「栗林公園」 (Ritsurin Kouen)
Udon no Kuni just keeps right on rolling, never really setting a foot wrong. For my money it’s both the best and most consistent show of the season, and it manages to be so without a whole lot of flash or trickery. As I’ve noted many times, manga and anime seem to be wonderful mediums (though by no means the only ones) for using fantasy as a means to cast insight on the experience of being human. Maybe it’s easier to lay bare the human condition with the cover of magical realism and non-human characters (tanuki seem especially well-suited to the purpose).
Two things really stand out for me as explanations for why Udon no Kuni works as well as it does. The first is the series’ versatility. It can switch gears seamlessly, and does so pretty often. All the characters and storylines we’re seeing are pieces of a puzzle, but on their own they’re quite different and they play quite differently on an emotional level. The second is that Udon no Kuni is a show that doesn’t try too hard. There’s big emotional heft in a lot of these moments, but much of it would be lost if director Ibata Yoshidide and writer Takahashi Natsuko beat us over the head with that fact. Simply letting the moment speak for itself is an incredibly important skill in a series like this one.
So where does that leave us with this episode? More of the same, really – and rarely have I meant that as such a compliment. Souta seems at peace with his return to Kagawa, even if he’s unsure of his future. It doesn’t seem yet as if he’s seriously considering re-opening the restaurant – in fact, he’s taking freelance work (including from his old boss Dahama-san, whose call at the end of the episode is presumably about the Shodoshima firm he mentioned last week). But he’s more than ever slipping comfortably into the role of Poko’s guardian, which fits him as comfortably as an old shoe. It’s almost as if it was something he was fated to do.
That’s soon put to the test as Souta is called on to babysit Nozomi while her mother takes her son to the doctor. That means taking the two of them to a Gaogao-chan show at Ritsurin Garden – quite a thrill for Poko, who’s a huge Gaogao otaku. It’s also a bit of a thrill for me as it’s one of the Kagawa locales I visited during my short stay there – Ritsurin is revered as one of the three finest gardens in Japan, and I saw nothing to cause me to question that.
What strikes you in watching Souta interact with the kids is again just how natural it seems. Souta is a natural at this, but that leads me to believe his father was better at his role than Souta’s memory would have us (and he) believe. But there’s also this: Nozomi seems to have matured quite a bit since the last time we saw her and her mother. Once again it makes me wonder about the local tanukis’ status as Kami of family happiness, and whether or not Poko is fulfilling the same role for Nozomi as he is for Souta (and his sister, and the Nakajima family) – being exactly who he needs to be to help her grow and become closer with the rest of her family.
Also of note at the garden is the presence of the priest Fujiyama Sosuke and the udon girl, Sae – and these two are officially confirmed as siblings at last. Like everyone else in Takamatsu, they’re a quirky pair – Sosuke reveals himself to be an amateur DJ (he handles the duties for the Gaogao show) in addition to being quite obsessed with tanuki (how much does he know, I wonder?). As for Sae, udon – the Tawara family udon specifically – seems to be her obsession, but judging by the fact that she knows every step in the Gaogao-chan theme song dance, she’s also a Gagao otaku.
That’s most of this episode – idyll and oddity, the twin pillars of Kagawa life as depicted in Udon no Kuni. But there’s a heavier note too, as there always is with this series. With his episode of drawing on the walls, Poko causes Souta to question a side of his parenting repertoire that’s somewhat lacking – discipline – but also to remember that he, too, drew in crayon on the walls as a little boy. The memory of his father silently (and futilely) scrubbing the walls to try and get Souta’s drawing off as little Souta looks on is one of those bittersweet moments where Udon no Kuni sneaks up and sucker punches you. It’s such a true moment, and so universal – and it’s a reminder again of what’s been lost, no matter what Poko’s arrival in his life has allowed Souta to gain.
ED2: 「ガオガオちゃん体操」 (Gaogao-chan Taisou) by (Gao Gao Seidan)