「有馬地獄」 (Arima Jigoku)
Seems like the wrong tanuki got sent to Hell there…
There’s an odd element to Uchouten Kazoku, one that’s only occasionally acknowledged openly but most of the time lurks as the elephant in the room, a kind of unsettling and puzzling presence. I’ve noted in the past that the tanuki in this series are often very human, and the Kyoto they inhabit now so different than the one we humans do – it works very well as a usage of fantasy to illuminate the nature of reality. But when it comes to this whole hot pot thing, tanuki in Uchouten Kazoku are very alien.
The rather nonchalant attitude tanuki seem to have about this whole Friday Club thing is strange. The impression one gets is that they acknowledge that occasionally being eaten in a hot pot is just an integral part of tanuki existence, like acting deferential towards tengu and generally playing the fool. But the idea that Yasaburou can be friendly with someone who’s part of a social club that feasts on his own kind is hard to accept in human terms – that his own beloved father was a victim makes it that much more inconceivable. He’s in love with Benten of course, in his adolescent way – but even so, it’s only the most stark example of a larger phenomenon that represents one of this series’ most opaque plot threads.
The Friday Club is still very much a factor in Uchouten Kazoku, though they’ve been only rarely mentioned this season. They’ve decided, apparently, to revenge themselves against Yadogawa-sensei for rebelling against them and starting the Thursday Club. They’ve gotten him kicked out of the university (Tenmaya seems to be behind that) on a trumped-up sexual harassment charge, though the curious old professor is undaunted and unfazed by that (he’s gone off to live in the woods and hunt wild boar with one of his students. He does leave behind a message for Yasaburou – the Friday Club is meeting in Arima Onsen (a famous onsen village above Kobe – I was there once).
Yasaburou’s constant companion in Arima (once he’s out of the baths anyway) is Kaisei, disguising herself as a variety of postage receptacles and a sugar bowl. Kaisei is increasingly unable to hide her irritation at what she sees as Yasaburou’s infatuation with Benten. Her whole family (and I do mean all of them) are in Arima, and that includes the reprehensible Sooun, making his first appearance of the season. Not content with having gotten his brother eaten in a hot pot, he’s now apparently schemed his way into the Friday Club and is willing to eat tanuku hot pot himself – yet more evidence of this strange attitude tanuki have towards the phenomenon.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the episode comes when Sooun traps Yasaburou in a painting of Hell. It’s surreal and creepy, but rather funny at the same time. This is “industrial revolution” Hell, seemingly a place oni in deeper and even more unpleasant levels aspire to be promoted to. Tenmaya’s ramen stand is here (though unmanned now) and so is the arena where none other than Benten herself wrestles oni so she can gather their horns (presumably powerful magical items) as penance for losing to her in sumo. And it’s lucky for Yasaburou, too, as it’s only Benten’s presence which allows him to escape the painting.
In a series where good and evil are nuanced constructs, Benten is one of the most vexing elements of all. I suppose one could argue she transcends good and evil (in a way classic femme fatale often do) but for me, she’s almost always bad news. Yes, she finds Yasaburou amusing and as long as she does, can be an ally of sorts to him. But the more he associates with her, the more he risks being cast into a Hell of a different sort sooner or later. Sooun is the clearest villain in this cast, certainly – and he may very well be this season’s big bad just as he was in the first. But it’s Benten who represents Uchouten Kazoku’s most dangerous face, alluring though it may be.