Uchouten Kazoku – 02
「母と雷神様」 (Haha to Raijin-sama)
“Mother and Raijin, God of Thunder”
In my mind, I’ve always regarded PA Works with a particular wariness. See, the great thing about the animation house is that they’re consistently one of the few studios, maybe even the only one, with an incredible devotion to telling strongly character-driven narratives. Their near-exclusive focus on emotionally-engaging and human stories makes for a constant balm in an anime landscape lacking in these. But there’s the problem that many of their shows start off with incredible promise and potential to engage, only for the series to ultimately end up flawed. (In my opinion, anyway.) Angel Beats needed more time, but that was just the most obvious of its problems. Tari Tari had a severe lack of imagination and ambition. Hanasaku Iroha was let down by a dismal second act. Even the recent RDG suffered the same way at its end. Before long, I’ve come to associate the studio with a curse: despite all the potential shown, their works could never transcend into true greatness for one reason or another.
But with this second episode of Uchouten Kazoku, I want to believe that they can finally break free of this curse. This week had everything I was originally expecting out of the premiere episode, and it was glorious to behold; Morimi’s quirky-comical nature played to great effect, brilliant exploration of the extremely vibrant cast of characters, and interactions that felt both sincere and poignant. It was whimsical, it was gently humorous, and the plight of the Shimogamo family wringed my heart in a way a PA Works anime just hasn’t done so in ages. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m getting more convinced that they might finally strike gold with Uchouten Kazoku, just so long as they keep the quality here consistently high.
It really boils back down to the one reason I cited last week; for all its quirkiness, Uchouten Kazoku is a very human story, and one that gives its characters an all-too-rare natural dynamic. The second episode moves on to properly introduce us to the Shimogamo family, and I’m glad to see my initial worries for the characters unfounded; each one of them has incredible personality to them, and really worked well with each other. The two new characters we’re introduced to, Shimogamo Mother (Inoue Kikuko) and Shimogamo Yajirou (Yoshino Hiroyuki), are as colorful as the rest of the cast; Mother is a pool-loving Tanuki with an incredible fear of thunder, and Yajirou…well, Yajirou is a literal frog in the well.
There’s a tangible heft to these characters that comes from the varied hints in their personal histories (What prompted Yajirou to get stuck as a frog in the first place?) and from the world Uchouten Kazoku has so sublimely built around them. It’s not like the anime goes out of its way to throw out an exposition spew, thought there’s a thing to be said about Yasaburou’s constant introspection. In fact, almost nothing of relevance to the focal characters are given much focus, but the writing is rich with details; examples include the passing mentions of Kitsunes, the many folklore and cultural references that give life to the Kyoto setting, and not forgetting the Friday Fellows’ habit of eating Tanukies as a hot pot ingredient.
Yes, boiled in a hot pot and eaten. In a story about Tanukies, no less. I didn’t expect something I initially thought to be a passing joke to actually turn itself out as central narrative point; most certainly not in the way it played out with Shimogamo papa, Soichiro, suffering that very fate. As it always seems with Morimi, you can never expect him to play things straight; boiling tanukies as a hot pot ingredient is as surreal an allegory as you’d expect from that writer. Yet I couldn’t believe how something so inherently ridiculous can be made this poignant; the tragedy gives context to the incredibly heartwarming sense of family between the Shimogamos. Ever since their father’s death, the family has been branded losers in Tanuki society; as Yasaburou muses, one’s a frog, another’s an idiot, and the last is a child. Only eldest brother Yaichirou seem halfway decent, but in the shadow of their late father who united Tanuki society, he fails to live up to the Shimogamo honor.
Yet you get the sense that every Shimogamo is trying their best for the family in their own way, be it through action or inaction. Yashirou works in rival family Ebisugawa’s factory, enduring the taunts and bullying; Yaichirou tries to maintain the family honor in Tanuki society; Yajirou spends his days in isolation (for whatever reasons) and listens to people’s worries; Yasaburou seems to take responsibility for the people he knows, checking up on Akadama, Benten (both who clearly have deep ties to the family) and Yajirou in these two episodes. Their mother remains the only one to recognize their efforts, their only believer in a society that has long left the family in the dust.
It reveals a deep-seated trust in this family, and this bond shows itself through their actions in the episode. The moment Yajirou notices the arrival of Raijin, every Shimogamo’s thought turned towards their mother and her fear of thunder; Yashirou runs out of his part-time work at the factory, Yaichirou panics in his unsuppressed worry, and Yasaburou, calm and collected as he is, takes the lead in finding their missing mother. When obstructed by Ginkaku and Kinkaku (Kosuke Hatakeyama & Shuya Nishiji respectively), their enmity with the Ebisugawa family didn’t matter; Yasaburou suggest a tactical retreat, while Yaichirou quickly steps in and resolves the fight in a jiffy, both clearly trying to get past the issue as fast as they could. Getting to their mother’s side was the priority at that moment. The message is made clear: this family couldn’t bear to lose another of its member, and when they were finally reunited –thanks in part to an Ebisugawa, Kaisei (Sakura Ayane)– the relief of the family was palpable. In just a single episode, Uchouten Kazoku managed to establish a truly genuine bond of family in the Shimogamos, and it has utterly captured my heart.
I grew up with primetime family dramas on the local stations, and there’ll always be a special place in my heart for them. Thus far, Uchouten Kazoku has the pieces laid for an incredible one, so consider me won over for now. With these two episodes, PA Works has in their hand a very strong narrative foundation, and an incredibly engaging cast of characters to work with. We’ve barely made any headway into the show, and there’s no telling how its plot could develop from here, but Uchouten Kazoku’s start already feels much stronger than most of their previous works I’m familiar with. Come curse or no curse, I’m going to be following this till its end.
Full-length images: 04.