At the start of episode 4 of Eccentric Family 2, there is a straightforward summation of one of its morals; “the transformation… is strongly connected to the idea of freedom.” Tanuki lose their powers in captivity. In its own way this becomes a sort of freedom, a kind of mythic superiority over humans; tanuki play at changing roles even when unable to change shape to make a game of being zoo animals. The idea of zoos in an urban fantasy world is not one that I believe much media in the genre considers; fantastical creatures existing within a modern urban society must contend with modern attitudes of animals in captivity, and ultimately a talking animal is something ordinarily non-sapient granted humanlike sapience.
Eccentric Family has, across both series, concerned itself with the interaction of modern attitudes to animals with the traditional talking animal fable. Series 1 focused heavily on the ethics of eating mythological creatures, in a wry fashion. Series 2 brings in a scene in a zoo to discuss the “freedom” of transformation and magic. What this brings to my mind in considering similar themes in urban fantasy (of a sort) is Kiki’s Delivery Service; that film has a traditional, broomstick-and-black-cat witch living in a technological world. Magic coexists with technology as parallel development, witches can happily listen to the radio and understand bicycles even though broomsticks exist. Indeed, a large part of the film is about the protagonist’s insecurity at losing her magic – calling to mind the tanuki in Eccentric Family stuck as a frog. In the film, there is a sequence where a witch’s familiar animal plays the role of a toy for children; not an ideal comparison with Eccentric Family’s talking animals pretending to be wild animals, but the simple association drove me to consider both works’ handling of the intersection of natural magic and urban space. What helps Kiki in her film is meeting the artist who lives and works in a more liminal space, finding someone who can offer a perspective different to the urban. Her arc begins with leaving home in a quaint, domestic life and moving to the city to find work before ultimately having a crisis of confidence, finding support in someone who transgresses the traditional space and then reconciling magic and technology – shown in the physical sense by her substituting a broomstick for an ordinary broom.
I have discussed in previous articles about Eccentric Family how it plays on similar lines with the older, wiser tanuki living in primeval forests and spiritual spaces and the urban tanuki and tengu looking for new ways of interacting and living. Episode 4 focuses on a shogi tournament, a coming-together of tanuki for a very traditionally Japanese activity. The secret gaming-room in the forest is a memory of the protagonists’ father – a lost tradition that is key to the restoration of the tradition of the tournament. Playing shogi is a family tradition for the siblings, but it is one that not all of them want to be a part of. Traditional games and pastimes are a common shorthand for the old versus new conflict, the kicking out against a perceived oppressive family legacy, but to its credit Eccentric Family does not dwell on this theme to a great extent; the focus is on how the contest brings together Gyokuran and Yaichiro; it is Gyokuran who is “disappointed” that Yaichiro won’t play. But even this is less important than what plays out on the human shogi board; Ginkaku jokes about “learning the ways of an English gentleman” in the vein of Nidaime, while Yasaburo is reminded of his childhood playing games with his father and letting his imagination run wild. The game itself is rapidly ruined as the two families’ feud spills out into a series of bizarre transformations – and Gyokuran is at the centre, the relationship between her and Yaichiro used as ammunition for the petty feuding. And, indeed, the whole affair falls apart as a result; the mockery and provocation leads to repercussions.
The game is symbolic of the past, and tradition; yet the most interesting aspect is how it is used as a way of looking back at Yaichiro and Gyokuran’s childhood together, and reintroducing the absent father in the story. However, it is also used both physically, via the transformations of various characters into pieces on a gameboard, and figuratively – as a formal, ceremonial tournament – to show the pressure the young people face as, ultimately, the next generation. This is spelled out after the debacle; when under pressure to behave, people are more likely to make mistakes and be provoked. The series has been interested in appearances and outward attitudes; assuming foreign ways and presenting a certain, formal, disruptive attitude is embodied by Nidaime and mocked by Ginkaku, while Tenmaya has been inured to the deceptions possible by magic. Ultimately, social and familial pressures are no different; when the expectation is to play shogi, fall in love with the right girl (whether or not you love her) and be a good figurehead of the family, the slightest mistake becomes more significant. Indeed, Yaichiro’s romance with Gyokuran is shown to be on two levels – genuine, awkward feeling and a formal, controlled relationship to unite families. The former makes “properly” expressing the latter far harder, and vice versa. Through the past, and through friendly reminiscence, the two families can move on from the mistakes that have been made – indeed, as Gyokuran’s brother said, it is only when people are carefree and forget the expectations under which they are placed they can accept their mistakes and not be defined by them.
This has been an episode about the power of play as a means of interaction, in a fashion; families’ lives, and childhoods, are defined by games with parents and friends, and it is through relaxation and leisure activities that people can exist outside of expectation. The awkwardness between Yaichiro and Gyokuran was brought about by bad memories of a childhood game, exacerbated by an argument at a shogi tournament, and ultimately defused by play for its own sake, free from audiences or teachers or ceremony.