It figured that Gugure! Kukkuri-san would be the sort of show that’s good at endings – if you’ve seen enough anime you’ll know what I mean – and indeed, it delivered one that checked all the boxes and then some. Last weeks of anime seasons are always full of goodbyes, but it’s a little more sentimental than usual this time what with it being the last week of the year, an uncertain time for me personally, and the end of decade-long runs for my two favorite American TV presenters. At the moment I’m pretty emotionally spent.
This is a funny sort of series, in both ways one might use that term. Comedies like Gugure! that have an undercurrent of melancholy running through them tend to muscle up in their final episodes, often delivering finales that are more emotionally resonant than so-called “dramas” can match. That undercurrent has never seemed far from the surface with this show, and it’s fitting that the last episode focused on realities that were quite different than they seemed. Gugure! has only showed us the tip of the iceberg in these 12 episodes, hinting at the truth but never really confronting it.
The first chapter was another detached story, featuring a man trying to connect with his daughter on Christmas Eve. In true fearless fashion, Gugure! introduces him looking for all the world like a pedophile trying to pick up Kohina as she ogles radio-controlled cup noodles (LOL) in a shop window. Her mission was in fact to pick up a “party bucket” of KFC – as any anime fan should know by now, thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign in the ’70s the Japanese are convinced that fried chicken (specifically the Colonel’s) is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner – but she’s about to stray from the straight and narrow by spending the chicken money on the RC cup-men.
As it turns out the man isn’t what he seems – but it turns out he’s not what he seems to be even after we find out that he seems in fact to be a workaholic lawyer who hasn’t seen his daughter in weeks, and just wanted Kohina to help pick a present. My first thought in fact was that he might be Kohina’s father (it was his comment about being sued for neglect) but no, he’s just a lawyer with a phobia of people who can’t be sued (like children) and no clue how to talk to his daughter. Kokkuri-san’s act of kindness seems simply that he’s helping a tragic fool of a man, but in fact it goes much deeper – the man has already died (as a keen-eyed Kohina suspected), and his regret at not having connected with his family has kept him from moving on.
So what happens? Kokkuri-san gives him a “good luck” charm to keep him around for a few hours and helps throw a party, one last chance to give his daughter a happy memory of him. That’s so very typical of Kokkuri-san, both the character and the series. He’s a good soul, this one, a nurturing and caring ageless figure who’s always the nicest guy in the room and is usually taken advantage of for it. And this show is so often a thin veneer of humor (usually very funny) over a thick layer of sadness, a sadness whose cause we usually can’t pinpoint even if we can’t deny its presence.
The story picks up again (after a cut-in of poor Inugami waiting in vain for the chicken and his darling on Christmas Eve – for the second time I’ve been made to feel sorry for him) on New Year’s, that most important of all holidays in Japan. If Christmas is for lovers and shoppers, New Year’s is for everyone, especially families. It’s a time to remember, a time to atone, and a time to pray for blessings in the new year. It’s hard for a Westerner to really grasp just how deeply this time of year is ingrained in the Japanese consciousness, being as we’re not in general a culture nearly as given to self-reflection as the Japanese are. And it’s self-reflection on the part of Kokkuri-san that drives these final scenes.
I certainly don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but clearly, it’s a lot more (as usual) than meets the eye. Kohina’s family is a strange one, with rare and powerful magic items in their storehouse and a little girl living at home all alone. And Kokkuri-san’s connection to them runs deep – his arrival on the scene was obviously no coincidence. Maybe he was a lover of Kohina’s mother, or some unnumbered generations of mothers from the present day. Maybe in the Buddhist tradition, he was a lover of Kohina herself, whose soul has experienced death and reincarnation. Whatever the case, it’s clear that when he speaks of the pain of having lost so many he loved, he speaks from experience. His pain is very real.
I admit I’m a soft touch when it comes to these stories about Kami and spiritual beings with their timeless existences, and the joy and pain of their brief intersections with the firefly light of a human life. They get me every time they’re done well, right in the heart – and this one is done well. The story finishes with the Hatsumode visit – to Hachiman Jinja in fact, which I guess confirms that this series was set in Kamakura. “Our lives are too slow to live with humans, and too long to live alone” – that’s about as well as I’ve ever seen this heartbreaking dilemma articulated, and it is heartbreaking. It’s fine that Kokkuri-san wished for his time with Kohina and the others to last forever, while everyone else (except Yamamoto-kun) wished selfishly – they’re all just being themselves, as he is.
There’s a fun comic roundtable at the end with the wishes of most of the characters who made appearances (even Tengu, who wishes for not one but three shotas), but the underlying mood here is definitely wistful. It seems, in the end, that Gugure! Kokkuri-san was a series about loss, and about the pain of letting go. Rarely have I felt so keenly the sense that most of the story hasn’t been told, only the merest hints of it – but those hints are certainly enough to make me fervently wish for another season of this series (or at least an OVA or two). Will it happen? We’ll know more in a week or so, but I’m thinking the odds are slightly against it – unless the series substantially overperforms projections it looks as if disc sales will be squarely in the grey area, and I’ve seen no evidence of a major spike in manga sales.
I take pride in my ability to pick out sleepers, but I missed the boat on this one – it didn’t even make my preview. And Gugure! Kokkuri-san was definitely the top sleeper of Fall for me, a bright spot in a mostly dismal anime season. Director Hiraike Yoshimasa’s track record with comedy (Working!, Sketchbook) should have clued me in if nothing else, but while this show was well-executed (so many screencaps every week) and featured a terrific cast, the source material is clearly the key to its success. It’s very funny when it wants to be (“just funny enough when it’s serious and just serious enough when it’s funny” is how I put it earlier), totally fearless, and deeply and profoundly humanistic. It’s also extremely literate (comedy seems to be the new haven for cultural literacy in anime), a quality which I appreciate in any series. I may have come to Gugure! Kokkuri-san very late, but I’m awfully glad I did – and I certainly hope we have the chance to spend some more time together.