I wasn’t as keen on last week’s episode of Ushio to Tora as I was the first seven, though it’s all relative – even weak UshiTora is above-average anime. But it wasn’t what I’ve come to expect from this series, which is why I was glad to see this episode represented a return to form in ways large and small. It was definitely a major step up in every way.
The style of storytelling this series uses is a lot harder to pull off than it might look. When you focus mostly on episodic, stand-alone stories and one-off characters, some ups and downs are going to be inevitable. It’s nearly impossible to make the audience care about every one of those stories and characters – last week was a case where my commitment level to both was way down – even if they’re all contributing to a larger story (as seems to be the case here).
The monsters-of-the-week this time around are the Kamaitachi, a very important youkai in Japanese folklore with roots in Chinese mythology. The Kamaitachi myth varies from region to region, but Ushio & Tora does its homework here and gets the details right making this week’s guests natives of Hida, an old mountainous province in today’s Gifu Prefecture. Hida Kamaitachi (shapeshifting weasels who ride the wind) are said to work in threes – one knocking down a human, one cutting them with its razor-sharp talons, and the third healing them. Why they do this varies from tale to tale – some call it playful mischief, some thievery of food, and others speak of it as a means to frighten and disorient humans into keeping their distance from Kamaitachi territory.
It’s clearly the third interpretation that’s relevant to this week’s episode. The trio of Kamataichi are Raishin (Miki Shinchirou), the eldest brother, Juurou (Kaji Yuuki), the middle sibling, and Kagari (Shimizu Risa) the youngest. Juurou is the once-kind brother whose anger over being continually chased out of his home by humans (from Hida all the way to Hokkaido) has driven him to become a brutal killer of his human enemies. Since killing humans is taboo for Kamaitchi – for practical reasons, as it will lead to them being persecuted and wiped out – Raishin and Kagari regretfully decide that they must kill their brother, and that the only one who can do it is the wielder of the Beast Spear.
Talk about the Yin and Yang of guest voices – we really do see both ends of the spectrum here in Miki and Kaji, with predictable results. I’d ask why Kaji-san keeps getting these sorts of obviously ill-fitting roles if I didn’t already know the answer, but he does his best and while the performance does take you out of the moment at times, it’s not so jarring as to be a deal-breaker. Miki is superb as you’d expect (if underutilized) and Shimizu is fine, but it’s worth noting that Hatanaka Tasaku delivers maybe his best performance of the series as Ushio here. Ushio gets quite emotionally invested in the situation, and the way Hatanaka nails that makes sure we do, too.
The dynamics of this story are pretty straightforward – the Kamaitachi are the real victims here, and Raishin and Kagari do what they do only because they fear what will happen if they don’t – but straightforward is a good model for Ushio to Tora. Ushio is a fighter for the underdog by nature, a kid with a strong sense of justice, and he instinctively knows the humans are the real villains here, and how brutally difficult this decision was for the siblings. The scenario also offers further evidence that he and Tora have transitioned into a sort of friendship now – Tora has the chance to leave Ushio for dead after Juurou critically wounds him, but Tora directs Kagari to heal him.
It always seems certain that this story is going to end in tragedy, and it doesn’t disappoint – though a final act of decency on the part of humanity and a sincere apology from Ushio does send Juurou to the next world with a sort of redemption. And it’s a sad ending that works, because it’s been earned by the story that came before it. I’d also point out that unlike last week’s magical plane ride, UshiTora gets the practicalities pretty much right here. And it’s rare, too, that we see the whole vehicle-blows-up-after-accident thing done correctly, with a scenario which actually would cause a vehicle to blow up.