The greatest pleasure of this job is to sit down with a title you know absolutely nothing about, and to come away from it however many hours later feeling dazzled. The Eccentric Family left me with the renewed feeling that not only is anime not dead (fie on all those claiming otherwise! fie, I say!), but alive, well, and brimming with both still-untapped possibilities and a new sense of how to tap into Japan's rich past for inspiration. Very rarely do I use a phrase like this reminds me of why I got into anime in the first place, if only out of a need to steer clear of what sounds like sheer tired cliché — but there you are: The Eccentric Family is just such a reminder, and it's an absolute and utter gas of one.
It's also a reminder of how the best anime — the best of anything, really — stubbornly refuses any one label. Apart from being a supernatural adventure akin to Studio Ghibli's Pom Poko, both because of the mythology drawn on, and some of the implications of its setting, it's also a family drama (as the name implies), a knockabout farce, a sort-of love story (a few of them, actually), and an answer to the question, who winds up wearing the pants in a family where most everyone would rather go naked, as it were?
The raccoons of Kyoto
Pom Poko employed the mythology of the tanuki, the trickster raccoon spirits of Japanese lore, as the basis for a story about how such creatures are forced to change their way of life after human civilization encroaches on their world. Eccentric Family plays like a spiritual sequel to that story: it's what happens after not only the tanuki, but a passel of other supernatural types, including the karasu-tengu ("crow goblins," loosely speaking) — have blended into human society but kept their ancient ways going.
The family of the title, the Shimogamos, were once presided over by the lordly Soichiro, who sported the title of "Trick Magister." Tanuki are known for their pranks, and Soichiro's jumbo-grade jokes — e.g., how about imitating a whole mountain? -- earned him a top rank in tanuki society. With his death, though, two power struggles were set in motion, one to figure out who succeeds Soichiro's title, and another to determine who leads his family. Ideally, they would be the same person, one of Soichiro's sons.
Too bad the rest of Soichiro's family lists somewhat towards the dysfunctional. Among his four sons, the one closest to being competent and functional is Yasaburo, the third son — and he's still more interested in pulling small-scale pranks of his own (e.g., cross-dressing via shapeshifting) than assuming any kind of leadership in the family. Not that his family really expects him to lead; that expectation falls to the eldest son, Yaichiro, who spends more time gnashing his teeth and fretting about how he's not living up to his father's example than than actually doing anything about those issues. The youngest son, Yashiro, is old enough to hold down a job at the "Denki Bran" factory (a kind of tanuki energy tonic) thanks to his electricity-manipulating gimmick, but not old enough to resist being bullied by the twin sons of Ebisugawa, the owner and a potential rival for the Trick Magister throne. And Yajiro, the second oldest son, fell into a deep depression after his father's death, retired from worldly life, and spends his days in the form of a frog at the bottom of a well. (The metaphorical implications of that are hard to miss, but the show doesn't bank on such things to be interesting.)
Most of Soichiro's days consist of pulling one odd prank after another, hanging out with his equally freewheeling mother at the local billiards parlor, or killing time with the garrulous old master of the tengu, Akadama-sensei. The latter has done his own withdrawing from life as well, but despite his gruffness and standoffishness remains close to the Shimogamos. That relationship is further complicated by the presence of "Benten", the human woman who has learned a few tengu tricks of her own, and whose seductive ways are made all the more dangerous by her presence in the "Friday Club", a kaffeeklatsch of humans who celebrate their relationship with the supernatural by capturing the occasional tanuki and tossing him in a hot-pot for supper.
The uncertainty of their future; the weight of their past
Put down on paper like that, the skein of relationships in this show might seem impenetrable, but it plays out with far more grace and fluidity than any synopsis would let on. What plot there is doesn't get mapped out all at once; instead, we're allowed to spend time with the characters as they carom off each other, and allowed to wonder where they're headed. Among the best early episodes — and one of the most visually inventive — involves one of a slew of tanuki artifacts, a kind of teahouse-cum-airship that's powered by alcohol and gets into an impromptu airborne battle with the Ebisugawas.
At least half of the story for Eccentric Family is set in the past, and so we are provided with at least one flashback per episode to fill in the details: how Akadama and Soichiro came to be good friends when one rescued the other from persecution; how Benten became part of the Friday Club and (literally) earned her wings; and how Soichiro ended up in the Friday Club's hot-pot. This last one is the source of Yajiro's misery. One night after a round of drinking, he transformed into a streetcar (that's one of the less bizarre things the tanuki transmute themselves into in this show), took his dad for a ride, and apparently ended up letting him fall into the hands of the Friday Club.
But the truth is more complicated, and Yajiro's culpability is not based on the truth but on what he wants to believe about himself. As the deadline for the Trick Magister election looms, it falls more and more to Soichiro to pull together the disparate threads of his family — and then save them outright, when the elder and younger Ebisugawas conspire to hijack the election, capture the whole Shimogamo clan, and let the Friday Club — Benten included — chow down on them.
All in the family
If there is a difference between a show that's merely good and a show that's great, it doesn't lie in any one thing, but in the way all of it hangs together. A whole passel of good things went into The Eccentric Family — a cast as broad and seething as one found in any Altman or Fellini film; gorgeous and picturesque (if occasionally also travelogue-esque) production design; a witty script; an inventive and colorful storyline; et any number of individual ceteras. I can think of any number of other shows that have any one of these things, or all of them, but at the same time don't close and cinch their case.
What works here, I think, is how Eccentric Family encourages us to feel as if we are co-habiting with all this material, not outside looking in. One of the notes I scribbled during the first episode was: "No walkthrough, just walking in." Meaning that we're not formally introduced to the cast; they just sort of amble into the frame and make themselves known, and we're allowed to figure out the relationships on our own. This approach actually works better than, say, the Guy Ritchie "title cards over freeze frames" approach to introducing a gallery of characters (see: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), because it allows us to feel like we've lived side-by-side with them instead of merely watched them do their thing. Too many shows rely on handwringing emotional overkill to build empathy, when all that does is provoke annoyance: if we're shown the cutest of kids dying, that makes us wonder more about the motives of the creators than the plight of the character in question.
Because Soichiro and the rest of the cast (save maybe for Yajiro) are active, not passive, we get sucked right in, and our emotional ticket for their ride is punched early enough on that the show can get away with any number of things that would go off the rails elsewhere. The tanuki's powers, for instance: in theory, they should be so wide-ranging and all-inclusive that they would disrupt the workings of most any plot. Soichiro and the others demonstrate from the start that what they can do is second to what they choose to do; the things they pull off are an embodiment of personal style. Their rivals are the same way, and so when Soichiro is once again riding the Yajiro Express in the climactic episodes only to find himself in an endless-loop shopping mall, it's not arbitrary. Or, at the very least, it comes off as a lot less arbitrary than it ought to. (Pick it to death later all you like, but don't lie: when it was unfolding, you were nailed to the seat cushions, weren't you?)
Of all the characters in the cast, it's Benten that becomes the most incrementally fascinating — she didn't just cross over to the world of tanuki and tengu, but broke on through to the other side. Soichiro respects and fears her in about equal measure, and is unnnerved by the way this sultry character shows such overweening interest in him and his brethren. It turns out to be less because of her appetites than because of her hungers, as it were: what she really wants is a place to feel welcome, and she's only with the Friday Club as long as they provide such a feeling. Her loyalty to them turns out to be one of convenience, but it falls to Soichiro and the others to determine if she can be more than just the enemy of their enemies.
This is tricky characterization, the sort I find exceedingly rare in anime, let alone fiction generally, where we are invited to learn more about someone not because we are expected to sympathize, but because we are simply curious. One of the other Friday Club members, a somewhat pathetic professorial type, becomes interesting simply because of the poetic strength of his fascination with eating tanuki (although the way this becomes employed for plot convenience in the climax is a little too neat), and out of that he becomes rounded instead of flat. Likewise, if Benten were a "mere" villain, the story would have no trouble simply neutralizing her to get her out of the way. But she's not, and that's always more interesting.
Work hard, play harder
Most any show that makes use of Japan's past gets a bonus point from me on that alone, although it's a point too easily squandered if nothing is actually done with it. With The Eccentric Family, the ways the tanuki and tengu populaces try to keep their own traditions alive in the middle of encroaching (and largely indifferent) modernity makes for a nice analog to how Japan itself is attempting to do the same. The pearl divers and geisha are fast becoming endangered species, victims of both dwindling demand and shortening memory. It isn't hard to imagine how the tanuki and tengu could themselves fall victim to such things, as Pom Poko speculated, but Eccentric Family's view is more positive: these tanuki couldn't abandon their traditions even if they wanted to.
With tradition comes the idea of responsibility, of course, and it seems paradoxical to talk of responsibility when the subjects in question — the tanuki — pride themselves on being anything but. That said, something from real life helped snap that into place for me. Not long ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about the way modern adulthood is such a mutation of what it used to be, and that many peoples' expectations of what adulthood can or should be are out of line with the reality. If I pay my bills on time, get promoted at my job, hit the voting booth, and don't park my car on the neighbor's lawn, why should anyone care if my hobbies include TV cartoons and comic books? And yet somehow the mere doing of those things undoes, in the eyes of some, every other aspect of "adulthood". One doesn't have to lose one's sense of play to become an adult. In fact, a sense of play may be what sets apart the adults from the mere man-children. The tanuki may be pranksters at heart, but they take the whole way that is embodied in their lives quite seriously; they know how to not only live, but live it up, The main difference between Soichiro and his family, and the Ebisugawas, is that the former know how to also take a joke as well as dole one out.
Only after finishing the show did I glance at the credits and realize how much top-tier talent was involved. Key among them was author Tomihiko Morimi, the novelist whose work also inspired the equally-dazzling Tatami Galaxy; the source material, his novel of the same name. The director was industry veteran Masayuki Yoshihara, previously a key animator and storyboard man for standout titles like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden of the East. With this show — one of the first with him formally in the driver's seat — he's distinguished himself as someone with an eye not only for good material but great supporting talent. The character designer was Kōji Kumeta (of Sayonara, Zetsubō-sensei infamy), and screenwriting duties were split between Shōtarō Suga (Stand Alone Complex, again) and Ryō Higaki (Moribito).
The other week, when I gave the thumbs-up to Space Dandy, it struck me that the talent involved there participated in a far flashier, more upfront fashion. Eccentric Family edges out Dandy, if only because it doesn't fall back on any gimmicks to be worthy of attention. No cross-referenced in-jokery, no sly post-modern ribbing, just a great story told with joy, finesse, humor, great visual artistry, and a cast of characters worth sticking around for. If a show is great because it gets such basic things so right, maybe that's only because the basics are so hard to get right in the first place. This one makes it look like — well, like play.