Pundits argue that the medium of anime is teeming in trope. Yet that allegation could be leveled at the creative efforts of any culture; entertainment acts as a transmitter of social norms and practices. Certainly, the Western world has its share of schlocky, family-driven sitcoms and an obsession with insipidly virtuous superheroes. For those wearied by Hollywood’s homogenous output, the Japanese animation industry sporadically provides a perspective that offers a much-needed respite from the perennial crop of television shows and films.
A disenchantment with the familiar also drives the actions of The Eccentric Family’s (released in Japan as Uchōten Kazoku) Benten. Initially depicted as both alluring and anarchic, the character is driven to fits of enchanting fancy- whether sinuously soaring above the branches of a sakura, or clinging to the fluke of a whale. Benten’s capriciousness nature also involves the consumption of the occasional atypical meal. As a member of the Friday Fellows gentleman’s club, that desire in satisfied through a year-end ingestion of tanuki stew. Yet, this exotic craving means that Eccentric Family’s shape-shifting, raccoon-dog protagonist, Yasaburo Shimogamo, is poised to meet the same fate as his late father.
Pleasingly, Benten and Yasaburo’s connection is far more complex that the typical adversarial set-up between lead and villain. Linked through a mutual master, Akadama-sensei, the two also share the trait of impulsiveness, even if the attribute is demonstrated in dissimilar ways. For the teen-aged boy, this quality is justified by an old adage from coined by his father, who rationalizes any impetuous actions as a consequence of the family’s “blood of a fool”.
Adapting the dialectic tensions of Tomihiko Morimi’s 2007 novel, P.A. Works exhibits an astonishing interpretation of the source material. At once, the femme fatale is overcome with the literal and metaphorical desire to consume Yasaburo, while ruminating on the potential absence of her counterpart. As such, every time the two characters share a moment of screen time, the actions are charged with both an exhilarating sense of attraction and antagonism.
Masterfully, that’s only one of the dramatic tensions which drive The Eccentric Family; each of the series’ thirteen episodes are filled with many more. There’s a prejudicial hierarchy and even inter-species conflict within Family’s ecosystem, as tengu, tanuki and humans uneasily coexist. Mirroring anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’s meditation on the range of reactions to loss, each of Yasaburo’s brothers deal with the death of the family patriarch differently. Yaichiro, the family’s eldest feels the burden to supersede the elder, but persistently snaps under pressure. Yajiro, the second oldest is so overcome with guilt that he spends his days in the form of a frog, listening to the lamentations of others, while living at the bottom of a well. Even the mother of the Shimogamo clan tries to compensate for the lack of the father by occasionally shapeshifting into the form of a regal prince.
While much of Eccentric Family is rooted in either contention or contemplation, the anime sporadically shirks a ‘slice of life’ classification. Beyond the tanuki’s supernatural ability to shape-shift, a number of other elements endow the anime with Ghibli-esque charm. One episode takes place above an obon, as the Shimogamo’s watch from a soaring tea-room fueled with port wine. Spectacle erupts when their floating vessels engages in a pyrotechnic firefight with a rival clan. A walk through the labyrinthine back halls of fan seller’s store reveals a lakeside panorama complete with a half-submerged, clock tower- just another of the anime’s inspired images.
While the series’ 307-minute journey is dependably idyllic, deftly fusing comedy, drama, poignancy, and folklore into a bewitching blend, elements of the conclusion may dishearten viewers. A decision to shirk conventional villainy underscores the series, and is brilliantly demonstrated when Yasaburo bonds with one of the members of the Friday Fellows. But an eleventh-hour move toward creating a Shakespearean finale in undermined by a lack of repercussion. Perhaps Eccentric Family is stating that individuals grow but context and tradition encourages stagnancy, which forms a compelling message, yet doesn’t cultivate a sense of closure in the viewer. But considering how many tensions exist in the anime’s realm, tying up the majority of oppositions is commendable.
Although Eccentric Family’s character design is commendable, with its leads rendered in an aesthetic both angular and minimal, it’s the anime’s setting that truly elevates the narrative. The backdrop of modern Kyoto is painstakingly realized- with hillsides undoubtedly rendered from reams of source material. While hyperrealistic beauty is generated by the streaming waterways and a moon large enough fill screen with luminescent splendor, credit should be given to P.A. Works range. Peer inside the ailing, acrimonious Akadama-sensei’s arcade-adjacent apartment, and you find collections of discarded bottles and the resulting stain of spattered alcohol. Just as meticulous is the studio’s commitment to sound design, with trivial elements like the clink of the marble in a Ramune bottle or the twist of billiard cue against a chalk square are recreated in devoted detail.
Even otaku well-versed in Japanese culture, folklore and mythology, might not appreciate all of Eccentric Family’s references. Thankfully, the Premium Edition includes a 64-page hardcover handbook with explains a majority of the nuances. Inside, readers will also find the customary episode guide, conceptual and concluding character art, as well as interviews with the series’ director, Masayuki Yoshihara. Most interesting are the stills which depict the anime’s recreation of Kyoto, which offer a static showcase of stunning backdrops.
The Premium Edition also reveals NIS America’s movement away from the oversized series housings, offering a sturdy cardboard case that closer in dimension to a standard DVD/Blu-ray case. Inside, owners will find that the publisher has eschewed the slimline disk container for thicker, more substantial boxes while retaining the sumptuous art that adorns the outside and inside of each case. The one minor disappointment is that extras are slim, with original television spots, trailers, and clean opening and endings to placate fans.
Devoid of protracted battle scenes, rapid character turns, and indulging amount of fan service, The Eccentric Family succeeds by employing the strengths, rather than the formulae, of the medium. Even with contemporary developments in CG, 2D-cell based animation offers a perfect palette for Morimi’s type of magical realism. Taut dialog and thoughtful contemplation might be favored over action, but these elements all contribute to The Eccentric Family’s exhilarating journey. This is a series not to be missed by animation aficionados.