[Synopsis]: Unbeknownst to the human citizens of Kyoto, they are not the sole residents of the city. Living alongside them are shape-shifting tanuki and otherworldly tengu. One such tanuki, Shimogamo Yasaburou (Sakurai, Takahiro), enjoys a bustling life of shape-shifting into human form and observing the many interactions and lifestyles of the city’s residents. With the recent passing of their father, Yasaburou and the Shimogamo family go about their lives in the city however the life of a tanuki is not so carefree as his way of life might suggest. An enigmatic woman capable of Tengu magic named Benten (Noto, Mamiko) is never far from the action of the city and a renowned group called the Friday Fellows celebrates annually with a tanuki hot pot.
Though the show often presents good imagery and establishes a strong thematic atmosphere within which the story unfolds, the characters of Uchouten Kazoku are arguably its strongest element. Given the outlandish premise of transforming tanuki scampering about the city of Kyoto and the show’s generally whimsical tone it comes as some surprise that the characters are strangely authentic and multidimensional. The Shimogamo family is the best example of this as Uchouten Kazoku concerns them most primarily and their characters are quite well written.
An interesting thing to note about the Shimogamo brothers is that Yasaburou, the second youngest of the four and the protagonist of the show doesn’t even feature the most interesting or compelling characterization from among them. He is carefree and much like Benten, he has some hedonistic tenancies which fit wonderfully with the bright tone of the show. His brothers however, though they do have considerably less screen time, are in a sense more intricate and provide more character depth. Yaichirou, the oldest of them, is reserved – mindful of legacy and of familial pride. His desire to become the next Nise-emon, the leader of the tanuki community, is better reasoned than it simply appealing to his maturity and composure as the eldest. His desperate longing to be like his larger-than-life father, the previous Nise-emon. is a wonderfully humanizing character trait that complicates his ambition and role in the show beyond what an archetype might provide.
Similarly complex is the second oldest brother, who at one point transformed into a frog and has been unable to revert back since. Though initially a dismissible character, he grows more interesting as the show progresses and ultimately serves as one of it’s more dramatic characters. The brother’s don’t always get along and their varying approaches to life couldn’t be more different however their chemistry allows them to be both entertaining and distinctly enjoyable.
The mystifying Benten also presents quite interesting characterization as her capriciousness and role in the events of Uchouten Kazoku keeps the viewer on their toes all throughout. Not everyone is as entertaining or engaging as the Shimogamo family or Benten and some characters can be downright annoying however the cast is good regardless and definitely one of the show’s most worthwhile attributes.
Perhaps the thing that caught me most off guard in the first episode was not Uchouten Kazoku’s ridiculous premise but rather the way in which it visually approached its scenes through atypical shots and angles. I wouldn’t cite the show as an exemplary case of good directing because the shots themselves don’t seem to possess much in the way of additional meaning and mainly serve to deliver the show through a less typical delivery. It was however most definitely refreshing and got me more interested in the show than i would have been without their presence.
Though the events of each episode and the interaction of the characters do a great deal in establishing the lighthearted fanciful tone of the show, the visuals certainly add to this as well. The palette of the show is often vibrant and bright outside of its gloomier scenes and the character designs are much the same. If nothing else, Uchouten Kazoku presents some fantastic imagery that lends immensely to its whimsical nature – from flying, alcohol-fueled tea houses to electric cable cars barreling down city streets at night.
Despite Uchouten Kazoku’s unusual premise and vibrant aesthetic, its subject matter is actually a bit more contemplative and solemn than the show might initially suggest. It muses at the prospects of legacy, about different paths and life and the implications of enjoying oneself, and of course, about being made into stew. The first episode really drops the viewer into the world of the story, with standing family feuds, upcoming festivals, and priorly developed character relationships. A handful of events take place before the show and are continuously reminisced about early on which gives the sensation of being dropped into a very genuine setting.
For the first several episodes Uchouten Kazoku is less interested in developing a coherent plot and more interested in establishing and playing out character chemistry and low fantasy world-building. It is not until the show begins discussing the death of Yasaburou’s father at the hands of the Friday Fellows and the upcoming Nise-emon election between his brother Yaichirou and the head of the Ebisugawa family that the show’s drama and plot moves to the forefront of the presentation.
Though the show offers a myriad of bizarre character exchanges and romanticizes some strange very things there is also an odd tanuki mentality present in the story that creates some logical friction. Often when discussing the Friday Fellows, the group of humans living in Kyoto who annually prepare tanuki stew much to the dismay of the show’s main characters, there is an air of acceptance about their fate. Several characters express that this is simply a dangerous part of life as a tanuki in much the same way that a human would say death is inevitable. The rub occurs in that, if the viewer is unable to make the jump with some of the characters and see the hot pot as something more matter of fact and mundane rather than murder, then its hard to relate or even understand some of the conclusions they draw. The show makes it hard to make this leap as its hard to appreciate a single group of people who annually eat a single tanuki as an integral part of tanuki life in the city of Kyoto. Had the show provided more examples of people eating tanuki it would be more understandable however as it was presented there is a bit of mental footwork necessary to relate to some of the characters in this regard.
With that said, the drama surrounding the Friday Fellows is fairly legitimized and the constant developments concerning them and Yasaburou’s father keeps things interesting. The manner in which the show unfolds once arriving at its plot makes the viewer occasionally reassess their opinions of some of the characters as more information comes to light, forming an evolving relationship with some of the cast’s more enigmatic characters such as Benten. The conclusion of the show is perhaps its weakest element. While Uchouten Kazoku itself was brim with themes of love, family, and the simplicity of enjoying life not enough of them seem to reach the finish line and several characters and plot elements are either left unfinished or are wrapped up rather hurriedly. The tone of the ending matches the atmosphere of the show perfectly well and it is quite good in that regard however its rushed nature and hanging implications mar it somewhat.
The music was pretty good overall and featured one particularly memorable tracks. Uchouten Kazoku’s soundtrack is as fun and energetic as its visuals and matches the personality of the show and its characters in much the same way that every other show element does.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Instead of being epic or melodramatic, Uchouten Kazoku opts to be fantastical and charming. In its early episodes it is subtle in its appeal and its initial approach will win over some people more than others. It does eventually manifest its drama after a turn however it never truly loses the lighthearted, often thoughtful ambiance it forms early on despite some brooding developments and rather bleak scenes. Its conclusion felt incomplete despite wrapping up the overarching drama at hand and a number of characters were left feeling either unfinished or even purposeless.
I gave Uchouten Kazoku a 6 because it presented a charming world full of interesting and authentic-feeling characters all interwoven into a very whimsical and fantastic story. Its themes were engaging and a handful of the characters I felt exhibited exceptional characterization. Some of the attitudes and mentalities forwarded by the show were a bit crude or lacked the proper context and the show’s conclusion left a great deal to be desired in some respects.
I would recommend Uchouten Kazoku to anyone looking for something lighthearted and occasionally contemplative. I found its atmosphere and even some of its visual style reminiscent of Kyousou Giga however Uchouten Kazoku is ultimately far more coherent and its main cast of characters more relatable. Anyone looking for something kind of fun and absurd I think would do well to pick up the show.