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 tenuki, 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, dialog heavy scenes that straddle the line between inconsequential and deeply magical. However, because Uchouten Kazoku treats its magical settings and characters as every day occurrences, exposition is kept to a minimum.

What is grandmother’s place in tenuki culture? What are the other tenuki 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 tollerent 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 show down, 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.