Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 5th 2013
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Kyoto, a city where for millennia humans have co-existed with shape-shifting tanuki and flying tengu. Yasaburo Shimogamo is a carefree tanuki in the city. His father Soichiro was a great tanuki leader, but Yasaburo just wants to have interesting experiences. Which means he spends a great deal of time trying on different guises, as well as hanging out with his tengu teacher Prof. Akadama and testing fate by flirting with Akadama's terrifying human student Benten. Benten is the most powerful magician in Kyoto, and belongs to a secret society, the Friday Fellows, that once a year boils up a tanuki and eats it. Years ago she and her society-mates ate Yasaburo's father, and basically everyone thinks that someday she'll be picking Yasaburo out of her teeth. Throw in a nasty tanuki election—in which elder Shimogamo brother Yaichiro is running—and a long-simmering family feud between the Shimogamos and their cousins the Ebisugawas, and Yasaburo's life is interesting indeed. If only he can live to enjoy it.
It's not easy being the follow-up to something brilliant. There are the unreasonable expectations, the inevitable gripes, the unflattering comparisons. If you try something different, you risk pissing off fans. If you try to replicate previous success, then you're an "inferior copy." The previous success in this case is The Tatami Galaxy. Not everyone would agree that it was brilliant—it was basically tailor-made to alienate huge swaths of its audience—but to those of us susceptible to it, it was a wild and weird masterpiece. Eccentric Family is Galaxy's follow-up in that it is the next series to be adapted from one of Galaxy author Tomihiko Morimi's novels. It takes the "be something different" route. Unlike the challenging, madly avant-garde Galaxy (which could be described as a hilarious sci-fi parable, but was mostly just indescribable) Eccentric Family is a straightforward comedic romp. Chaotic and shot through with emotion, sure, and crowned with outlandish fabulist conceits and an unexpectedly intense finale, but elemental in its intent: to deliver great, guilt-free entertainment.
It carves out its own unique space, and in the end it's a pretty excellent space to be. If you were to map it onto the entertainment landscape, it would be located in a deeply odd comedy suburb, somewhere between Pom Poko and Durarara!!. The secret control it exerts over its comedic chaos recalls the structured farces of old-school Hollywood. The bleak viciousness bubbling invisibly beneath its silly surface wouldn't be out of place in the blackly comic corners of crime fiction. There's a taste of the Looney Tunes in the psychedelic hijinks of the battling tanuki, and a touch of cannibalistic horror in the appetites of Benten and the Friday Fellows. Even if it shares nothing else with its Morimi-penned predecessor, it certainly shares its refusal to be pigeonholed.
The show is at its most undirected in its first half, which betrays only hints of a building plot and can seem more than a bit random. There are lyrical interludes, mostly involving Benten, comic tussles with Yasaburo's dim-but-rotten cousins Ginkaku and Kinkaku, and uncountable unaccountably weird snapshots of Yasaburo's family. His mother is introduced as a preening visual-kei prince (that's just how she unwinds), his uptight eldest brother runs about in a creepily unconvincing magical rickshaw, and their middle brother has been transformed into a confessional frog (don't ask). They don't call it an eccentric family for nothing. The only normal one is tender youngest brother Yashiro. It's all very messy, with a pinballing tone that could easily feel uneven or unfocused were it not for the conviction with which the show pursues its various moods. Yasaburo's scenes with frighteningly capricious Benten hum with suppressed menace; his pranks and inter-tanuki spats are free-wheeling and fun; his relationship with crotchety Akadama leaks sneaky droplets of melancholy; and his rapport with his family is realistically prickly but decidedly warm.
Eventually the show starts pulling things together, first for a festival fireworks duel (fantastic fun), and finally for a frighteningly propulsive run of wacky tanuki schemes and deadly-serious political skullduggery. As it does, the show's seeming disarray arranges itself into something still appealingly loose and odd, but with a drive and dark undertone that makes for unstoppable viewing. It draws together the long-ago stewing of Yasaburo's father, Benten's checkered past, Soichiro's relationship with his estranged brother, Yajiro's reasons for entering amphibious priesthood, their mother's relationship with a foodie professor, the tanuki election, and the Friday Fellows' upcoming tanuki hunt, and braids them into a single plot that drags out a lot of powerful feelings before setting off on a deliriously strange final run and culminating in a beautifully ironic and exceedingly satisfying climax.
Director Masayuki Yoshihara handles all of that with an appropriately messy aplomb. He seems sloppy, especially as concerns character art (Kôji Kumeta and Kousuke Kawazura's designs are untidy and simplistic, and are animated without much of an eye for consistency), but as always, the proof is in the pudding: when something needs to work, it works—and impressively well. Benten's lyrical interludes are positively gorgeous, from the dance amidst swirling petals in which Yasaburo first meets her, to her and Yasaburo's dreamlike trip across moonlit Kyoto, which ends in a rooftop tree garden ablaze with autumn maples. When Yajiro confesses the reason for his froggy condition, intricate rivulets of water combine with his heartbreakingly simple words to express infinite sadness. The aerial fireworks spectacular is all joyous showboating, and the flying-train chase (!) at the end is a surreal kick. Yoshihara knows when to let his imagination run amuck, when to unleash P.A. Works' animation for bursts of comedic fluidity (there's a recurring bit with a supernaturally touchy magic fan that is pure slapstick genius) and when to shush the ruckus and let a soft feeling or shard of desperate helplessness work its way in. He can orchestrate an episode for maximum thrills, or for comic mayhem. He is, in sort, the right guy for the job.
It's a little less clear if composer Yoshiaki Fujisawa is the right guy. He isn't the wrong guy. The show's score never makes a bad impression. But it doesn't make a huge positive impression either. It doesn't muck the works up, and sometimes oils the show's workings, but afterwards you'd be hard pressed to remember any of it. Aside from the enjoyably silly opening, that is.
It is hard to pack all of the good things about Eccentric Family into a single review. We've come all this way without a single mention of Yasaburo's undeservedly awesome ex-fiancée (who is always saving him but who he never once sees). We have yet to mention the show's well-rounded internal mythology or the way Morimi leaves it to us to piece together Family's world, relations, and personalities. Or how unutterably lovely it is to watch a show that actually ends at the end. It's smart, mature storytelling—unafraid to wax philosophical or to admit that sometimes relationships don't make sense—but with a puckish sense of fun that keeps it winningly silly and sunny. It isn't perfect, naturally. It has just as many stumbles and unresolved plot threads as you'd expect from a show that forced me to feed the word "messy" through the thesaurus (most of the plot threads involve Benten, who remains a scary cipher to the end). But hell, that's all just part of its charm. If it was perfect, it wouldn't be eccentric.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Wacky, weird, and exceedingly fun; strong cast and mature storytelling keep things intelligent and emotionally relevant; gloriously self-contained.
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