Uchouten Kazoku 2 – 03

The Gist: Benten returns and crushes Tenmaya, who is both obsessed with and terrified of her. Yasaburou and his mother Tousen visit Tousen’s mother, an ancient white fluffy tanuki, and ask for help turning frog-brother back to normal. The grandmother is blind, kind, and cryptic, but offers some medicine.

Later, Yasaburou and his little brother visit Nadaime’s new location, which is a lovely roof top mansion, and share some afternoon tea. Benten shows up and completely fails to dominate Nadaime. Major magical conflict can not be far off now…

As is often the case, Uchouten Kazoku wandered us through several lovely, dialogue-heavy scenes that straddle the line between inconsequential and deeply magical. However, because Uchouten Kazoku treats its magical settings and characters as everyday occurrences, exposition is kept to a minimum.

What is grandmother’s place in tanuki culture? What are the other tanuki doing around grandmother? Is it a ceremony simply because she is old or is she part of the shrine or something else? Leaving us with a heavily detailed but unknowable scene renders it dreamlike. Captivating.

The rise and fall of Benten is more or less the defining arc this week. As with Nadaime, she abruptly falls from the sky full of power and crushes Tenmaya. While we learn no details about their rivalry, and Benten is almost as interested in Yasaburou’s moon (stolen by Tenmaya) as she is in Tenmaya himself.

Here Benten is full of power and flaunts it. Yasaburou has no course but to ask very nicely for his moon back and Tenmaya has no choice but to shed his fake skin and flee. Benten casually rolls the moon around her fingers and, when she tires of it, simply throws it back into the sky before demanding even more courtesy from Yasaburou and wandering off to visit her master.

That domination comes to a quick end when Benten arrives at Nadaime’s new house and arrogantly lays down on the couch Nadaime had planned to use for his afternoon nap. Always polite, Nadaime asks her to leave and when she will not, he spreads a sheet on the floor and dumps her out. Paying her no mind, he thanks everyone for their visit and gets ready to nap.

The contrast between Nadaime and Benten is rather interesting. Both are powerful and throw their weight around but it is hard to figure out which is ‘good’ or not. Despite her malice and abuse, Benten seems to care for Yasaburou. (At least she cares enough to want his attention) Where as Nadaime, despite being generally polite in dialog, is obviously dismissive of Tenuki in general. He’s tolerant of them, but does not especially desire to have them around.

The Verdict: Despite the masterful craft poured into Uchouten Kazoku, it is not always an exciting nor engaging show to watch. Again, as last week, episode three was full of action, characters and conflict, but it lacked a sense of purpose. Nadaime’s shirt ironing, Yasaburou’s grandmother, and Benten playing with the moon were all interesting curiosities but, not counting Nadaime and Benten’s cliffhanger showdown, nothing consequential actually happened.

Uchouten Kazoku 2 – 02

The Gist: Akadama and Nidaime’s top-dog Tengu fight ends before it even begins, with Akadama falling off the building and Nidaime not seeing his father being worth the effort to fight. For whatever reason, Akadama takes this as a victory, which Yasaburou thinks is patently absurd.

Though perhaps that’s Nidaime’s point in not calling himself a Tengu? The very definition of Tengu may project an arrogance that he finds unnecessary and unproductive.

Meanwhile, a noodle shop opens on the roof of the shopping arcade and the owner wont take it down. Apparently, he can extend his chin as a whip, amongst various other illusions and even Yasaburou’s foolishness is not enough to win the day. Actually, Yasaburou ends up a hypnotized bear, and is nearly shot by the police…

This conflict leads to a few passing confrontations between Yasaburou and his formerly betrothed, who’s angsty at him for a variety of things but, most obviously, that they are no longer engaged. Even though Yasaburou is the only one who doesn’t realize there’s no reason for them not to be engaged anymore…

It also leads to the introduction of a painter who doesn’t want to sell his paintings and reveals the name and identity of the noodle shop owner. Tenmaya, who appears magical but is also consistently referred to as just human, apparently climbed out of a painting of hell because the painter illustrated a Buddha holding a spider’s thread out to the damned… it’s unclear who the painting belongs to or what the significance of all of this is. (Tenmaya doesn’t seem to want anything from life except amusement)

What is clear is that Yasaburou probably shouldn’t have tried to scare Tenmaya by turning into a demon, which is where the episode ends. A shotgun pointed right in our poor foolish hero’s face…

The official theme this week is that we are in the age in which Man plays tricks on Tenuki. However, for me, the story was more about the world not being able to move forward. (or not being aware of its lack of forward development)

Akadama is not only stuck in the tradition of Tengu, but also stuck on his conflict with his son. Despite his rejection of Tengu, Nadaime hasn’t moved ahead himself, which is evident from his characterization of Akadama being pathetic because he interacts with Tenuki, and Nadaime’s somewhat vaguely contradictory like/disrespect of Yasaburou throughout their encounters.

Yasaburou is stuck in last season’s position of servitude to the community, pranking around without purpose, and with not advancing his relationships with family and his love interest. He doesn’t exactly have a strong narrative reason to have changed, but he hasn’t changed regardless.

The Verdict: Uchouten Kazoku takes a casual approach to narrative. It just sorta wanders all over the place, touching on many different story threads, but without any sense of specific purpose. This very much fits the nature of Tenuki, and the experience is enjoyable enough due to the odd and specifically weird situations, but it does risk becoming so whimsical as to lose my attention.

It’s already somewhat hard to follow, due to the gigantic cast, many of which can shape-change and many others who simply don’t get enough story time for me to remember who they are or what their objectives may be.

For now, the magic has me under it’s spell. However, like Akadama, I too miss Benten and the sense of specific adversarial focus she brings. Hopefully, we’ll see her sooner than later…

Uchouten Kazoku 2 – 01 (First Impressions)

The Gist: the stage is set some time after the events that closed the first season, with the cast serving mostly familiar roles. The Shimogamo brothers are an eclectic, often disrespected, but equally relied upon members of the Tenuki community.

Yasaburou continues to take care of the elderly Akadama-sensei, who appears a bit depressed now that Benten is on an extended vacation. Yasaburou’s older brother is still vying for the position of leadership amongst the Tanuki, the youngest brother is immersed in books and his own world, and the second brother is still a frog at the bottom of the well. Fools’ blood all around but fools’ blood where we would expect it.

One day, while Yasaburou is searching for a mythical snake, a couch falls from the sky. Eventually, this leads him to meet Akadama-sensei’s son, who’s returned after over a hundred years in exile. While their exchanges are guarded, the two wayward sons seem to bond over clever and polite banter. However, it’s obvious that Akadama’s son will be a source of major conflict.

Sure enough, by the end of the evening, Father and son stand on a roof ready to duel…

At it’s core, this opening episode is a leisurely exploration of nostalgia and the challenges of tradition (or, perhaps, generally grappling with the past).

Yasaburou’s snake-hunt is something his father own father played at long ago. It’s even how his father and mother met, which Yasaburou attributes as the singular reason he and his four brothers exist.

Meanwhile, Yasaburou’s older brother is attempting to revive the town’s shoji tournament, which has not been run since their father was cooked in a hot pot. Not only does this repeat the shadow of the father motif, but it reinforces the older brother’s need to retain the family place as an upstanding leader in the community. It’s strongly implied this will let him tanuki-bang the wide eye’d girl at the clinic too.

Double meanwhile, Akadama and his son have an unavoidable need to battle, due to their traditional pride as tengu. However, neither seems up for that tradition (Akadama physically and his son emotionally). It’s comical to see the modern tengu, a classless lot, dressed like dime store mobsters, egg them on from afar. As Akadama’s son says when he first meets them: if you’re tengu, at least put some pride in it.

You should probably watch Uchouten Kazoku’s second season because the first was a lovely, whimsical tale of weirdness. While the narrative buildup and payoff, and the tension along the way lacked the emotional impact of other weird-genre shows (Tamako Market, Tatami Galaxy, Mr.Despair), Uchouten Kazoku absolutely rules the roost for world-building. Only Durarara!! comes close.

You may choose to skip Uchouten Kazoku because it’s destined to be a slow build with an all-too-uneventful finish. While the high concepts appeal to me, and pose a creative challenge to tease out and express via review, I must admit that academic focus creates a barrier between the story and emotionally resonant action and conventional drama.

The Verdict: Uchouten Kazoku is solidly enjoyable to look at and confidently cool. Despite being a slow burn, it presents a lot to absorb; at times, too quickly for me to read without pausing.

But that’s hardly a complaint, as re-watching and rewinding lets me revel in its wonderful camera angles, solid color work, imaginative facial expressions, character designs and gestures. The music choices haven’t stuck with me but that also means I have no complaints about them either.

Uchouten Kazoku – 13 (Fin)

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Yaichiro informs the elders of Soun’s treachery, but he stubbornly feigns innocence. Enraged, Yaichiro transforms him into a tiger and throws Soun through the wall, into the room where the Friday Fellows relocated. They have mother in a cage, which even enraged Soun, and when Hotei gets a good look at her, refuses to let her get boiled. Akadama interrupts the chaos and blows everyone away with his fan, and continues to chase Hotei through the streets as the Shimogamo brothers chase him. Benten takes over, coaxing him into a cab. The brothers talk to their mom, who is safe and sound at Akegarasu. The next day the family celebrates New Years at the shrine.

This episode takes some time to get going, as we must endure more of Soun’s lies, but Yaichiro finally does what we’ve wanted him to do for a while now: go into Tiger Mode and flatten him. In a city where humans, tanuki and tengu live in a delicate balance, they all end up converging at the same restaurant to celebrate New Year’s Eve. While the Friday Fellow’s sacred tradition is deferred and the election for Nise-emon in tatters, the Shimogamo family is made whole again. That’s all that mattered to Yasaburou, his mom, and us. Yajirou speaks to his mother again, Hotei meets the tanuki he nursed back to health, and even Benten returns to her master. New year, indeed.

Yasaburou has spoken at length about the idiot blood of tanukis. Perhaps part of that idiocy is trying to create the same hierarchies and possess the same lofty ambitions as humans. In the end, Souichiro rose as high as a tanuki could rise, but it didn’t save him. Yasaburou doesn’t want to be Nise-emon. He just wants to live a full and interesting life, and to have fun with his family, which is now whole again. Of course, now all the tanukis and fellows who were present that very weird night will remember Yaichiro turning into a tiger and taking Soun down – some of the small “glory” Yasaburou allowed for in his New Year’s wish. And interestingly, he didn’t wish to see Kaisei’s face: that’s her choice.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

 

Uchouten Kazoku – 08

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After confessing his role in their father’s death to Yaichirou and Yasaburou, Yajirou recounts the last night he spent with father on a secret consultation. Yajirou was in love with Kaisei, and wanted to leave the family, but Soichirou told him to endure, saying he had split his blood into four sons, and it was imperative they stick together no matter what. He felt the best way to seal their connection was to depart.

After Yaichirou went home, Yasaburou picks Akadama up from the bath, and Akadama tells him he was the last one to see Soichirou, who had no regrets about “retiring early” and made the tengu promise to look after Yasaburou. Back home, Yasaburou and Yaichirou learn that mother knew why Yajirou holed up in a well, and doesn’t want them to be hard on him for it.

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Shimogamo Soichirou’s four sons each inherited a specific characteristic: Yaichirou got his responsibility, Yajirou his easygoing personality, Yashirou got his innocence, and Yasaburou his idiocy. Even as he leaves his mortal coil, he leaves knowing as long as his brothers stay together, he will still remain whole in the world through them, and they can achieve the same great things he did as a result. Soichirou wasn’t so fortunate with his own brother.

Ever since Yajirou changed into a frog, the brothers have been out of balance. With the easygoing bit gone tension and resentment took over. With all the truth now revealed, and the realization Yajirou didn’t kill father; but their father met his tanuki end willingly and without regret, they are back on the road to reunion and balance Soichirou strove for. He didn’t care if his family declined in political power; as long as they continue to be a loving family, he’ll rest in peace.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • This was a lovely episode full of emotional, even heartrending moments, but we felt the score overplayed its hand, descending too often into melodrama. There were several instances where little if any music would have been just as affecting, yet there it was, blaring over the dialogue, making sure we knew how to feel.
  • Yajirou turning into an electric train and taking his dad on a ride was just a gorgeous sequence, as was Akadama’s final meeting with Soichirou.
  • While he had no say in his betrohal to Kaisei, Yasaburou seems aware of the fact that if Yajirou blames himself for what happened to their father, Yasaburou can just as easily blame himself for being the cause of Yajirou’s strife in the first place. Both would be equally unfair to blame themselves.
  • Next week: Keisei episode! Will we finally see her in the flesh? Akadama says she’s very attractive, and we trust the old man’s taste.

Uchouten Kazoku – 07

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Yaichirou, Yasaburou, and Yashirou drag Akadama to the bathhouse to clean himself up. The Ebisugawa Elite Guard barges in and Yaichirou is confronted by Kinkaku and Ginkaku, who want him to drop out of the race for Nise-emon. If he doesn’t, they’ll use their ace-in-the-hole to seal Ebisugawa’s victory: information that Soichirou got extremely drunk with Yajirou the night before he was boiled in a hot pot. Yaichiruo disperses the twins and rushes to confront Yajirou in his well, who admits that he got wasted with dad and left him behind, and ultimately to his doom.

All the strife and uncertainty swirling around the wounded Shimogamo family can all be traced back to the sudden boiling of their patriarch in a hot pot, and the mystery of how such a great tanuki ended up meeting such an ignoble fate. This week that mystery is revealed to Yaichirou and Yasaburou, and the truth they get stings all the more because it comes first from their feuding relatives, not Yajirou. Instead of ever telling them what happened after he stumbled home and passed out, Yajirou became a frog and never changed back, shedding his tanuki existence and all the baggage that comes with it.

Last week Yasaburou learned more about how his father faced his demise from the guy who ate him, but his father would have never even ended up in that cage had he not gotten drunk with Yajirou. It could be argued Soichirou died before Yaichirou was fully prepared to succeed him. Now Yaichirou’s election as Nise-emon on his own merits is threatened by the scandal the Ebisugawas will use as ammunition. Knowing how dearly his mistake cost him and his family, no one can blame Yajirou for preferring to live in the bottom of a well. Not for his sake – even as a frog he can’t escape his guilt – but for everyone else’s, taking himself out of the game lest he make another costly mistake.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Uchouten Kazoku – 06

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Yasaburou and Hotei follow Benten along the rooftops of Kyoto, stopping at a rooftop garden, where Hotei tells the story of how he met Benten, and fell in love with her on the spot. After she leaves, Hotei tells Yasaburou of the tanuki he met that same night: Nise-emon Shimogamo Soichiro, who spoke with him for a long time. After finally finding a way down to the street (thanks to Kaisei being a ladder) Hotei and Yasaburou part ways, Yasaburou changes to a frog to visit his brother, and Benten appears at the top of the well to cry.

This week the series made the choice not to end the Friday Fellows night to move on to the next day and another story, like the upcoming Nise-emon election, for instance. Instead, we delve deeper into the full-mooned night as Benten, Hotei, and Yasaburou continue to talk about things. Benten (or should we say Batman) never looks comfortable being followed or talked to in this way, and eventually peaces out. Then Yasaburou spends more time with Hotei, the man who saved his mother but ate his father, and the more time he spends with him, the more he likes him, even though he feels like he shouldn’t.

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There’s a good deal of philosophical discussion on this long night of drinking, eating, and talking. Hotei (AKA Prof. Yodogawa Chotaro) has most of the episode to simply talk about things he wouldn’t be able to talk with just anyone about: talking tanukis, loving to eat them (and anything else, for that matter), loving Benten, wanting tanukis to eat him when his time is up, and lamenting, like Yasaburou’s father, that he might not taste good. He doesn’t want to shrivel in a hospital and then be turned to ash. He wants to nourish that which he loved; to contribute to the life-stream as food for his food.

This episode also further reinforces Benten’s sheer, universal inscrutability. Neither tengu nor tanuki, she can’t quite just be called a human, either. Plucked from the riverbank by Akadama and trained in the way of the tengu, Suzuki Satomi threw her master to the curb as soon as she’d learned all she could, and for that Yasaburou may never fully forgive her. But for all her past misdeeds or her cold demeanor and refusal to let anyone in, she must still visit Yajirou’s well to empty her eyes of tears she’d bottled up all night, a bottling which could be a manifestation of her idiot blood.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • This episode was gorgeous even by Uchouten Kazoku standards. From the moonlit rooftops, to the bold autumn colors of the awesome rooftop garden, to Benten disappearing into a spotlight, back to the moonlight at the bottom of Yaijirou’s well. Lighting and shot composition were both magnificent.
  • We love every thing Hotei says in this episode, and you really can’t help but soften your opinion of him as an antagonist.
  • Ditto Soichirou, whom we see in that pivotal flashback, saying he’s fulfilled his duty as a Tanuki and feels nothing but gratitude for all the extra days he’s been blessed with, and trusts his family will be fine without him.
  • Kaisei has a neat cameo as a useful if out-of-place ladder, lending more credence to our theory we’ll never see her in human form.
  • We’re now about halfway through the series, and with the Nise-emon election looming, we suspect we’ll learn if Soichirou was right about his family surviving just fine without him.

Uchouten Kazoku – 04

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The night of the Gozan Fire Festival arrives, and the Shimgamo family ascends into the sky with the port wine-fueled tearoom. Akadama gradually accompanies them, and they’re joined by his friend; the two recount the “False Nyoigatake Incident” and how Soichirou scattered the Kurama tengu.The Ebisugawas arrive in a grand flying boat (with Benten aboard) and harass the tearoom with fireworks. Yasaburou and his mom return fire, ignoring Yaichirou’s pleas for calm. The Ebisugawas grab the tearoom with an anchor, but Yasaburou ruins their ship and blows them all overboard with one of Benten’s folding fans. Akadama drinks the last of the wine, the tearoom crashes, and Yasaburou loses the fan.

There’s nothing like a great party, and the Kyoto tanukis certainly know how to hold one. Being suspended high in the air aboard grand ships and eating and drinking way too much is definitely a way to do it, but another tradition, their annual antagonism of the Shimogamos via sky battle, goes too far and strikes a nerve. Yasaburou in particular, disgusted by his older brother’s sniveling propriety, decides to take up the mantle of protector of the family’s pride and honor, if only for the night. He and his mother know that sometimes bullies need to be given a bloody nose. Benten, meanwhile, literally floats above the fray, drink in hand and aloof smirk on her face.

Interestingly, someone we don’t see is Yasaburou’s betrothed, Keisei, whom you’d think would be on the family boat he ultimately sunk. The party environment would have been a good chance for them to interact, but things got too adversarial too fast. We also enjoy how the party was also a venue for Akadama to stop pining for Benten for five minutes and reminisce on better times. The flashbacks continue to portray Soichirou as every bit the awesome badass everyone builds him up to be, making it that much more shocking that Benten made him into soup. Benten helps Yasaburou this week, but is she merely sizing up her next meal?

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • It goes without saying, but the launch sequence of the tea room, and all the subsequent scenes of the floating “pleasure cruisers” made for an incredibly beautiful sight.
  • We liked how the upstart Kurama tengu dressed in suits like Yakuza; one more insult to the heritage Nyoigatake Yakushibo stood for.
  • Yajirou was also absent, which was kind of sad.
  • If the tearoom isn’t rebuilt (it looked pretty far gone), the Shimgamos will have to find another cruiser next year. But more urgently, they’ll have to explain to Benten why her tearoom was destroyed (and her fan lost).

 

Uchoten Kazoku – 03

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With the Gozan Fire Festival coming up, Yaichiro asks Yasaburou to procure a leisure cruiser. Knowing Akadama has an flying “inner parlor”, he and Yashirou pay him a visit, but tells them he’s given it to Benten. They travel to a sunken clock tower where she is relaxing. Though the Ebisugawa twins already tried to bribe her into staying out of the tanuki feud, she decides to lend it to Yasaburou anyway, then summon a storm and grab a whale’s tail.

When the Shimgamo tanukis pilot a leisure cruiser in the sky during the Gozan Fire Festival, they’re not necessarily doing it to honor the memory of their ancestors, they’re doing it because they want to throw a huge party, and “that’s what tanukis do.” Yasaburou calls this an effect of what he calls their “idiot blood,” something they can’t control and must obey because it’s a part of what they are. To do so, though, they need a cruiser to replace the one they lost, and the mission to find one occupies Yasaburou and his brother this week. We love focused episodes like this that take one major mission and enrich by having Yasaburou encounter other characters along the way as he draws closer to his quarry.

It all unfolds very naturally, from his brother’s initial near-begging (their mother referees), to Akadama and his visiting tengu friend (both of whom seem a bit morose over their recent impotence), to a winding, surreal journey to Benten’s awesome marine “lair” (setting her up as an antagonist capable of benevolence), to the stunning storm she summons and the whale she pulls a whale’s tail, just because she wants to. The stunning flight of the floating, port-powered “inner parlour” is the cherry atop a marvelous episode that shows that preparing for a traditional event is an adventure in and of itself.

9_superior
Rating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • We like how the mom stops Yasaburou from making Yaichirou beg. The brothers need to limit their antagonism against each other; they have enough external antagonists.
  • We learn that Ebisugawa Kaisei was/is betrothed to Yasaburou, but he’s had very little exposure to her. Still, their pairing is what his father wanted.
  • The flashback of Soichiro transforming into a mountain was pretty sweet, reminding us of Mononoke Hime.
  • Yasaburou’s and Yashirou’s multi-stage “odyssey” to Bentens’ sweet relaxation spot reminded us quite a bit of Spirited Away.
  • We like Benten’s ‘informalware’, and learn she’s no stranger to skinny-dipping.

Uchouten Kazoku – 01

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In Kyoto, humans inhabit the city, tanuki crawl on the earth, and tengu fly through the sky. Shimogamo Yasaburou is a Tanuki who can transform to many human forms, including a high school girl. In this form, he visits his mentor and teacher, Professor Akadama, a tengu, who also taught a girl, Suzuki Satomi AKA Benten, how to fly. Yasaburou delivers a love letter from Akadama to Benten while she’s having a friday out on the town. Yasaburou and Benten have a drink and discuss the professor, whom Benten meets up with later in the night, then checks on him while he’s sleeping.

And now for something completely different…from P.A. Works, that is. Not that we should be surprised; from the by-the-numbers action of Canaan to the otherworldly Angel Beats! to lovely romance-tinged slice-of-life of Hanasaku Iroha to the somewhat disappointing Tari Tari to the stunningly tense, moody, bloody Another, the studio is every bit the chameleon our protagonist Shimogamo Yasaburou is. Without any explanation other than “he can,” he spends the whole episode, save a flashback, as a young high school girl. If nothing else, it’s quite strange seeing him in this form as he smokes hangs out in underground bars and gets drunk.

The point of the human get-up is that he’s trying to live his tanuki life to the fullest, and for him, that means simply living an interesting life. His older brother clearly doesn’t approve, as the Shimogamo family carries a long and venerable history and big things are always expected of its members, but Yasaburou’s more zen-like lifestyle. The Kyoto he inhabits is lush, gorgeous, and richly detailed. We’ve come to expect superb beginnings from many P.A. Works. We’re looking forward to watching more of Yasaburou, Akadama and Benten as they navigate the blurred spaces between tanuki, tengu and human.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Stray Observations:

  • Yasaburou’s older bro may not like what he’s up to, but his younger brother seems more okay with it.
  • The episode’s title is “The Goddess of Noryoyuka”, likely referring to Benten (the goddess) and Kyoto’s string of connected restaurant decks (the noryo yuka) where she entertains men on Friday evenings.
  • Benten is a hard nut to crack right out of the gate; the flashback shows a friendly, excited, possibly naive girl; the present Benten seems more world-weary. But to be able to fly from building to building? Pretty damn sweet.
  • While having a drink (in an awesome bar, by the way) a “demon king cedar incident” is brought up, one that cost the professor his ability to fly. Both seem guilty about it.

Car Cameos: