Urban fantasy – those stories where the supernatural interacts with the mundane, modern-day takes on the intersection of myth and reality – has a tendency towards emphasising the relationships between specific humans and supernatural entities; romances between human and vampire, the role of the vampire hunter in a modern city, etcetera. To have a series which largely sidelines humans – seeing them as an annoyance and threat but not focusing on some ancient war – is thus a very interesting perspective. 2013’s animé Eccentric Family has a human central to its story – Benten, a woman who touched the life of the elderly tengu, or bird-spirit, Akadema – but its perspective is strictly a mythic one. It focuses on the rivalries not only between tanuki (raccoon-spirits) and tengu (crow-spirits) but between subfactions and families within the two species – they are presented not as allegorical or representative monocultures but as fully-fledged societies living their lives on the fringes of human society.
With Benten as a touchstone between mythology and humanity, the next point of interaction is the gentleman’s club the Friday Fellows – again an elevated, distant form of humanity whose sole interactions with the mythic are hostile. They traditionally eat a tanuki each year as part of their celebrations, and this inevitability – marked by continued reference to how the protagonist, Yasaburou’s father was their victim one year – punctuates and taints all relationships between human and spirit. Thus there is a fascinating tension throughout Eccentric Family; the protagonists know that not all humans are like the Friday Fellows, but at the same time they cannot properly accept that because it has personally touched them. Benten, as the closer point of interaction, both plays up to the stereotypes (colluding with the Fellows and using this as a threat when Yasaburou loses a precious magical fan of hers) but also lets her upbringing among tengu shape her conduct towards the mythic. Whereas most humans – as shown by the subplot of Yasaburou’s elder brother Yajirou – let their expectations of the mythic shape their interaction, Benten tries to ape the conduct of tengu. A scene early in the series, when Yasaburou and his younger brother Yashirou visit Benten, makes this quite clear – she is living outside of human society, fishing in a flooded building’s ruins and looking for whales. In many ways she represents a modern kind of mythological wild-woman archetype, close to the arcane and magical and very much in control of it – she has magical objects acquired from Akadema and understands the magical powers of the spirits she lives among. This, ultimately, is the core to Eccentric Family; the world exists with magic as a way of life, so mundane that humans accept it completely. That a modern setting has been created where rich businessmen treat mythological creatures as an exclusive ingredient to eat at special occasions, and traditional festivals play out with all their superstitions and spiritual elements actually happening, shows a level of tolerance and integration that quite differs from much urban fantasy. The Friday Fellows dining on tanuki is a very different kind of threat to the mythic than a gang of teen vampire slayers; it is not even the traditional intolerance and prejudice, just a systematic exploitation because they can.
Now it is worth returning to Yajirou as, almost, the true counterpart to Benten; she has essentially left human society to live among tengu and tanuki, while he has withdrawn from tanuki society to become what ordinary humans might expect from a nature spirit – he has turned into a frog offering advice down a supposedly magic well. As the story develops this turns out to be a mixture of running from his past mistakes and trying to atone for them but as an image it provides the natural balance within the story; his behaviour is as atypical (and yet a perfect integration into the “other side”) as the transgressive human within tengu society. Together Benten and Yajirou thus epitomise the backdrop for the real story of Eccentric Family – one which ultimately does not dwell on humans but instead on presenting opposed factions of mythological creatures as a society just as divided and, indeed, eccentric as humanity. The tanuki have their own rituals, run businesses and generally live everyday lives; Yasaburou’s mother has a reputation around town as a local eccentric, for example. That the spirits are so humanised – but yet still live an ultimately rarified existence within society – is where Eccentric Family does come closest to the expected urban fantasy topos; that the focus is on these tanuki living everyday family lives while still being prey to certain humans makes it a darkly comic talking-animal caper; the Friday Fellows become the comic hunter or farmer with his gun, a threat hovering in the background which (as the aftermath of Yasaburou’s losing Benten’s fan shows) is both a source of comedy but also (as the story of his father reminds the viewer) very real.
The relationship presented in Eccentric Family is thus an odd one; the strongly-suggested normalisation of society to magic arguably facilitates the exploitation of the magical for those humans who put their mind to it but yet the fact characters like Benten are still seen as transgressive – not properly fitting into mythological society but clearly being atypical of humanity – slightly redefines the relationship back towards a more distant one. In a way, this exploration of how Yasaburou’s world interacts with the human society could be its own story; instead, it provides a subtly-told but cleverly-realised backdrop for an equally interesting story about the Shimogamo family, Akadema and his unrequited love and the reason for Yajirou’s withdrawal from what is expected of a tanuki to become a stereotype.