him to meet her.
Now, it’s not a huge surprise when the truth comes out – though Kokkuri-san guessed incorrectly as to what was happening (and Kohina has the goods on him) it’s clear there’s a supernatural basis to Kureha’s story (Kureha is a bound ghost, waiting for a boy who went off to war and never came back). But as is often the case with this series, it’s really the execution that makes the difference. It’s funny when it wants to be – the aforementioned Tengu encounter (he’s the one who reveals the truth, in exchange for gravure shots of a very disgusted-looking Kokkuri-kun in shota cosplay), Shigraki’s attempts to contact the lost solider in the underworld foiled when his prepaid phone runs out of credit. But it’s also quite moving and sad, and the images of Kureha framed underneath the tree are lovely and full of mono no aware.
Kureha’s sad tale is treated with respect even in the midst of the silliness (it almost plays as a birlliantly off-kilter chapter of Mushishi or Natsume Yuujinchou), and when the real story finally emerges it’s genuinely romantic. The boy cannot be summoned from the underworld, because he asked to be reincarnated immediately – as the maple tree under which Kureha sits. “Every time I think of you, the leaves will turn red” – and even when there’s a good laugh mined from this with Kohina’s scientific debunking, it doesn’t detract from the poetry of the moment. Although one is tempted to ask – why did the Momiji wait so long to say anything?
Very cleverly tying up the episode is the conclusion to last week’s ending – of which I said I “wasn’t sure if it was a cliffhanger or a punchline”. The Narrator even notes “You probably forgot all about it”, but indeed we finally get back to the runaway Inugami, who’s getting sage advice (which he ignores) from Yamamoto-kun. Instead of going home, he decides to walk the world – and beyond – in search of truth. Eventually he has an epiphany of sorts (in that baka Gugure! way – “E.L.K! E.L.K.!”) and returns home, but finds atmospheric re-entry rather uncomfortable. Kureha sitting under her tree watching a shooting star is a brilliant way to end the episode as the ED starts rolling – smart, imaginative and classy, which is a pretty good summation of Gugure! Kokkuri-san.