Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Laughing Under the Clouds
BD+DVD - Complete Collection
In Meiji 11 (1878), three brothers live at the Kumoh Shrine, watching over the land, ferrying criminals out to the prison in the middle of Lake Biwa, and just trying their best to survive in a time when fears of the monster Orochi's revival run rampant. These fears are not unfounded, and soon Tenka, Soramaru, and Chutaro find themselves caught up in a supernatural battle for their world. If Orochi is reborn, there's no telling what horrors await, but with the spells used to contain him 600 years ago seemingly lost, will the Kumoh brothers have to give up and let the monster revive?
Based on a six-volume manga by Karakara Kemuri (whose series Countdown 7 Days, Replica, and Takeru: Opera Susanoh Sword of the Devil have all been at least partially released in English), Laughing Under the Clouds revisits three of her favorite recurring themes: Japanese mythology surrounding the Orochi, brothers, and hot guys. Set in Meiji 11 (1878 by the western calendar), the story follows the three Kumoh brothers, Tenka, Soramaru, and Chutaro, who have inherited the family shrine after the brutal murders of their parents ten years ago. Also living with them is Shirasu, a former ninja that Tenka saved when he was dying in the snow shortly after their parents died. Tenka, who appears to be in his early twenties, has taken over parenting his younger brothers, who seem to be roughly sixteen and ten years old, and while he has trained and raised them well, he has also smothered them a bit, leaving middle child Soramaru yearning to break free. Chutaro, for his part, is utterly carefree, bopping around the shrine with their tanuki, mostly oblivious to the turmoil surrounding him. The sky over their shrine and the nearby town of Otsu, a real castle town in Omi Province, is always cloudy, indicating that the monstrous Orochi will soon be reborn into the world. This is a recurring issue in Otsu, and the first step to thwarting the beast is to find the unwitting soul harboring the Orochi within his body.
As might be expected, the story is rife with mythological references, with the Orochi himself being part of several notable myths from both the Kojiki and the Nihongi that shows up in anime and manga frequently. (Blue Seed and to an extent Naruto come to mind.) Lake Biwa, on whose shore the Kumoh shrine stands, has a myth about a Dragon King living within it, and even today there exists a tale about a giant carp who eats the corpses of those who drown in Lake Biwa. This firm background gives Laughing Under the Clouds a very solid base to weave its story. The deliberate setting of the Meiji era, when Japanese values and society were changing rapidly, ups the ante for characters like Soramaru, who isn't quite sure who he wants to be if he ever gets out from under Tenka's loving thumb. It also sets the stage for the two dueling law enforcement groups within the story, the Prefectural Police and a special squad known as the Yamainu, or Mountain Dogs. In their struggle, we can see the conflict between the Meiji and Edo eras' ideals, and their later cooperation speaks to the fact that despite so many changes, they do share the same cultural (and mythological) history at heart. It's an interesting dynamic that really kicks in starting around episode five, which is when the story gets going in earnest.
In terms of structure, Laughing Under the Clouds is very deliberately paced. Episode six is a clear halfway point, and the build to a climax from episode ten to twelve is organic; I would venture to say that this is one of the best laid-out anime in recent memory. This sadly drives home the fact that to tell the complete six-volume story in only twelve episodes, a lot of ancillary information has clearly been left out. While the story is easy to understand and the characters well-realized, there's still a sense that we're missing the little details that would have made it all feel more complete. Simply put, it's a good plot, but after finishing it, I felt like the manga must be more amazing. This is partly due to how many characters there are – in order to complete the story in a remotely satisfying way, characters like most of the Yamainu and Nishiki need their roles pared down. This is a particular problem with young Yamainu member Takeda, whose central role in the grand finale comes out of nowhere. It also has the unintentional result of making episode seven, which takes place 600 years in the past, a little more interesting than the main story, since it's able to use its few characters to stronger effect because there are only four of them. Luckily for us, that plot does carry over adorably through a star-crossed-no-more romance in the main story.
However, the heart of this story isn't the mythology or the history: it's the filial love that the three Kumoh brothers share. This does come through clearly, making episode six downright heartbreaking, and it also has the unintended effect of making the English dub sound a little awkward at times, since the kind of love Tenka isn't shy about expressing isn't normally heard in English-language entertainment. Both sets of actors do a good job, but if you're prone to secondhand embarrassment, the sub is probably the way to go. The only other nitpick about the dub is that a few of the names are difficult to pronounce, and in the early episodes, you can hear some struggle to get it right. What's most important, though, is that we understand how close Tenka, Soramaru, and Chutaro are, which is done equally well in both vocal tracks.
To some extent, it is through the brothers' relationship that the Orochi lives and dies. This is also where the series' title comes from – when the Orochi is nigh, the skies are cloudy, since he cannot stand the sun. (This is doubtless a reference to his role in the Amaterasu myths.) When skies are grey, people tend to feel gloomy, but Tenka wants his brothers to be happy no matter what. Therefore, to “laugh under the clouds” is to smile in the face of adversity, to have the faith to believe that things will get better. Despite the hardships and the traumas of the story, the slightly weird character designs with one speck of light in the brothers' eyes that looks like a white pupil, and the occasional stumbling animation, that admonition to keep looking at the bright side does pull through.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Major themes come across clearly, interesting mix of mythology and history, story gets going after a slow start
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