I needed a bit of time to process that one.
It’s funny – as soon as the cold open for this episode kicked in, there was a buzz about it, a tension in the air. It wasn’t immediately clear from the plot that monumental events would be taking place, but somehow you knew something big was going on. I can’t fully explain it, but the closest comparison I can make with the viewing experience is to a “fight or flight” reaction – that heightened sense of awareness and anxiety when you’ve sensed that danger is present.
The truth is, Uchouten Kazoku has always had another gear – the ability to lift its game to levels where other series rarely attempt to trade, never mind succeed. The most obvious example is the first season’s eighth episode, which was among the finest half-dozen or so anime episodes I’ve ever been privileged to watch. This one wasn’t on that level, but it was certainly the most riveting and heartbreaking of the season – and fittingly, both of these episodes dealt with the passing of a brother into the world of the dead.
Mind you, even in it’s “regular” mode The Eccentric Family is nothing if not exceptional. It’s a beautiful production by P.A. Works, so utterly different from anything else in their catalog and an obvious labor of love. But the wellspring of that specialness is Morimi Tomihiko. He’s a writer of tremendous intelligence and intellectual curiosity (and no, those two are not the same). He bandies big ideas about in his works, and he never makes the answers easy for us to find because, clearly, the act of writing these stories is his way of looking for them himself. That’s why, while the way some elements of this series defy explanation sometimes vexes me, I accept them – the world we live in doesn’t always make sense, and doesn’t yield the big answers easily.
The Friday Club is, in its essence, the ultimate paradoxical enigma of Uchouten Kazoku. Why do tanuki so readily accept the idea that they should be eaten in a hot pot for the pleasure of a social elite of humans and tengu? Why do seemingly intelligent and non-psychotic people think it’s all right to eat clearly intelligent and sensitive beings capable of human-level emotions? Why does Yasaburou love and admire a woman who was complicit in the murder and consumption of his beloved father? It’s not enough to simply say “tanuki aren’t people” – but that they are alien to us is something we, as viewers and readers, need to accept. While the feelings at the core of the Shimogamo family couldn’t be more elementally human, we can’t allow that to fool us into thinking they’re the same as we are. Yet we, as intelligent creatures, can’t simply accept what seems in irreconcilable behavior at face value. And that’s where I am with Uchouten Kazoku.
It’s certainly no surprise that Soun would be willing to consume tanuki in order to restore his social climber ambitions – he was willing to murder his own brother out of envy and resentment. But Yasaburou’s attitude is harder to reconcile. Good and evil are not fixed and easily identifiable constructs in Uchouten Kazoku – Benten (and the interpretation of her character) is ample evidence of that. All of the scenes leading up to the “reconciliation” banquet were magical and beautiful – the stroll down the path of bamboo, the underwater handshake, the arrival of Benten (let’s not forget that before the introduction of Western social mores, co-ed bathing was the norm in Japan), the steam rising off Yasaburou’s head as he leaves the baths. But through it all was that buzz, that sense of wrongness – something terrible was about to happen, that much was obvious.
What happened at the banquet certainly bears discussion. Soun’s greed was transparent – it seemed transparent to me, also, that Juroujin and Benten were playing him, or at best humoring him. Poor, earnest Yadogawa-sensei’s rant – and Juroujin’s reaction – were sad and terrible, but what happened after is what demands contemplation. Why did Yasaburou do what he did – seemingly sell out his friend and his ideals? Speaking of transparent, I’m certain that he was doing it to save Yadogawa’s life. Even if Yasaburou believed the things he said (which I don’t think he does) he’d never forget that Yadogawa saved his mother’s life. In that moment, Yasaburou saw that breaking Yadogawa’s resolve was the only way to diffuse the situation without violence. He was both right and wrong, as subsequent events proved.
I don’t think Yasaburou wants the Hotei seat, and I think it was rather wicked of Benten (who is, in my view, a very wicked person indeed) to maneuver him into it. Soun’s reaction was predictable – he was in the end a small man, driven by small desires. But like many in this cast, I don’t see Soun as evil – just weak. Soun, Ginkaju and Kinkaju, Akadama-sensei, Yadogawa-sensei, Benten, even Yasaburou – everyone is hungering for something life isn’t giving them. They’re all aware of the ways they fall short of their own expectations (and those of others) and it makes them unhappy. And that unhappiness makes them do foolish and unkind things sometimes (some more than others, of course). I think that’s what made Souichirou so special and revered – he, more than anyone in this story (apart, perhaps, from his wife), seemed to be at peace with himself.
The death of Soun – a small, weak man responsible for much of the sadness in this story – should not itself have been as sad as it was. In the end he was just a furball, and one his children surely loved, even if they (certainly Kaisei) knew his weakness. Yasaburou’s agonized reaction to Soun’s final moments cut me to the bone, because it revealed so much about him. He took no joy from seeing his father “avenged” like this – all he saw was his uncle, all his tanuki artifice and ambition stripped away, slowly bleeding to death at the foot of a dead tree in a lush forest (a gorgeous image). This was a beautiful, terrible sadness just as Episode 8 was – but in this instance, in stark contrast to the first, the sadness sprung from all the unfulfilled promise and emptiness in the life of the brother who passed from the world of the living.