Urban Space and Foreign Culture in Eccentric Family 2

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The Glover House, Nagasaki. Image is Public Domain

The returning native as a disruptive presence in a traditional society is the focus of Eccentric Family 2; it brings with it ideas of modernisation and a hermetic society being opened up to foreign influence. Tenmaya, the man who beat the devil, no longer fears demons because he has a gun. Modern technology exists within the setting; it is set in a contemporary Japan. However, Yasaburo complains the use of guns in a supernatural battle of wits is unfair; modern weaponry does not sit nicely within a romanticised – if that is the right word – mythic world. I am reminded in a way of The Wind in the Willows, which takes a not-specifically-folkloric but definitely idyllic world of talking animals and has Toad go mad for novelties such as cars, completely upsetting the pastoral idyll and serving, arguably, as a simple morality-play about the importance of humility and good sense.

But after episode 2’s focus almost entirely on Tenmaya, episode 3 returns to the foreign influences; Benten and Nidaime. Benten, the woman who has the ear of gods and walks between the supernatural and mortal realms far more inscrutably than the self-admitted cheat and rook Tenmaya, effortlessly deals with him. She is the second returnee from Europe, but unlike Nidaime her return is – in her own words – a homecoming rather than a stated desire to usurp and upturn. Things may, as she says, be “getting interesting,” but her return is anticipated. Her introduction in the episode is sexy and exciting, she puts Tenmaya in his place, toys with Yasaburo and talks about how fun it is to be back. By contrast, the first scene of Nidaime is him on a rooftop methodically ironing white shirts to maintain his appearance as a gentleman. He lives in a Western-style house reminiscent, I feel, of the Glover residence in Nagasaki; it is filled with antique curios that feel like an over-the-top exportation of European sensibilities to Japan to create a little Europe, all afternoon tea and Western classical instruments and – in his previous appearances – a top hat. He remembers Japanese food, but his mannerisms and etiquette are no longer Japanese. He claims the residence “used to belong to some tanuki elite” but was remodelled to remove the “stink of tanuki” – and potentially, by implication, its innately Japanese nature – from it. He goes so far in his occidental-philia to reject his tengu heritage and restate his desire to supplant the existing order. Benten’s entrance to this space is an imposition, and he acts rudely to challenge her.

The two characters show, in a way, two approaches to foreign influence on culture; Nidaime has wholesale exported the aesthetics and etiquette of a very privileged and archaic slice of Europe to a Kyoto rooftop with the stated aim of uprooting the whole order of tanuki and tengu society, while the nature of Benten’s return is set more in opposition to figures like Tenmaya. Here, the imagery of the series’ end credits seems thematically appropriate; it shows in stills Benten in a variety of European locations – a London park, what I presume is the bank of the Thames, and in an old-fashioned bathing suit by a pool before showing her overlooking Nidaime’s rooftop. It is an introspective kind of imagery; she is pensive and alone which seems very much opposed to Nidaime’s showmanship and ostentation. Little is yet known about what happened while she was away or indeed what drove her back, and her depiction in these vignettes as potentially troubled – yet confident enough to challenge Tenmaya and Nidaime on her return – creates an interesting mystery.

Something else observable in these three episodes so far is the extensive use of liminal spaces and the distinctions between rural and urban space for tanuki society; shrines and holy places mark the boundaries of the urban and the forest and the scene in episode 3 of the tanuki meeting in an ancient forest behind a shrine is very much using Japan’s geography and urban layouts to thematic effect. Primeval forest – and indeed natural spaces – situated in this way reminds me of the Kasuga shrine in Nara and is used in-series as a very clear distinction between the wholly supernatural and the interaction between mythic and mortal. In the forest, the tanuki do not assume human form (and this is picked up on in a way as the elder brother of Yasaburo’s family, who cannot return to human form, is found in the natural spaces on the edges of the city).

There is absolutely a purity in visual language of the undisturbed forest, filled with tanuki in a form most suited to the natural world, surrounding Tousen’s mother – a pure white creature in a halo of sunlight. Tousen’s return to this sacred space is driven by her desire to see Yasaburo’s brother – the tanuki stuck in the form of a frog – returned to normal. Indeed, when he is reintroduced, he is “practicing his transformations” – he can become a train, a symbol of human modernity and technology rather than the natural creatures his kin can. Someone who has lived on the boundaries of modernity is shaped by it. This theme is explored from a different direction via the artist in episode 2, who is happiest at his work in a wild part of his garden. Benign relationships with the folkloric world take place in natural spaces, with creatures at home with them. Disruptive influences like Tenmaya and Nidaime live within urban, even commercial spaces (Tenmaya opens a shop on the roof of a shopping centre, for example).

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