Udon no Kuni no Kiniro Kemari is something of a statement to to the personal nature of anime – and of any other art form. The separation of the subjective and the objective is always difficult in any type of criticism where art is concerned – the tendency is to fall back on popularity as a validation of objective quality, but that isn’t really a valid methodology. I could make a case as to why I feel this series is objectively a good one – and I certainly do – but ultimately, the relationship between ourselves and art is a personal one.
Subjectively, it’s pretty simple with me and Udon no Kuni. I love it – I adore it unreservedly. For me, when a series can make me tear up in the middle of an episode in the middle of the series, not through any dramatic emotional crescendo but simply by being itself, that’s a mark of absolutely authenticity. The entire sequence with the tiles was simple and profound, especially when Souta remembered the instructions his father gave him on how to throw them and then taught Poko – such a beautiful and emotionally true moment. For me it hit harder because I, too, stood on a ledge at a temple and flung tiles into the vastness (in my case Jingoji near Takao, in the mountains above Kyoto) with my adult sisters present, and in addition to the emotion of the scene itself it brought me back to that scene in my own life.
Here too is an example of the way art can move us that much more profoundly if it echoes elements of our own experience. The introduction of Rinko (the always marvelous Nakahara Mai) certainly helps Udon no Kuni do that for me, because I have two older sisters and when Souta and Rinko talk, I can feel myself become lost in the moment. It’s true – we talk to each other now in ways we never did when we were kids. There’s more honesty, more openness – in many ways, these people know each other better than anyone else knows them. And there’s often reminiscence, too, because adult siblings share memories with each other which no one else shares. And of course, they’re conscious of the ever-growing span of the past which can never be brought back – of the changes in themselves, and of those who are no longer with them in life.
One of the truisms I live by is that regrets are like a sack we carry around on our backs, and that because every regret we acquire gets stuffed into that sack and carried around with us, the sack becomes heavier the older we get. Souta and Rinko (she’s older than he, presumably in her early 30’s) are very much at the age (as is Nakajima, for that matter) when one starts to become aware of this (carried in on wings of aches and pains where there never used to be any). They’re becoming aware that time is a precious commodity that once lost can never be regained, and that the choices they make now will impact their entire lives.
Rinko, like Nakajima, is childless (though unlike him, she’s married). And like Nakajima she’s thinking about it more, though until interacting with Poko she probably wasn’t even aware of that most of the time. As we get deeper into Udon no Kuni it’s becoming increasingly clear that this story is really a generational snapshot, most directly of Souta but also his best friend and sister, at a specific point in their lives. Poko’s role here is as the catalyst – it’s through him that Souta and the others reconnect with feelings they’ve had locked away for a long time. And with their past, too, which is always a part of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Is it a coincidence that the tanuki of Yashima are Gods of family happiness? I hardly think so.
As with the fishing trip with Nakajima, the trip to Yashima Temple is wonderfully atmospheric, and the dynamic is interesting. Rinko is clearly awkward around kids with her harsh and frankly aggressive nature, and Poko is no exception – they get off on the wrong foot to say the least. But just as with Souta and Nakajima, he awakens something in Rinko. “Family happiness” can have a lot of different meanings, and in this case maybe it will refer more than anything to re-establishing sibling ties and coming to peace with the past – but perhaps that’s not all. We’ll see.
In addition to all the other ways Udon no Kuni works as a series, it’s also a splendid travelogue for Kagawa Prefecture. I never made it to Yashima but damn, now I want to go – that Iya Valley “vine bridge” seems like an amazing place, and I’ve always loved the atmosphere of mountaintop temples and shrines. We also get a plug in for the famous 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage (of which Yashima is the 84th) the most famous pilgrimage route in modern Japan. Hikers in pilgrim attire – usually in their 60’s or older – are a common sight on this route. And I think special praise is in order for the “Gaogao-chan” segments, which are not only clever but very sly in the way they tie up the themes of the full episode which precedes them. And that “Suspension Bridge Effect” gag was the icing on the cake.