It’s the one Seinfeldism I find most indispensable for blogging: “It’s so nice when it happens good.”
OP:”S.O.S” by WEAVER
I came into Udon no Kuni no Kiniro Kemari with pretty high expectations, considering it was my #1 sleeper pick of the season by a wide margin. Given that, it’s pretty remarkable that it ended up being better than I expected or even hoped – I loved every bit of it, right down to the music. I’m either unbelievably good at spotting sleepers, or disturbingly in-tune with my own tastes – I have no idea which, but sometimes I even impress myself.
This show checks a lot of boxes for me, no question about it – though I’ve never read a panel of the manga (which as far as I know is totally untranslated). In the first place it’s a seinen, with an adult as the main character. It’s got a mythological component, and it’s set in a part of the Japanese hinterlands which I love, that’s sadly underrepresented in anime (which is reflected in the fact that the Vice-Governor of the prefecture is doing the previews). Kagawa is adorable, frankly – Japan’s tiniest and probably quietest prefecture, with an abundance of countryside and seashore and a modest claim to fame in its udon noodles. Especially its sanuki udon, a local specialty served all over the province. I visited Kagawa on a Kansai rail pass (it was included, being too small for its own pass) and fell in love.
There’s a great resonance to stories likes that of Tawara Souta (Nakamura Yuuichi) in today’s Japan. Children from places like Kagawa have been fleeing their homes for Tokyo for two generations, looking for better-paying jobs and more options in life. As a result these places are in decline, with family businesses folding with no one willing to take them over. That’s the fate of the family udon-ya run by Souta’s father, who’s just passed away. Souta has gone to Tokyo to become a web designer, only returning to help put the family house and affairs in order after his father’s death.
Udon no Kuni gets the tone just right here. We can clearly feel the emotions Souta is feeling as he returns to the place he grew up. It feels like a dream to him, being here, so different is it from modern Tokyo. But it’s also full of memories, and that’s an especially poignant part of the episode. Souta’s father’s life is summed up in a derelict restaurant, a few boxes of drawings and notebooks and an empty house. This was a man who lived and loved and made a difference in the world, and this is all that’s left. I think Souta is very much struck by this, even if he can’t quite put that emotion into concrete form.
The wild card here is Poko (Kokido Shiho). It’s immediately clear something is odd about about this little fellow when Souta discovers him hiding in one of his father’s old noodle bins, hugging a bag of flour. Poko doesn’t talk much but immediately takes to Souta, who has no idea what to make of him and (quite logically) assumes he’s some sort of lost child. His busy childhood friend Nakajima (Sugita Tomokazu) is no help, and he doesn’t even tell his older sister when she calls to check up on him. Poko is a mischievous toddler (especially fascinated by frogs) but full of smiles, especially where Souta is involved, and a bond is formed quickly.
I loved all the scenes in this small town, and the way they let us put the pieces together without too much explanation. It’s telling that Souta is so surprised to discover how much of an impact his father had – locals and foodie tourists ask after the restaurant, and there’s a stack of letters from grateful customers in the family house. The local priest (Fukuyama Jun) appears to realize what Poko is (a tanuki) and try to warn Souta, and it’s also apparent that there’s some sort of issue with Souta’s leg that stems back to his childhood. It’s quite possible to see where this might be headed – the notion of being a big fish in a small pond is surely going to appeal to Souta. How much of an impact can the average person make in Tokyo, really? But here, men like his father can touch many lives simply by doing what they’re good at and honoring tradition. Is that such a bad thing?
Honestly, I think that episode was close to perfect. It told its story clearly without the need of much dialogue and did a splendid job of world-building. Udon no Kuni is currently on its ninth volume and still ongoing, and of course as a seinen the anime is all but certain to sell very few discs, so it’s best to steel ourselves for an(other) incomplete adaptation that stops in the middle of the story. But series like Udon no Kuni are what keep anime compelling for me, incomplete or no – they’re why I keep doing this, and I’ll never look that gift frog in the mouth. It seems a lock that this is going to be one of the best series of the season.
ED:”Sweet Darwin” by GOODWARP
The Tale of Gagao-san and the Blue Planet: