Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Sub.Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
The city of Kyoto is a lively place, brimming with interesting people and rich everyday lives. Between the humans wandering the streets, shape-shifting tanuki on the ground, and proud tengu flying through the air, there's enough tension and excitement to make every day a sightseeing adventure, and the carefree tanuki Yasaburo isn't planning on missing any of it. Unfortunately for Yasaburo, his own life might end up complicating his desire for freedom - as the third son of a famous tanuki leader and prize student of a local tengu, there's no way the responsibilities of family and adulthood won't catch up with him eventually. But Yasaburo's taking it one day at a time, and for now, there's a whole lot of wonderful everyday life to enjoy.
In the guidebook accompanying Eccentric Family, series composer Shotaro Suga speaks frankly of the difficulty of condensing an entire book into an anime, and the question of where to even begin telling the story. “There are just way too many interesting characters! And the stories these characters tell are interesting in each and every way, right down to the smallest detail. But as much as we wanted to include all of these details, there's a limit to how much information you can pack into an animated show… For that reason and many others, we had to keep the story brief and concise. So in the end, we were completely at a loss for episode one.”
Suga's words make me feel slightly better about feeling completely at a loss myself. Where do I start with this show? Eccentric Family is a rich tapestry, full of vivid characters and poignant relationships and lovely vignettes and deeply human themes. There's no easy entry point - it all weaves together into one beautiful, slow-building chorus of life's daily challenges and triumphs. So I'll begin where the show does, right in the heart of Kyoto, tailing the shape-shifting tanuki Yasaburo as he goes about his “wonderful daily life.”
Yasaburo is the third of four brothers, the sons of the great tanuki Soichiro Shimogamo. Soichiro was once the Trick Magister, leader of all Kyoto tanukis and a great man besides, but his mysterious death several years ago has left a power vacuum. While Soichiro's first son Yaichiro attempts to walk in his father's footsteps and second son Yajiro hides with his regrets at the bottom of a well, Yasaburo is determined to enjoy every day. Instead of hiding from responsibility, he lightly dances with it as he goes about his adventures, taking in the sights of Kyoto, visiting his old tengu master Akadama-sensei, and occasionally crossing paths with the beautiful, dangerous Benten. Benten is a human, and humans eat tanukis - Yasaburo may be smitten with her, but he's not keen on ending up in a hot pot. And so the days go by.
The story of Yasaburo and his family is sketched naturally across a series of vignettes, each episode sending Yasaburo on a new adventure (rescue his mother from a sudden storm, commandeer a floating tea house for an upcoming festival) that builds character relationships and history through incidental storytelling. Over the course of the show's first half, we learn a great deal about the carefree Yasaburo, all the members of his family, his teacher Akadama, and the mysterious Benten. As the election of the new Trick Magister approaches, all of their individual stories end up winding together in a second half filled with tragic betrayals and enriched with Eccentric Family's varied thoughts on love, family, and the meaning of a life well lived. The overall effect comes across as something like an “adult slice of life,” a drama that engages with young adult life as it is actually experienced, with Yasaburo himself balanced on the edge of the freedom of adulthood and the responsibility it entails.
The strengths of Eccentric Family begin with the characters, all of whom feel like living people, full of contradictions and personal hangups and moments of grace. Yasaburo is an excellent lead for the show, as his love of everyday adventures and desire to avoid responsibility both reflect the show's overall fascination with everyday joys and help inform the larger narrative structure. His oldest brother Yaichiro offers a strong counterpoint to his carefree nature - while Yasaburo honors his father's memory by embodying his love of life, Yaichiro attempts to make his father proud by becoming the next Trick Magister, and the contrast between his self-inflicted expectations and natural personality make for a lot of stress to take out on his younger brothers. Not all the characters are quite as strong (in particular, the Ebisugawa twins, cousins of the Shimogamo brothers, are both fairly one-dimensional and somewhat out of step writing-wise with the rest of the show), but in general the show does a wonderful job of creating shades of subtlety even in its minor players. Almost all of the show's characters are nuanced and believable, set apart by very individual temperaments while still reflective of their specific circumstances. Though the death of Soichiro hangs over all of the cast, the way each character attempts to reckon with that loss does not define them.
Not only are Eccentric Family's characters individually well-realized people, even their relationships with all the other characters demonstrate the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yaichiro is full of well-earned confidence in front of his enemies, but his brothers get to see his insecurity and childishness. Yasaburo shifts from coy to distant to the true and clear heir of the Shimogamo family, depending on what the moment requires. Benten never reveals her tears, but they are always there, apparent in pointed turns of phrase and the many things she doesn't say. The characters are full of contradictions that both lend them an immediate humanity and complicate their understated but subtext-rich conversations. Benten values and flaunts her relative freedom, but secretly longs for a family - this comes out in her conversations with Yasaburo, but he's too young and smitten to understand her pain, and so his responses to her jabs push them apart as often as they bring them together. This is how humans connect, or fail to in spite of their efforts. Eccentric Family understands people absolutely.
The show's central themes of family, life purpose, and what defines a good person all weave off each other, emerging through the smallest, most natural details of life in the first half and then colliding with expert precision in the show's climactic episodes. It's clear that Eccentric Family was adapted from a full length novel, not a light novel or manga - both the character writing and the understanding of formal narrative structure are a notch above what you usually see in anime. It'd be easy for a show that juggles a dozen major characters and questions like the Meaning of Life to come off as overly busy, but thanks to Suga's graceful composition work, it all flows smoothly at the pace of natural life. Though the show's conversations are often dense with meaning, they also possess an easy grace that never falls into outright exposition - everything is conveyed through tiny details of character work and natural discussions that meander towards personal relationships, memories, or the characters' thoughts on their lives and the world around them.
This all might seem a little abstract, so to give one easy example, in the first episode, Yasaburo is eventually cornered in a bar by Benten. Though they were once fellow students of Akadama-sensei, their relationship has become strained over time, due to both their mutual complicity in injuring their teacher and Benten's recent integration into human society. On top of that, Yasaburo harbors a strong suspicion that Benten was partly responsible for the death of his father. With all this subtext hanging overhead, a simple exchange like Yasaburo stating “Is there something wrong with being a tanuki?” followed by Benten's “I am human, after all” carries a heavy weight of baggage. Yasaburo is defensive because he both sees Benten as a threat and yet can't stop thinking about her - but Benten is operating from a position of total cultural isolation, stranded between tanuki, tengu, and human worlds, and so hearing him reaffirm his racial distance comes across like a rejection. Since the viewer is initially positioned close to Yasaburo's perspective, Benten's words come across as a threat on first viewing - but with repetition, it's clear that her words are as much a sad reflection on her own unhappiness as anything else.
Every scene of Eccentric Family is rich with such double meanings and reflections of character circumstance, with moments of conflict coming across as the natural contrast between layered people operating from different priorities and losing true communication in the balance. This is also true on a thematic level - for example, though Yasaburo's conversations with Akadama-sensei often come off as farcical (“the silly old man's chasing skirts again,” etc), the inherent tragedy of the contrast between Akadama's physical enfeeblement and attempted dignity speak directly to the show's constant meditations on how best to compose your life. And because the show understands the roots of human disagreement and tragedy so well, its repeated, resounding entreaties for self-acceptance and a broader understanding of “family” come across as warm, well-considered wisdom.
Eccentric Family isn't just consistently excellent - the show also contains treasure. You'll be hearing a bittersweet recollection of one of Yajiro's last conversations with their father, and then suddenly Soichiro says “hey, do that one thing,” and they're off - Yajiro barrels down the streets as an electric rail car, the blinding lights of the city becoming a kind of visual music rushing past as his father laughs and laughs. Yasaburo will be dueling through one more pointed conversation with Benten, and then she'll look past him, smile, and leap off the pier, swimming out to breach from the surf with her arms round a whale's tail. Even the writers of the show admit that the starting point for developing many of its episodes was in picking one gorgeous moment they wanted to depict, and the way Eccentric Family builds to these moments is a perfect reflection of its insistence on the magic of the everyday. The show's overt fantasy is simply an expression of its belief that life is a wonderful adventure - the themes of taking every day as it comes and embracing what life gives you lead to constant tiny gifts. At its best moments, Eccentric Family can often feel like a Ghibli movie specifically for adults - it accepts the pain and confusion of adult life, but there is a serene beauty in everything, and the first time you see Benten's secret island or a tea house fly, you'll believe it. You don't need to be told that Yasaburo is in love with Benten - when the show cuts back to his first meeting with her, when she flew through a blossoming tree while laughing at the sheer joy of freedom, his feelings become perfectly clear.
The show's aesthetics are excellent. Eccentric Family is not an animation powerhouse, but its character designs are unique, and their motion possesses great nuance. Like in Kyoto Animation's best work, the highlights of animation here are the small details that bring the characters to life - Yasaburo reluctantly cleaning up his teacher's apartment, pausing a moment with the last empty beer can, returning it to the table to use as an ashtray. His subsequent “I won't run your errands for you” even as he stamps out his just-lit cigarette, the contrast between dialogue and body language demonstrating his deep fondness for his teacher in spite of his bravado. The grace of Benten, her every motion demonstrating both her femme fatale allure and inner childishness, both appeals that make Yasaburo's fascination with her utterly understandable and true to everything we know about him. Yaichiro's contrasting insecurity and pride, visible in his stiff back and fidgeting fingers even if it weren't clear in his every word. One of the great strengths of animation is that it can express subtleties of emotions or relationships through character physicality, and Eccentric Family demonstrates this power again and again.
Beyond the animation, the show's background art is also a wonder. As in The Tatami Galaxy, it's clear that author Tomihiko Morimi possesses a deep love for the city of Kyoto, and the visual translation of that love results in endless gorgeous shots of the city in bloom. The backgrounds are often drawn directly from a long series of reference photos, but in spite of them not being wholly invented landscapes, they complement the characters well and possess a larger-than-life beauty regardless. The shot framing is excellent, the color work makes each new scene and palette pop, and the reliance on photographs means there's virtually no repeated imagery - each episode introduces new faces of the city as it explores new sides of the characters, their drama ably matched by the panorama of moods evoked by Kyoto's looming archways, winding canals, and twinkling city lights. Even when locations are revisited, the way the show's color palettes shift throughout the day always reveal new sides of the city. Kyoto has many personalities, and all of them are poignantly evoked through Eccentric Family's lovely color work and framing.
While not quite as much of a standout as the writing and visuals, Eccentric Family's music is also very strong. The show has a variety of go-to everyday songs full of synths and jaunty piano that give the motion of Kyoto a jazzy, classically-influenced energy, and the dramatic highlights are elevated through minimalist but well-chosen piano, electronic percussion, and strings. The theme that closes most of the episodes is a particularly strong track, lending the show a sense of wistful melancholy as each vignette comes to an end. According to the show's director, the team requested that even sad scenes not be given sad music, and the ultimate effect of this choice is that even the small tragedies of life come across not as invasive hardships we must suffer, but as one more natural and inevitable element of appreciating life. Beyond the overt music, Eccentric Family also understands the importance of silence - just like how the characters' body language gives their conversations a greater sense of lived-in motion, so too do the small pauses in their conversations lend the show a sense of unvarnished realism. The pacing and sound design make many of the show's scenes feel driven less by pacing necessity than by the natural flow of conversation, amplifying the sense of Eccentric Family conveying life as it is lived. The show's vocal performances are equally strong, with both standout dramatic moments like Yaichiro's breakdowns and things like the everyday nuance of Benten's contradictory playfulness and danger all coming through in their deliveries.
Eccentric Family comes in a sturdy chipboard case on two discs, offering a crisp transfer of P.A. Works' stellar visual work. Also included in the collection is a hardcover book containing character designs and descriptions, explanations of various areas of Kyoto the show visits, reflections on the composition process from the screenplay writer for each episode, and interviews with the director, art directors, character designer, and screenplay writers. Their words offer compelling insight into the show, revealing that the acuity of Eccentric Family's expressions, the layered nuance of its character interactions, and the vignette-styled but utterly focused narrative structure were all the result of purposeful and painstaking creative decision making. Their stories are a welcome complement to the show, and make this a collection worthy of its title.
If you like understated drama, you should watch Eccentric Family. If you like stories about characters outside of anime's usual genre wheelhouse, you should watch Eccentric Family. If you like well-constructed narratives, layered characters, or just good writing in general, you should watch Eccentric Family. If you like beautiful backgrounds and careful sound design and purposeful character animation, you should watch Eccentric Family. What I'm telling you is you should watch Eccentric Family. It's a wonder of a show, rich and beautiful and personal and clever, a summation of so much of what I love in this medium. It is a gift.
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ A rich story filled with layered, dynamic characters and elevated by standout moments of pure, transcendent beauty.
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