The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
We Rent Tsukumogami
How would you rate episode 1 of
We Rent Tsukumogami ?
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How was the first episode?
Based on its strange not-youkai creature designs and niche historical premise, I didn't really know what to expect from We Rent Tsukumogami. Fortunately, this first episode was confident, clearly told, and dramatically satisfying, establishing a compelling template for future episodes while also succeeding as its own self-contained vignette. You don't need any knowledge of or fondness for tsukumogamis to enjoy this premiere: this was just a reasonable little mystery told well.
We Rent Tsukumogami first introduces us to Okou and Seiji, two siblings who run a lending shop in old Edo. However, unlike other lending shops, many of the items at their store are actually infused with personalities - they are tsukumogami, curious so beloved by past owners they eventually gained their own spirits. Of course, that twist alone doesn't really make for a narrative; in truth, if this episode is anything to go by, We Rent Tsukumogami will proceed as a series of tsukumogami-related mysteries, as the two owners and their stable collection of opinionated tsukumogami discuss and solve cases related to lost treasures and unhappy spirits.
This first episode centers on a lost netsuke, a sort of sash-clip with great significance for an upcoming wedding. As the netsuke's owner explains, the object apparently turned into a mouse and ran away, leaving him understandably flummoxed. Both the siblings and their own tsukumogami are intrigued by this puzzle, and the rest of the episode proceeds as a series of probing investigations, with the siblings often lending out their objects purely so those objects can spy on their temporary owners and contribute to the overall case.
Through this lending process, Tsukumogami's supernatural hook ends up naturally facilitating its mystery narrative, leading to a fun mix of puzzle-solving subterfuge and debate between the principle characters. The fact that the tsukumogami refuse to directly communicate with their human owners ends up actually further highlighting their individuality, as well as the charming bonds between the five main objects. In all narrative respects, this is a very neatly composed mystery whose solution ends up reflecting directly on the personal conflicts of both the siblings and their local tsukumogami.
On the negative side, Tsukumogami's production values are all pretty middling - there's very little animation to speak of, and the background art lacks much detail in general. The show tries to lean on a certain kind of angular minimalism to give its shots a holistic aesthetic, but it's making the best of a bad situation - Tsukumogami is not a great looking show.
On the whole, though, the strong storytelling and compelling setup here mean Tsukumogami gets an easy recommendation from me. This is turning out to be a surprisingly mystery-rich season, and if you like your mysteries with a dash of the supernatural or a historical flavor, Tsukumogami is well worth a watch.
We Rent Tsukumogami popped up seemingly out of nowhere at the very tail end of the season's premieres, and it offers one of the most unique and charming premieres of the entire summer. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Megumi Hatakenaka, We Rent Tsukumogami is both a fantastical period drama and a surprisingly entertaining mystery story that's been wrapped up in truly lovely production work from Telecom Animation Film.
What I enjoyed the most about this premiere is how well all of its pieces fit together into such a cohesive whole. Oku and Seiji make for grounded and affable leads as the heads of a local lending shop that's smack dab in the middle of a bustling Edo-era city. The siblings are in a unique position chiefly due to their inventory consisting of a gang of tsukumogami, well-worn trinkets and curios that have grown into sentient spirits over the course of their existence. The tsukumogami ignore their human hosts on principle, but their constant gossiping chatter can still be heard by Oku and Seiji, so the two have to come up with creative ways to get the tsukumogami to overhear their “private” conversations and be willing to help them solve local mysteries. This opening tale involves a missing decorative button that's shaped like a rat, the search for which ends up unearthing some complicated family drama between two samurai families who are about to marry their children off to each other.
We Rent Tsukumogami takes great care to nail its tone, a particular mix of cute tsukumogami antics and subdued human drama that results in a relaxing but engaging story; I never expected to be so interested in the marital affairs of a middle-class samurai and his wealthier yet insecure betrothed, but the story does right by focusing on the emotional lives of both its lead humans and the tsukumogami themselves. Oku and Seiji aren't related by blood, and they clearly harbor some latent romantic affection for each other, so the way Seiji navigates the frustrations of his samurai client is an apt mirror for his own feelings about Oku, which gives us some good introductory ground to stand on for both of our leads. Likewise, we get to see how one particular tsukumogami, a bat charm named Notetsu, feels neglected and abandoned by humans, and he gets his own little arc when he sees how Oku and Seiji appreciate the help they receive from their little enchanted friends.
It's heartwarming stuff all around, bolstered by some pretty color work and animation that helps sell the whole package. I was also impressed with Go Sato's soundtrack, which blends such disparate sounds as Japanese folk music and anachronistic funk-rock, and the end result serves the story much better than you might think. We Rent Tsukumogami is far from this week's biggest release, given that Attack on Titan is making its return on the same day, but I would definitely recommend that any curious viewers take the time to check this premiere out.
We Rent Tsukumogami has a bit in common with Holmes of Kyoto, at least in terms of how it tells stories. Both shows use physical objects as points of entry into characters' lives; a simple request involving a valuable item opens a window into the circumstances of that item's owner. The difference here is that instead of having an antiques expert do the sleuthing, We Rent Tsukumogami lets its various curios and accessories speak for themselves. As sentient spirits residing within physical objects, the tsukumogami are able to observe and comment on the humans around them.
That's a clever setup, since it allows the show's talking trinkets to act as the classic “fly on the wall,” watching and listening to the human characters' moments of unguarded honesty. Unfortunately, the secrets they uncover in this episode aren't as compelling as one might hope. The humans we've met thus far don't do enough to forge an emotional connection with the audience: main characters Seiji and Okou spend more time talking about the case than they do talking about themselves, so we don't really get to know much about them or how they ended up running their haunted rental shop. The episodic storyline of an arranged marriage also comes up short on drama, since so much of the critical information is relayed secondhand instead of being presented directly to the viewer. There just isn't enough going on for the audience to get invested.
On the upside, the tsukumogami themselves are more intriguing. I like the way their physical forms are reflected in their spiritual character designs, like the comb that scurries around on its teeth as if they were legs. There's also a major question that goes understated in this episode: if tsukumogami are supposed to reside within items that are treasured by their owners, how did these particular spirits end up in a rental shop? Their backstories might be more worthwhile than the “problem of the week” mysteries that they'll be solving.
We Rent Tsukumogami certainly has its charms, and its core premise holds a fair amount of potential. What the series really needs to do going forward is spend less time telling the audience about the characters' experiences and more time actually showing us those events. If it can pull that off, I can see this being an endearing character drama about curious little objects and the people who borrow them.
This is one of the last and least-heralded debuts of the Summer 2018 season, but it is also easily one of the most unexpectedly charming new offerings. If you're looking for something the season which feels familiar and yet is still a bit off of the beaten path then this one should fit the bill quite nicely.
The concept here doesn't seem like anything special at first: a bunch of curios at a shop which is the Edo period equivalent of a Rent-a-Center have been around long enough, and cherished enough, that they have gained the ability to animate. Variations on this idea in animation have been around for pretty much as long as animation has existed, and they are a staple of the medium. What distinguishes this series from others of its ilk is the nature of the relationship that the curious have with the owners of the shop. The owners are fully well aware of the tsukumogami, and the tsukumogami are fully well aware that the owners know about them, and yet some protocol demands that they don't speak directly to each other. Hence both groups communicate by eavesdropping on each other. This makes for a gently amusing dynamic between the two groups as they help each other out.
The characters here are also surprisingly engaging. Seiji and his not-blood-sister Oko make a quite functional and likable husband-and-wife-type team, but the real stars are, of course, the tsukumogami. It's not so much that they're cute, although that definitely is a factor; it's more that they all quickly show distinct, well-defined, and endearing personalities which interact quite smoothly with each other, whether it's the exasperated bat or analytical Tsukuyomi. Collectively they show an inclination to spend their time gossiping and chewing on interesting stories they encounter when being lent out or which are brought into the shop. The story also seems to be headed towards having them regularly participate in helping Seiji and Oko solve low-key mysteries involving the ordinary happenings of Edo-era Japan, such as the matter of the samurai who's unsure about an arranged marriage. This is an approach which could be milked for a long time before it gets old, especially if additional cute tsukumogami get thrown into the mix as guest appearances – and the Next Episode preview indicates that more of such fare is coming.
The other draw here is the surprisingly high level of technical merit. This is actually a remarkably pretty-looking episode, with some beautiful lighting effects, vivid coloring, and the animation quality that is a grade or two above the norm. The lightly-jazzy soundtrack is also an interesting choice, and opener “Get Into My Heart” is a very catchy techno jam number; I have to recommend checking it out even if you don't watch the whole episode. My only complaint is that the mystery moves along and gets resolved a bit too quickly and simply, but the first episode shines so well on everything else that I can overlook that.
Tsukumogami aren't quite yokai, as the characters in this episode are quick to tell someone who thinks otherwise. They're objects that have been loved for at least a century and have developed souls. Siblings Okou and Seiji run a shop that, among other curios, rents out tsukumogami for a variety of slightly undercover purposes. Or at least, that's the impression I get from this episode – the tsukumogami are aware that the siblings know about them, but they seem to do their level best to ignore the two, preferring to indirectly talk around them (and get their information the same way) than to have actual conversations. It seems to indicate an uneasy partnership borne out of the fact that these were originally just objects someone loved – and then gave away.
That's at least Notetsu's take on things, and even if the bat netsuke's the most vocal (or perhaps least mature) of the central tsukumogami group, he still may be speaking for everyone. The only way they could all have ended up at the shop was if the families that owned them gave them up, and there's something really sad about that. That's an underlying theme that is mildly present in the episode's storyline about a “stolen” mouse netsuke that came to life and ran off. While it isn't explicitly stated, there's a possibility that the mouse wasn't a tsukumogami (at least not openly) until it was forcefully removed from its family.
What's also interesting here is that the feelings of the two netsuke are almost given priority over those of the humans involved in the mouse's story – two people betrothed against their inclinations in order to give the bride's family an heir. She's explicitly in love with someone else, and he confesses that he's not too keen on the marriage, so if we take it out of the context of the time period, it looks as if the people don't matter as much as the tsukumogami. In context, however, it's the Edo era, and neither party was likely to have a lot of say in their eventually weddings, especially not in their social class. By returning the mouse to his family, at least the two people have an excuse to talk.
This feels a little like Yokai Rental Shop Lite, which isn't entirely a bad thing – that's what interested me in the series in the first place. That said, I'm leery of the relationship between Seiji and Okou, who don't seem entirely familial in their feelings for each other, and the pacing of this episode and its use of narration didn't entirely work for me. I do really like the art, however, so I'll probably give it another couple of episodes to see where it goes.
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