Every so often when a series ends what strikes me most is, “that was a labor of love”. Tsuritama and Kyousougiga spring immediately to mind, but there are others – anime where it’s very clear that the full heart and soul of the staff was behind the idea that this had to be great. You can hear it in his voice when P.A. Works founder and president Horikawa Kenji talks about this show – no one at PAW was under any delusions that Uchouten Kazoku was going to be a commercial success, but everyone there loved the material and wanted it to be the signature work from the studio. And after two seasons, I think it’s pretty clear they’ve succeeded (and, just maybe, broke even in the process – if they were lucky).
I’ll confess that this finale had me a bit worried at first, because it seemed to be heading in directions I was neither expecting nor especially liking. I didn’t want a big, epic finale for this show (though it does epic very well) – it’s always the interior character moments that define Uchouten Kazoku. And I was worried for a while there that we might see both a “deathbed conversion” for Benten, turning her into a good guy, and the tossing of the Nidaime under the narrative bus.
Soon enough, though, it became clear that none of those things were going to happen. In The Eccentric Family things are both complicated and simple, and paradoxes are everywhere. As Woody Allen once said, the world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for certain people. But of course, there are certain people – and tengu, and tanuki. In a sense I think this story could be seen as the struggle of the rest of us to have wonderful lives and of the world to be wonderful, in spite of the bastards whose greed and vanity and petty vindictiveness screw it up for the rest of us. And in true Uchouten fashion, I think tanuki are both the wisest and most foolish among us in this context.
To be sure, this episode does start out looking like going out with a bang – a kind of battle royale featuring every conflict that arose over the course of the past twelve episodes. Yasaburou and Benten manage to crash Jyurojin’s flying rail cars onto the roof and into Nidaime’s house, which leaves him seriously pissed off. Pissed off, too, is Soun – when he finds out that Kaisei has been caught up in his scheme (there’s that answered – thought so). Jyurojin directs Tenmaya to toss every tanuki onto the roof into a hot pot, further cementing his status as the closest thing this series has to an outright villain. But before that can happen, a giant hand reaches up from Jigoku and snatches Tenmaya (and Soun, who’s throttling him at the time) back down to Hell.
That’s really just the warm-up though, for the main event – one which I think we’ve all been expecting for a while. In the end, for all his exaggerated dignity, Nidaime is just a man who – like most – can be unmade by a woman. As best I can guess, it seems as if Benten looks just like the woman (a flapper) he fell in love with a hundred years or so ago, and fought (a losing one) with Akadama-sensei over. My guess is that both he and Benten were human disciples of Akadama, and if indeed he’s been at it that long, it’s not surprising he has the edge in power over her. Their battle is ugly – flames and wind, degenerating into nose-gouging and hair-pulling. But Nidaime puts an end to it by setting fire to Benten’s hair, which was a pretty dark moment to say the least.
“Do you pity me?” is the question Benten asks Yasaburou when he comes to visit her at her mystical lake retreat later, to find her curled up in bed, locks shorn. Yasaburou does – he loves her, after all – but do I? Are we supposed to? In the end I think Benten is a sad and lonely wretch, and this was a fitting way for her story to finish (for the moment). Benten is powerful, and uses her power to tease and titillate and massage her massive ego. She ran up against someone more powerful and was laid low, but in the process he also was laid low by her charms and by his own human frailty (though even in his dark despair, he had the detach to summon the rain and douse the blaze he’d started). The Nidaime may have ended up in a less disheveled state than Benten, but the both of them end up coming across as pitiable.
The B-part of the episode returns us to the Uchouten Kazoku I love best, and how I hoped and expected it would end its run – with humor, warmth and wry wisdom. Ginkaku and Kinkaku are left to reflect on their sins (Kureichirou is making sure they do) though it seems that they too were ensnared by Soun’s trickery. Dear old Yadogawa-sensei returns to his Thoreau-like life in the woods, the tanuki population seemingly safe (for now), where someone (I’m guessing it’s Tousen) leaves him care packages regularly. And Yaichirou and Gyokuran tie the knot at Heian Jingu, where Akadama-sensei comes to pay them his respects (and is no doubt thinking about Souichirou as he does so).
Finally, we have Yasaburou and Kaisei, who meet (back-to-back) at Tanukidani Fudoin, where Grandma (who apparently is literally Yasaburou’s grandmother) wanders over to pay them a visit. She’s wonderful, as she was the first time – full of mirth and kindness and wise words, and it’s clear that Yasaburou and Kaisei are indeed tied together by the red fur of fate. This really is the distillation of everything Uchouten Kazoku believes about life – have fun, have kids and make trouble. This is the true wisdom of tanuki – to always keep the child alive inside yourself, no matter how old you may be. Life is only overcomplicated when we allow ourselves to be distracted from what’s important. And, of course, by certain people…
What does the future hold for Uchouten Kazoku, then? Well, the first two seasons have more or less completely adapted the two novels by Morimi Tomihiko, so we’re certainly done for now. Morimi-sensei is planning a third, but it was eight years (2007-15) between the release of the first and second so it may be a while before we see it. Once the novel trilogy is complete, will there be a third season of the anime too? Who knows where anime will be by then – where the world will be, for that matter. I can pretty much guarantee that P.A. Works would love to complete this adaptation if there’s any conceivable way to do so, and it’s not impossible – Morimi’s novels are very popular, enough so that the anime sells a few discs and merchandise and enjoys a bit of cross-promotion (mostly in Kyoto, but also the cafe in Tokyo). If there’s any way to make it happen, Horikawa-san will make it happen.
These days every time a series like Uchouten Kazoku ends I find myself wondering “Is this the last anime like this we’ll ever see?” So far the answer has always been “no”, but it gets harder and harder to keep the faith as anime becomes more and more narrowly-focused and creatively stagnant. But this show does teach us to be optimistic, so I’ll do my best. As long as there are people in the industry willing to take the massive risks required to produce smart, challenging and subtle material like this, we have a chance – because there’s no shortage of brilliant written source material to draw from. In that sense Uchouten Kazoku isn’t unique, but it’s nevertheless exceptional in every way – brilliantly wise, funny and warm – and the anime P.A. Works has crafted from it is every bit as exceptional.