I think it could pretty reasonably be argued that Uchouten Kazoku has been building up to this moment of crisis since its very beginnings. Benten has always been a character that divides the audience, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s beautiful, charismatic, a powerful female character who takes shit from no man. But she’s also imperious, arrogant, and a bunch of even worse things I won’t list here because at least a few of them could still be called a matter of opinion (though I think the jury has returned its verdict).
If you’ve been reading my Eccentric Family posts since those beginnings, it’s safe to say you know I’m not especially fond of Benten – as a person. As a character she’s great, one of anime’s best femme fatales. But I don’t see her as especially morally ambiguous – I think she’s flat-out nasty. Her delight in consuming tanuki hotpots is part of that, but I’m always highly suspicious of people who get turned on by their ability to frighten other people. And let’s be clear – in the context of this mythology, tanuki are people too. She’s bad news.
There is some time taken for unfinished business at the start of the episode – no, not Kaisei and Yasaburou, but Yajirou’s departure from Kyoto. Tousen is too broken up about it to attend (just as well, as Yajirou turning into a furball on the platform would have been awkward) but Gyokuran steps in as a sort of de facto matriarch (what’s with the clacking stones together? That’s a tradition I’m not familiar with). This journey is one Yajirou clearly must make – even under normal circumstances the second son is a difficult role to play in traditional Japanese culture, and Yajirou’s circumstances are hardly normal (or ideal).
The meat of the episode, though, is absolutely the building crisis with Benten – and it again displays Uchouten Kazoku’s aptitude at creating an extremely tense atmosphere. The trigger to bring all this to a head is the election of the Trick Magister, a highly important position in the tanuki social hierarchy – an election which by tradition involves a tengu being the observer. Sullen old Akadama-sensei refuses the duty, and worse still, he appoints Benten to do so in his stead. The tanuki are understandably reluctant to have a member of the Kin-youbi Club act in this important role, and turn to Yasaburou – the “tengu expert” – for help.
Yasaburou’s role in all this is very interesting. I see a fundamental difference between he and (to the best of my memory) pretty much every other tanuki we’ve met, in that Yasaburou is fundamentally unafraid. He certainly knows how to grovel, but it’s never less than obvious that he’s playing a role when he does so. Tanuki are expected to be subservient, to be humble – to cower in fear of what tengu and humans might do to them. Yasaburou, really, isn’t afraid (Kaisei aside). He knows the rules, but ultimately he trusts his own ability to manipulate others and think his way out of trouble. Maybe that makes him the biggest fool among all foolish tanuki, but that’s a side of him I deeply respect.
Initially Yasaburou tries to persuade Akadama to play his part, as the tanuki elders have asked – but it’s clear soon enough that the old man is genuinely resistant. He may also have an ulterior motive – to try and get Benten in a position to succeed him as head of the Kurama Tengu. That in itself would be bad for the tanuki, but there may be other reasons for Yasaburou’s plan to have the Nidaime take the observer role – perhaps it’s a bit of payback for the way she manipulated the Friday club and caused Soun’s death. Yasaburou’s relationship with Benten is obviously complicated – he’s probably in love with her, he respects her power (though doesn’t fear it as his fellow tanuki do), and he generally amuses Benten. In that sense all these machinations can be viewed as a kind of 6th-grade courtship, but Yasaburou is clearly playing with fire here.
For me, the Nidaime is a character who’s become more and more sympathetic – not coincidentally as Benten and Akadama-sensei have become less so. He, like Yasaburou, knows the role a tengu (he still denies being one, of course) is expected to play in the tengu-tanuki relationship. But he treats the tanuki he interacts with in a more respectful way that any other powerful figure in this story. He and Yasaburou are much alike in fact, it seems to me. I wonder now if the Nidaime will act as a true defender of tanuki now that it seems this is escalating into a genuine crisis.
Perhaps this is a time when Yasaburou’s bravery crossed over into genuine foolishness, because it’s easy to see why tanuki are implored to never get caught up (much less cause) tengu disputes. But what was he to do – allow Benten to preside? For all his infatuation with her I think his (considerable) tanuki pride wouldn’t allow that. There’s a lot of history between Nidaime and Benten, though, seemingly dating back to that finally-glimpsed encounter in London. And that means this particular conflict (with all its implications for both tanuki and tengu society) is personal. And as anyone could tell you, those can be the worst – and most vicious – kind.