Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Laughing Under the Clouds Gaiden
Parting the Oath of Yamainu and Destiny + The Double-Headed Fuuma
If there was one thing that Laughing Under the Clouds' TV series did well, it was explore the emotions behind its characters' actions. It may have felt rushed and been an imperfect rendition of what was clearly a more involved story, but it never left you lacking in emotions. That torch is ably upheld by the first two of a projected three films that fall under the heading Laughing Under the Clouds Gaiden. Both of them bring us back to the characters most harmed by the events of the television series and explore what brought them to make the decisions that they did during it while also offering us a glimpse of what's in store for them in the future. That does mean that Soramaru and Chutaro are largely left out of the action (that seems slated to change in the third movie), but even if they're your favorite characters, these are good, compelling tales in their own right and a must-watch for series fans.
The first of the two films, Parting the Oath of Yamainu picks up right after the events of the TV show, in 1879 (Meiji 12). The prison is about to be moved to a remote location in Hokkaido and life is beginning to settle back into some kind of new normal for the Kumo brothers and what's left of their family – they're still keenly feeling the loss of Isuke (Kinjo). For Tenka, this also means adapting to life with partial paralysis. He's still trying to reason his way through his role in the Orochi Project that very nearly claimed his life, and he's not entirely certain that it shouldn't have – in his efforts to save Soramaru and keep both of his younger brothers happy, he worries that perhaps he took a wrong turn. To this end he's become much surlier than before and has taken to spending a lot of time at his parents' graves, trying to talk out his issues with the silent stones. Hiiko offers a concerned Soramaru and Chutaro an explanation of Tenka's past as a member of the Yamainu by way of explanation, and while that is interesting and certainly offers us a different view of many of the side characters of the TV series, it also pales in comparison to Tenka's current emotional turmoil.
That is very much caught up in what he feels he owes to his late father. People perhaps underestimate the power a parental request can have on a child, especially the oldest sibling in a family, and Tenka has very clearly taken to heart his father's admonition to be the one who can help laugh away the troubles that may befall his brothers. In his near-death and its resultant physical issues, Tenka finds that he's not as easily able to do that as he once was. Rather than blaming his father for putting too much on him or his brothers for being so needy (both of which would be believable responses), Tenka instead sees the issue as being with himself. Somewhere along the line, he feels, he made the wrong choice, and even though his brothers are fine now, his irredeemable error has somehow ruined everything. What that error is varies as he tries to work through what we can recognize as depression – leaving Yamainu? Getting involved with the Orochi mess? Ending up in a wheelchair? The only similarity between his search for blame is that in all cases it lands squarely and solely on himself, never once acknowledging that he was in an untenable position and could only do his best, whatever that turned out to be.
Ultimately both this film and the second, subtitled Destiny: The Double-Headed Fuuma, are about the question of how people find the will to live after everything has essentially gone to hell. Tenka is seeking permission to do so, questioning whether or not he did the right thing and therefore whether or not his life has value. For Isuke, the issue is how much betrayal can he stomach (both committing and committed against him) before his existence drowns in it. Both Tenka and Isuke are looking for a reason to keep on living as they learn to stand on their own, and the way that Isuke's story explores that question is equally as interesting, albeit more externally involved, as Tenka's.
Isuke's past is one of a much grimmer nature than Tenka's. While he, too, has a brother – his twin, Isame – there's no one able to look out for him in the same way that the Kumo brothers can form a tight family unit. This is because the chief of their Fuuma ninja village has gone off the deep end: in a bid to weed out the weak and surround himself (and presumably Orochi) with only the strongest fighters, he has revived an ancient ritual where a potential ninja must kill a family member in order to become a full-fledged Fuuma. Add to this his insistence that twins are cursed and that either Isuke or Isame must die and you have a recipe for a truly horrific childhood. From watching one family murder its way into extinction to trying to hide Isame's presence from the goat-eyed chief, Isuke's life is one of tension and observed bloodshed. Like Tenka's father, Isuke's dad tries his best to protect his children and ensure that they have as happy a life as possible, but he's ultimately unable to do so, and Isuke doesn't have a Tenka to pick up the slack. This makes the story feel two-fold – not only is it giving us Isuke and Isame's backstory, but it's also explain just how much the Kumos meant to Isuke, and what it must have cost him to leave them in the end.
It's important to note that this second film is seriously upsetting in a variety of ways. The bloodshed is largely kept understated, which allows our minds to use its own power of implication to fill in the blanks to good effect. More to the point, however, is that it is full of unbounded deliberate cruelty, from the measured way the chief destroys families (including the twins' own) to the swift a vicious retaliation of internal politics. Whether it is a sister killing a sister or the last smile of a mother at seeing her children together even after she'd shunned one, this is a story that is unashamed to rip you up one side and down the other. Tenka's story is a tearjerker, yes, but Isuke's is simply devastating until almost the last moment.
What's impressive about all of this is the way it doesn't devolve into melodrama. Gorgeous animation replete with impressive and smooth fight scenes definitely helps, but much of the credit needs to go to the voice actors as well, with Yuichi Nakamura as Tenka and Takahiro Sakurai as Isuke carrying the two films. The scene where Tenka tries to smile like he used to in front of the mirror is heartbreaking enough without the little effort sounds, and Isuke's transformation over the course of the second film is excellently chronicled by Sakurai's voice.
Laughing Under the Clouds Gaiden's first two films aren't something you want to see without having watched the TV series first. If you've seen it and liked it, however, these movies add to the characters and story mythology very nicely, even if the cliffhanger ending of the second makes for a long wait until the release of the third film. Both pieces serve to reinforce the title of the overall franchise – that even though clouds may cover the sun, that doesn't mean that you can't still find a reason to break through them and go on.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Emotionally resonant and beautifully animated, answers some questions and fleshes out characters from the TV series
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