What is it about tanuki that packs such an emotional punch, anyway?
2016 anime is certainly going out with an emotional bang. It’s been a big week for poignant finales, from the quiet reflection of Natsume Yuujinchou to the noble defiance and celebration of light and life in Fune wo Amu (and there was that skating thing, too). But I figured Udon no Kuni no Kiniro Kemari was probably going to bring the heaviest artillery, and I wasn’t disappointed. This was one of those final episodes that left me torn between anticipation and wanting to delay the moment for a while, since it was going to be the last go-around with the series.
How can one humble little series about Japan’s humblest little prefecture pack so much raw emotion into 12 episodes? I guess if there’s an answer, it’s honesty – that and straight-up understanding of the human condition. This series has made me tear up at least four or five times over the course of its run (I can’t remember the last one-cour anime that did that) and it hasn’t done it through anything grand or grandiloquent. I don’t think there’s anything more profound in fiction than watching or reading (but especially watching) what’s happening and seeing your own life reflected in it.
There are many ways to enlighten the human experience, and one of them is through the use of fantasy. I’ve mentioned the link between Udon no Kuni and Uchouten Kazoku before, and it’s more than simply the presence of tanuki (though that’s certainly important). Sometimes magical realism allows us to explore emotions more deeply than photo-realism does, in the same way that a cloudscape drawn by Shinkai Makoto can feel more real than a photograph of the sky. Freed of the laws of nature and of skepticism a writer can follow the path of our emotions wherever it takes us, and that’s something both Shinomaru Nodoka and Morimi Tomihiko have done brilliantly.
There’s so much more I’d like to say about Udon no Kuni, but the first thing should probably be to give it credit in this sense: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series do a better job of seamlessly adapting an ongoing manga, especially in a single cour. I don’t know exactly what events in the anime took place in the manga and when, and I may never know because it’s never been translated either officially or unofficially. But if you’d told me Udon no Kuni was an anime-original 12 episode series like Tsuirtama, I’d have no reason to disbelieve you. The story was evenly paced and had a distinct arc to it, leading to a wholly convincing and authentic conclusion. That’s so rare as to be effectively non-existent in circumstances like these, and enormous credit has to go to LIDENFILMS, director Ibata Yoshihide and writer Takahashi Natsuko. This was neither a platinum studio or an all-star staff list of huge names, but Udon no Kuni should stand as perhaps the example of how to adapt an ongoing manga.
As to the episode itself, well – it did everything I expected it to do, hoped it might do, and more (including wreck me emotionally). It was one of those eps that didn’t leave me doing much writing in my notepad, partly because I was so mesmerized by what was happening and partly because I didn’t really need to. It’s been very clear since the beginning what Udon no Kuni has been building towards – a denouement in the relationship between Souta and his father. Everything else in the story that was so powerful and effective – Shinobu’s arc and his bond with Souta, Rinko’s new frontier and the sibling bond, even the remarkable saga of Souta and Poko – all ultimately serve to cast light on Souta and his father. It would have been wrong for the finale to focus on anything else, and it didn’t – like every other phase on its journey, the series didn’t set a foot wrong.
Shinomaru-sensei is a woman, but as far as I’m concerned she has remarkable insight into male relationships. That shouldn’t surprise me, as she shows insight into all aspects of the human psyche, but she really gets things like fathers and sons, and male best friends. The hard truth is that with some rare exceptions, we simply don’t talk to each other – not to tell each other how we truly feel. I don’t know why, but I know it’s true – and I know it can make life far more painful than it has to be. Souta – kind, decent and compassionate Souta – has carried so much regret with him in his life simply because he never had that one conversation with his father than he needed and wanted to have. That they both did. Forgive us, we don’t do it on purpose – it’s just how we’re wired.
Here’s what I think is important to remember about Souta and his father, and Poko’s role in all this. Poko didn’t show Souta anything he didn’t already know, really – he just reminded him of what he’d forgotten. In his heart of hearts, do you really believe Souta had to hear his father say he was proud of him to know it was true? I don’t – he knew. But sometimes it’s important to hear the words, because with men and boys the words come very hard (especially with fathers and sons). I find myself hoping very strongly that Souta will himself become a father, because he’ll be a wonderful one – that rare father who won’t hesitate to tell his children how he feels about them. Part of that is Poko’s gift, part of it is that his father’s love reached Souta and was with him all the time, but most of it is Souta himself. It’s simply who he is.
That Poko did all this for Souta out of gratitude and a sense of responsibility makes so much sense, in the end. We know at last what happened to Souta’s leg, and yes, it was Poko who accidentally caused it. But Poko had bonded to Souta before all that happened – bonded to his gentle nature and generosity. And fate opens doors for us where we didn’t even know there were doors, because if it hadn’t been for Souta’s accident he’d never have met Hamada-san and found his calling in life. Poko never stopped watching over Souta, even when Souta was gone – he saw the struggles of his father and Rinko, saw how she tried to bridge the gap between them. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is that after Souta’s father died, Poko stayed in that empty house – stayed because he believed in his little tanuki heart than Souta would return to himself one day. And when he did, Poko had to be there to show him the things he needed to remember.
Like so many of the best anime, Udon no Kuni is a love story that has little to do with romantic love. It makes no apologies for being a story about good people who care for each other, about kindness and compassion and healing. All throughout the story Souta, Rinko and Nakaji are telling each other they love each other, and it’s obvious even if Poko is the only one who ever says those words out loud. It’s also a love story about Kagawa, and indirectly about all the small cities and rural villages across Japan that are slowly dying as their children make their way to Tokyo to try and make a better life for themselves in Japan’s shrinking economy.
The resolution of this story could only be called bittersweet, and it could only be bittersweet because that’s how life itself is. I knew in my heart that Souta and Poko couldn’t be a real family, that Souta couldn’t watch Poko grow up, because Poko isn’t a human child. And I knew that Souta couldn’t forsake his own dream to devote himself to udon, because that would have been a betrayal of the message at the heart of Udon no Kuni (and his father wouldn’t have wanted it). But his father’s love of udon is certainly passed down to Souta – through the book of recipes he left him, and through the memory of the warmth of sweet smells of the home he grew up in. His father will always be a part of who Souta is, and Poko will always be watching – because Poko loves him and always will, and he’s clearly a tanuki of great patience and dedication.
When we tot up the scores at the end of the day, try and decide what constitutes greatness in anime, what do we look to? I think sometimes we can be caught up things like scope and mass appeal and – as important as those are – lose sight of what truly makes a series great. To be emotionally profound is, to me, the highest creative aspiration any work of fiction can aim for – to shine a light on the essential goodness of the human spirit and to help us understand each other and ourselves just a tiny bit better. Udon no Kuni was a story that had something powerful and important to say, and always knew exactly how to go about saying it. And if that isn’t greatness, I don’t know what is.