「夷川海星の秘密」 (Ebisugawa Kaisei no Himitsu)
“Ebisugawa Kaisei’s Secret”
I can hardly even put into words how wonderful that episode was (but I guess I have to try).
One thing about Uchouten Kazoku – as I’ve noted before (as recently as last week, geh heh), when this show is “on”, it’s utterly transcendent. It has a gear that even other shows of comparably high quality rarely have, such that its very best is among the very best. Last week’s episode was an example of that very best, and while it could hardly have been more different, so was this one. We saw this in the first season, too, and it’s something that I think will give The Eccentric Family staying power when the history of anime is written.
There are only a few episodes of anime that leave me stunned just by how great they are, plain and simple. The first season’s Episode 8 and last week were stunners because they were such emotional blockbusters, but this one (and the first season’s Episode 6, that season’s second-greatest effort) didn’t rely on that gut punch of emotion – they soared literally and figuratively through the magic of their storytelling. This is something that can only happen in anime when brilliant writing is paired with devoted and loving production by a talented director and staff, which is surely the case with Uchouten Kazoku.
There are so many words I could use to (inadequately) describe the sublime genius of this episode. It was so elegant, so effortless – like a stream-of-consciousness, a lucid dream (which is not a bad description of Uchouten’s appeal, now that I think of it). This was a narrative flight which brought us visits with pretty much all the characters in the tanuki and tengu cast, and showed them all off at their best and most appealing. In doing so it also showed us the deep and complex ways in which these characters are connected to each other – the “red fur of fate”, if you will. It was wistful, funny and sad in turn – and often all at the same time.
Never to be overlooked is Tousen, so strong and yet so fragile. The feud between the Shimogamo and Ebisugawa has taken a toll on her, and Soun’s death is a breaking point. The initial chain of events in the episode focuses on the feud and Tousen, and we see Yasaburou being mocked by Gyokuran for his obsession with his behind (which once had mushrooms growing out of it, apparently). At a clap of thunder he rushes home, knowing the effect this has on his mother – and reaches her just as she loses her transformation. There’s so much protectiveness in Tousen’s relationships with her boys that goes both ways – it really captures the mother-son bond as few series have done.
Eventually all of Tousen’s boys gather round, even Yajirou – who loses his transformation at the sight of his mother, but is clearly making progress – and Gyokuran too, who’s clearly now thought of as family. She tries to ease Tousen’s embarrassment by admitting the tofu seller’s trumpet has the same impact on her as thunder on Tousen, and Ysaburou needles her for it (remember that moment). It’s here that the surviving Ebisugawa males arrive, led by Kureichirou (Nakamura Yuuichi knows a thing or two about tanuki). Kureichirou has come to make peace, and even Kinkaju and Ginkaju won’t cross their brother on this – they offer to have the fur plucked from their behinds as penance for their father’s sins. Yaichirou accepts their offer of peace, but declines the gesture in magnanimous fashion. And with that, it seems the feud is over – which lends itself to an entirely new set of complications.
It would be hard for me to pick a favorite scene in this episode, each of which deserves an entire post to itself, but the Kiyomizudera sequence may just be the one. Again, there’s just so much subtle character interplay here, set off against the utterly magical backdrop of Kiyomizudera at night. I especially loved Benten and Nidaime’s snippy banter about Kyoto Tower (which is a love-hate divide among Kyotoites – heavily leaning towards “hate”). These two are a fascinating pair, so different and yet so alike, and each tantalizing glimpse of the history between them begs for more. Yasaburou watches them, fascinated and seeming such a child in that moment, and finally Benten pays her respects to old Akadama-sensei in very daughterly fashion and floats off into the night as gaping tourists look on, astonished.
Next is a sweet and cheeky visit to Yashirou’s lab at Denki Bran. It’s been clear that Yashirou has a strong intellectual curiosity, but apparently he’s a full-on mad scientist now – and Kureichirou has helpfully given him an entire laboratory full of mysterious steampunk gadgets in which to satisfy his urge to experiment (thus far unsuccessfully, when it comes to the brandy at least). Even through the feud Yashirou has always been in the hands of the Ebisugawa every day, which is interesting – reflecting, I suppose, a trust in Kaisei and Kureichirou to keep him safe.
Next up would be the other contender for the strongest scene of the episode, a gut-wrenching meeting between Yaichirou and Yasaburou (at the same restaurant where Souichirou was seen dining with Yajirou and later Soun). Yaichirou has brought Yasaburou here to ask him to marry Kaisei – which, as it turns out, is Yajirou’s idea. The latter is planning to leave Kyoto, at least for a time – clearly, to try to come to terms with his feelings of responsibility for his father’s death. The really heartbreaking moment comes when Yasaburou tells Yaichirou that he could never step into the role of their father – that he’s “pompous” for thinking he can. In doing so of course he rubs salt in Yaichirou’s deepest wound, his greatest insecurity. And we see how having a father as beloved as Souichirou is both a blessing and a curse – all of his sons are forever measuring themselves against him and coming up short. Have I mentioned that the ideas and emotions in this series are incredibly subtle and profound?
Finally, we turn to Yasaburou and Kaisei themselves. Yasaburou has gone off to sulk at Tanukidani Jinja (for a week), depressed at Yajirou’s decision to leave and the aftermath of his conversation with Yaichirou. Gyokuran sends Kaisei to fetch him back, and they bicker like spoiled children. So much is revealed here, not least the degree to which Kaisei is hurt by Yasaburou’s infatuation with Benten (I agree with her, it’s odd that he seeks out the company of those who devour tanuki hotpot). Finally Kaisei deigns to reveal herself – in tanuki form, anyway – and we learn the reason why she’s declined to do so for all these years. Yasaburou, who mocked Tousen and Gyokuran as “cowards”, has his own neurosis – when he sees Kaisei it undoes his transformation.
What a fascinating way that is to end an utterly fascinating and beguiling episode, every bit the equal of last week’s in brilliance despite its much gentler tone. One can’t help but speculate on the reason why Kaisei has this impact on Yasaburou. There is of course an obvious explanation that he’s in love with her and it unnerves him, but thinking back on this series, there are very few instances where the obvious explanation for a character’s behavior has turned out to be correct (at least in full) – I sense there’s more to it than that. For now this is just one of many mysteries that make Uchouten Kazoku such an endlessly bewitching series, and I’m happy to see it take its time in unraveling them. Like Kyoto itself the questions this series asks are mysterious and powerful, and demand to be explored at leisure, not in haste.