The Eccentric Family (Cert 15)
2 Discs Blu-ray/DVD (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 308 minutes approx.
In all fairness the family under the microscope in this quirky and offbeat series isn’t necessarily eccentric per se just because they aren’t actually human. The Shimogamo Family – Yasaburo, Yaichiro, Yajiro, Yashiro and their mother – are all shape shifting Tanuki (raccoon dogs) who have shared the planet with the Tengu (birds) and humans for many centuries.
Unfortunately for the Shimogamos, an exclusive group of seven people known as the Friday Fellows who at the end of every year like to celebrate by having a Tanuki hot pot, the exact way the patriarch of the family and the leader of the Tanuki Soichiro, lost his life. Even more unfortunate for middle son Yasaburo, he might end up in this year’s hot pot if sultry acquaintance Benten has anything to do with it.
Seasoned anime watchers or anyone with a passing interest in Japanese culture should be familiar with Tanuki with Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko being an obvious reference point. This series based on the 2007 novel by Tomihiko Morimi, takes a comedic look at these curious creatures while espousing the values of the family unit via a quietly poignant drama which simmers gently beneath the comedic antics.
Very much a character driven show, the mythology of the Tanuki is kept intact but has some fun with it at the same time. Their shape-shifting abilities are both integral to the plot and a source of entertainment, with Yasaburo being the most talented in this area, which he exploits for his own personal amusement despite the necessity for the Tanuki to hide their identity from humans.
For the first two episodes Yasaburo parades around town as a schoolgirl while his favoured party trick is changing into inanimate objects. Second eldest son Yajiro has turned himself into a frog and lives at the bottom of a well but has forgotten how to change back. Youngest Yashiro hasn’t mastered this skill yet but can manipulate electricity while their mother transforms into a dashing snooker-playing prince!
Eldest son Yaichiro is the serious one looking to become the next Tanuki leader, his biggest competition being his own uncle Soun Ebisugawa. This is where the story becomes interesting as Soun’s daughter Kaisei was once betrothed to Yasaburo but the engagement was cancelled after Soichiro’s death. And to add further mystery to the proceedings, another connecting factor between the two families is Benten!
Her background is equally interesting: as a human named Satomi Suzuki she was kidnapped as a girl by a Tengu named Professor Akadama who taught her how to fly and treated her like a princess. As an adult Satomi left the Professor, now the teacher for the Shimogamos family, but his infatuation remains, playing a big part in the convoluted relationships the renamed Benten has with all three factions of Tengu, Tanuki and humans. However she likes to play her cards close to her chest and usually plays others for her own advantage.
A stirring story you’ll agree, not in the least the idea that the central protagonist is likely to be cooked and served up for New Years Eve dinner by the end if he doesn’t find a way out! That’s quite an onus to have hanging above someone’s head but as alluded to earlier, it is one that is forced to share the spotlight with the day-to-day shenanigans of the principal cast.
It is not completely ignored but in true anime fashion it slips in and out of the narrative as per the whims of the script, finally driven home in the last few episodes in what is decidedly an anti-climactic denouement. However, this allows for some steady world building and for the cast to endear themselves to the audience. Everyone has their own distinct personality meaning no one drifts into the background as a clone of another person, while most of the key players are given a chance to develop.
Some need to remain shrouded in mystery, like Kaisei as we later find out, while others could have done with more fleshing out, like Soun whose role becomes more prominent towards the end. The Tanuki and Tengu spending the majority of their time in human form, they are easier to relate to while the comedy isn’t reliant on getting easy laughs from the transformations to and from their cute animal forms.
An interesting subtext arises through the often presented notion from both the Tanuki and Tengu that humans are the worst and most dangerous animals of all. While the supernatural creatures have done their best to assimilate and acclimatise to the human world, our response is to eat them! A pertinent message to share, unfortunately buried beneath the many exposition dumps in the sagging central portion of the show.
PA Works have taken on the animation mantle and the visual presentation does indeed aim to satisfy the eccentricity remit suggested by the title. The character designs are quite the deviation from the norm but remain instantly recognisable as “anime”. The facial features of the central non-human cast appear hurriedly drawn yet have a strong definition to them, buttressed by their universal slight build they’ve all been afforded.
With fantasy being a steady constituent of the show, the backgrounds and artwork are suffused with arty quirks and slightly surrealist designs but the general architectural veneer of modern Japan is the more prevalent theme. Colours are bold and the art is detailed, displayed to its fullest during the many night scenes featuring the neon metropolis.
While it may take a few episodes to fully establish itself, The Eccentric Family does reveal itself to be a delightful celebration of the family bond and the search for identity in the modern world. It is not as maverick as it might have been but its inherent charm lies in the well written characters and fanciful – at least to us in the West – premise.
N.B The Blu-ray collector’s Edition is released first followed by the DVD next month.
Japanese 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
Disc 2 Only:
Japanese TV Spots 1 & 2
Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition Only:
64-Page Hardcover Book
Rating – ****
Man In Black