It feels like this episode of Udon no Kuni was a significant one for a number of reasons. It confronted an issue that’s been the elephant in the room ever since Poko and Souta officially became a family, and it in large measure confirmed that there are invisible hands at work directing the events we’re seeing (and I’m not talking about the animators). When it comes to using fantasy to unlock the mysteries of the human heart, manga and anime are long-standing experts.
There have been a couple of times that Udon no Kuni has reminded me of Tsuritama (high praise indeed) – there’s a certain cheekiness, a strong positivism intercut with pathos, a general jaunty innocence to the whole affair (and more than once I’ve thought that Kuricorder Quintet would have made a wholly appropriate soundtrack for Udon no Kuni, though Hashimoto Yukari’s is great). But never more so than with the series visiting Shodoshima, another quirky island setting (both it and Enoshima even have one of those lookout points where lovers are supposed to ring a bell). Following that train of thought, Poko would be this series’ Haru.
Stay with me on this, because I admit it’s kind of a double-leap, but you may remember how I cast Haru as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince (a theory which has kinda become a thing now, apparently). If you buy that allusion, that makes Poko sort of Udon no Kuni’s own Little Prince character. And if you break that down, I think it holds up – he plays a very similar catalyst role to The Prince (and Haru). This boy is not explicitly an alien like those boys, but he is alien – in this case seemingly a magical creature of Shinto legend. His role is to help the main character remember how to love, and to remember himself. He’s there to remind Souta (and by extension, us) of what’s important.
What does that say about the eventual ending of Udon no Kuni? Well, it’s worth bearing in mind that the manga is ongoing and apparently not ending anytime soon. But whenever this story does end, it seems very likely that Poko, job done, will (like Haru and The Prince) return home – leaving Souta (like the Narrator and Yuki) heartsick but healed. I mention all this now because this episode finds Souta in by far his most overtly reflective mood of the series. He admits that taking care of Poko has made him happy, and openly asks the question – “How long will Poko and I be able to stay together?”
Then there’s the matter of the guiding hand, something we’ve seen evidence of in earlier episodes but which seems inescapable in this one. Several currents are gathering at Shodoshima: in addition to Souta and Poko, Hiroshi is headed there as well (by bike!), and so is Rinko. Souta and Poko have a lovely time on the Shodoshima ferry – though Poko is traumatized by a power failure in the middle of a “Gaogao-chan” episode – and proceed to Team Planet, where the office is initially empty. But soon Saeki Yukie (Shimamura Yuu) shows up. She says the boss has stepped out – which leaves some time for Poko and Souta to explore the Angel Road, a causeway connecting Shodoshima to three smaller islands, which disappears at high tide.
Long story short, Souta falls asleep and Poko goes exploring, where he ends up on a little boat decorated “Gaogao” style. The owner (in a Gaogao mask) shows up and takes the boat out to sea, which leaves Souta in a panic when he wakes up. Turns out that owner is Saeki Manabu (Toriumi Kosuuke) – who happens to be Yukie’s husband, and the owner of Team Planet. And Hiroshi has shown up too, where his chance meeting with a beautiful woman at the Shodoshima pier turns out to be with Rinko. Can all – or any – of this be coincidence? I don’t think so – not when the catalyst for the story is a tanuki who’s probably one of the local Gods of Family Happiness. There’s a plan at work here, and it’s Souta that’s at the center of it.
If a story like Udon no Kuni or Tsuritama is going to work, the suspension of disbelief isn’t so much in the fantasy elements, but the idea that humans are by their nature essentially good. The purity of Souta’s love for Poko is the heart of this story, and it’s certainly on display when he thinks Poko might be hurt or drowned. Romances are fine but I confess I’m a sucker for stories about familial love and friendship, and that’s what Udon no Kuni is all about – the belief that it’s life’s simplest imperatives that are its most profound. With a show like this one you have to check your cynicism at the door, and I recognize that’s not for everybody. But for me, it’s nice to be reminded of the virtues of the love between a parent and child, siblings and best friends. And when Souta takes Poko’s hands at the end of the episode, it’s a moment that rings emotionally true in a way in which Udon no Kuni is rarely equaled.