In Kyoto, humans, tanuki, and tengu live side-by-side. The Shimogamo family lives in Shimogamo Jinja’s Tadasu no Mori. The father, Soichiro, used to be the head of tanuki society, but without warning one day he was made into tanuki stew, and no one knows how it happened. He left four sons behind. They all live happily with their mother. After taking care of Professor Akadama, the Shimogamo family suddenly finds itself in a desperate fix. Will the truth behind how their father got stewed be revealed?! What does fate have in store for this strongly bonded family?!
I've never quite figured out Japanese mythology. Coming from a Celtic and Christian heritage, things like Yokai, Tanuki and Tengu don't really have the same kind of deep meaning for me. That's not to say I can't see the cultural similarities to my country's legend and Japan's. Here in Ireland, for the most part, we tend to hold some measure of truth in old legends. So, I like to think that going into The Eccentric Family, a thirteen episode series from P.A. Works, that I came away not knowing everything about the cultural paradigm that is Asian cultural mythology but knowing more that when I went in.
The series centres around the fortunes of the Shimogamo family in modern day Kyoto. The Shimogamo consist of Yasaburo, Yajiro, Yaichiro and Yashiro and their mother. Their father died a few years before the series began but they carry on as best they can without him. Yaichiro wants to take the title of Nise-emon (community leader) that his father had before his death. Along with that, Yasaburo must deal with the mechanizations of his uncle, Soun Ebisugawa, who is more upwardly mobile in high society than the rest of the family. All while tending to the local Tengu (birdmen gods) master, Professor Akadama. Oh, and the whole Shimogamo family are all Tanuki, a kind of racoon dog, that can shapeshift into anything really. So pretty run of the mill.
I'm just kidding. This series is a great breath of air from the 2013 summer season of anime with colourful characters and a great setting. I like it when anime goes places in Japan that I don't know anything about. Tokyo is a magnet for Godzilla, demons and all kind of crazy things. Whereas Kyoto is a blank slate as far I'm concerned. While I'm sure that Kyoto is a much bigger place than is depicted in the show, it stays in the district where the Shimogamo live.This means the pace of the show nevers moves faster than the characters themselves.Yasaburo is a nice lead character. He has a mischievous side and this comes out the most when he interacts with the human world in his day to day travels. I never get the sense he's envious of being a human even though he spends most of his time as a human. If anything, the entire angle of the shapeshifter dilemma gets more into focus. How to tread through the three different worlds; the humans, the Tengu and the Tanuki? He tries his best but the death of his father keeps bringing him into conflict with at least one of these worlds. His brothers have their own troubles and it's a credit to the show that I never get the sense that the whole of an episode is Yasaburo trying to fix his siblings problems. In fact, for the most part Yasaburo spends his time tending to the Professor who is a cantankerous old fart. Despite having idiot blood that he claims his father passed down to him, he really is the smartest of the bunch. But the presence of Benten is throwing a spanner into his attempts to walk a tight line.
The character of Benten, a young lady that Prof.Akadama kidnapped and then trained to be a Tengu, is the counterpoint to Yasaburo's place in Tanuki society. Now, I need to stress that Benten is an ordinary human with superhuman talents. She's not a Tanuki or a Tengu or any other supernatural creature. After breaking away from Akadama, she practically has the whole of Tanuki and Tengu society wrapped around her little finger. She effortlessly glides between these worlds. Where she and the Shimogamo family cross paths is that Benten and her cohort of human members of Kyoto high society ate Souichirou Shimogamo, the father of the group, while he was in his tanuki form. The manner and circumstances of the events leading up to him being eaten is where most of the mystery and excitement of the series comes from. Everyone's got bits and pieces of the story but nobody knows why he calmly sat back and let them eat him. Benten, in her defense, is sorry that she had to eat him but at the same time enjoyed it.
Now, this is where her character forks away from the standard personality type that frequent these storylines. Benten is infatuated with Yasaburo insofar as she likes him but seems to be struggling not to eat him. If he gets caught and ends up in the Friday Fellows (her cohort of humans) hot pot, she won't say no. But if that happens, a person she cares deeply for won't be here anymore. See, there's this weird psycho-sexual thing going on between these two. She's clearly into having him around and he is attracted to her. They like each other but the fact that she's all powerful in society and he's having to be all things to all people keeps them at arms length from each other. Benten carries an air of raw sexuality with her and everyone knows it. I don't mean she's having sex with lots of people, I mean she knows that her sense of sensuality and sexuality makes her stand out. For her part in Souichirou's death, a lot of Tanuki society (including his family) can't stand her. As for Yasaburo, he doesn't hold a grudge against her eating his father but there are times when he clearly knows he's having lunch with a tiger. Benten throughout the series seems to be struggling with the fact that she has it all but hasn't got what she needs. I feel genuinely sad for her at times in the series.
The series has its villains and heroes, but the stand out concept at play here is that the Shimogamo brothers don't realise just how good they are at inheriting their father's mantle. As the eldest, Yaichiro feels like he has to live up to his father's place in Kyoto life while Yajiro carries such a shame about something he did that he transformed into a frog and lives at the bottom of a well listening to people's wishes and problems when they pass by. He also talks with the supernatural members of Kyoto's population when they pass by. While the youngest, Yashiro, is still in training he is learning from his brother Yasaburo. All the brothers seem to be on the cusp of being better than what they think is good, they're just not able to see it. Their mother (who is not given a name) loves them all and tries to instill a sense of justice and peace with them now that her husband is gone. Often to comical effect she is seen around town as a Takarazuka revue Prince (theatre actor dressed as a man but is almost always played by a woman) and these moments the boys have learned to take in their stride.
The show's creators have worked really hard to make you fall in love with the town and its people. From the dreamy shrines where the Tanuki live to the late night bars and taverns open around the town, it IS an idealised version of reality. Still, the voice cast and the music make the illusion complete with great performances and it was great to hear Kikuko Inoue as the mother of the family completely playing against her typical roles of motherly types or girlfriends (somebody by the name of Belldandy comes to mind).
The series moves a gentle pace but picks up as the show comes to a close. Since it is based on one single volume of a light novel, the chances of a getting more are pretty slim but it is nice to see a show like this come along and just be good at its job. Crunchyroll have all thirteen episodes up for streaming but I really want someone like NISAmerica or Sentai to pick this up. It's a perfect fit for them and it would be an asset to an anime fan's collection.
UPDATE: According to ANN, NISAmerica have announced they will be releasing the series in retail form and have already added streaming options to Hulu, the US-only streaming site