I wouldn’t say “tanuki are people too” is the central theme of Uchouten Kazoku or anything, but it’s always struck me that it’s one of those series that uses fantasy to illuminate the human condition. I look at it kind of like this: tanuki are like humans if the limits to their imaginations were removed. When you think about it, the fantastical Kyoto of The Eccentric Family isn’t all that different from the real one – this isn’t Kyousougiga or anything. It actually wouldn’t take that big of a shift in the nature of reality for this fantasy world to happen – just a little magic to spice the soup. And wouldn’t the world be a much more incredible place just from that small change?
That’s why, for me, when I look at the cast of Uchouten Kazoku (especially but not only the tanuki) none of them seem alien to me. All of their emotions are extensions of elemental human ones. This is most stark with the unshakable bonds within the Shimogamo family, and most painfully demonstrated in Episode 8 of the first season. But it applies to most everything that happens, I think. Yashirou is gentle and timid, and responds to fright by becoming tiny and clinging to his brothers. Yajirou feels shame over his past deeds, and has retreated to a place of utter solitude and taken a humble and ugly form. Yasaburou is the closest to his true tanuki nature, but finds society pushes back at him because of it.
Yaichirou has been something of a mystery man in Uchouten Kazoku, only rarely showing us anything beyond the stern, impatient young man desperate to fill the unfillable void his father left (in many ways, the most “human” of the brothers). And romance has been a human emotion on the periphery for most of the story, with only the occasional interaction between Kaisei and Yasaburou to highlight it. What’s happened between Benten and the series’ males can’t be called romance in any real sense – in every case (though perhaps we’ve seen that start to change), it breaks down to infatuation on one side and inscrutable bemusement on the other.
We first meet Gyokuran (Hikasa Youko – purely as an aside, it’s astonishing how few of her shows I’ve liked given her huge portfolio) when she comes to visit Yasaburou as he’s standing in for the local tanuki family who portray captive tanuki at the Kyoto Zoo (echoes of Shirokuma Cafe here). She’s a member of the distinguished Nanzenji tanuki family (we met her brother in the first season, and again here), whom Yaichirou has been helping to revive the tanuki shogi tournament. There are plausible reasons for this – Yaichirou clearly values status, and the Nanzenji are powerful enough to impart it on those they favor. But clearly, this goes deeper than that.
Temperamentally, Yaichirou and the demure, intelligent Gyokuran seem a perfect match. But there’s a shared history here that’s painful for both. As usual Uchouten Kazoku shows us this rather than explains it – its approach to exposition reveals an understanding that the most direct path is rarely the best. There’s quite a dustup at the tournament – which is yet another utterly magical Uchouten moment, with the shogi pieces being played by tanuki, including Yasaburou and Kinkaju and Ginkaju. Yasaburou allows the idiot brothers to bait him into disrupting the match between Gyokuran and Yajirou – and of course these idiots are actually rather clever, and their jibes hit close to the mark. The enraged Gyokuran transforms into a tiger and scatters the pieces and audience like bowling pins, though the true significance of this won’t be known until later.
The aftermath of all this is a lot of chaos in the tanukiverse, including between Yaichirou and Yasaburou. But Tousen shows once again that she’s one of anime’s greatest moms, cheerfully guilt-tripping Yasaburou into intervening to smooth things over between Yaichirou and Gyokuran. There’s so much to love here I hardly know where to start. Yasaburou’s “fool’s shogi” says so much about who he is – he sees rules, and thinks the game would be more fun without them. Even Souichirou shook his head when his son did this – Souichirou, whose foolishness Yasaburou has supposedly inherited. What is the difference, then, between the father and son – the difference that made Souichirou-sama the tanuki who was the most beloved and respected in the community, and Yasaburou the kid everyone shakes their head at? That learning process is Yasaburou’s character arc, really – and thus, the spine of Uchouten Kazoku.
The final scene is another memorable one, as Yasaburou switches places with Gyokuran after challenging his brother to a shogi match using his father’s old board. Simple pride is such a powerful influence in life, and so utterly human – it was the shame of having Gyokuran intentionally lose to him at shogi when they were children (and his childish reaction, which left tooth marks in that board) that left a distance between the two all these years. But as ethereally beautiful hotaru dance through the air around them, Yaichirou and Gyokuran reach a place of acceptance and understanding. Of course she’s mysteriously sucked into the board afterwards, but I’m not too worried – it’s the detours that make Uchouten Kazoku (and Kyoto) so magical, and I suspect this one has something to do with a secret shogi room in the Tadasu-no-Mori.