With no pun intended, the topic of melodrama is a bit of a soft spot in the anime community. It’s not always easy for people to reach an understanding on what constitutes an overdramatic scene. With the latest episodes of Uchouten Kazoku, has the show’s more dramatic tone compromised its success?
Uchouten Kazoku is a show that I am really appreciating for its more natural approach towards its characters and setting. The manner in which the web of character relationships unfolds is simply lovely. The show’s narrative doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out for the viewer – instead, treating them as if they were in Yasaburou’s shoes as he encounters friends, family and enemies alike. Characters are introduced as if they were real figures in his life and not just obligatory faces thrown in to move the plot along. Most noteworthy of all is how Uchouten Kazoku relies on its superbly crafted character dialogue (sometimes serious, but with plenty of quirky undertones) as the primary method of exposition. This forms a character-driven narrative in a similar vein to works such as Spice & Wolf and Crest of the Stars where the viewer learns more about the Tanuki (and Tengu) culture through Yasaburou’s daily interactions.
Unfortunately, this appears to be an underappreciated form of storytelling in an age where viewers have come to expect that narratives spoon-feed them with every detail about the setting and characters. Now this isn’t to place the blame on anyone, as it’s perhaps a natural consequence of the difficulties many works face in transitioning from written mediums (manga, light novels) to visual ones. In the case of a graphic novel or book, lengthy descriptions are more of a natural fit, whereas with film and anime, cinematography and body language can be applied to convey more than just words alone. In the case of Uchouten Kazoku, its engaging dialogue, coupled with an excellent art direction and attention to character expression have paved the way for its success.
However, with the show’s two most recent episodes, 7 and 8, Uchouten Kazoku has shown us a more dramatic side to its ensemble of quirky personalities. More specifically, the scenes in question involved Tanuki brothers Yasuburou and Yaichirou discovering the truth behind their father’s death. It turns out that their eldest brother, Yajirou, had been drinking with his father and their reckless actions resulted in the old man being cooked in a hot pot. Now as one should very well expect, this came as a huge shock to Yaichirou, causing him to erupt in an emotionally-charged flood of tears. The following episode (8) also dealt heavily with the family’s backstory, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a lot of its moments were fairly gloomy.
With the necessary preamble out of the way, this brings me to the main question of this post: was Uchouten Kazoku’s dramatic tone harmful to its success? First and foremost, there was a legitimate reason for the melodrama which should have been immediately apparent. The death of Yaichirou’s father is an event that carries a lot of weight, especially due to how close he was with his pops. At the end of episode 7, we see how much conflicted anger Yaichirou is experiencing. Although he feels overwhelming frustration due to his older brother’s incompetence, this scene also reveals some deeper subtleties about his character. As Yaichirou is still unable to come to terms with the loss of his father, he cannot find the internal strength to forgive his brother and ultimately himself. As a result, his emotional fit of rage hardly seems inappropriate given the gravity of the situation.
That said, plot justifications don’t always mean melodrama will succeed at striking a chord. This is because it is simply far too easy for writers to find convenient solutions to create a logical string of events. For instance, how hard is it for any talentless hack to throw in a sappy backstory right before a bunch of one-dimensional bug-eyed girls erupt into a flurry of tears? As such, we need to look a few steps further before coming to the conclusion that the level of drama was appropriate.
With any dramatic scene, there’s usually going to be a few attempts made to enhance the impact of the moment. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, as I mentioned earlier that anime should be playing to the strengths of the visual medium. Regarding Uchouten Kazoku’s dramatic moments, they were accompanied by darker lighting, somber tunes consisting of strong violin chords and Yachirou exhibiting some very tortured postures. At this point, we already know that there’s a justification in play for Yachirou’s behaviour, so we can’t really call out P.A. Works’ production values for forcibly overblowing the moment. Now, could the violin chords have been a bit less jarring? The scene likely would have carried a similar heart wrenching impact even without all the clichés of cinema. However, this really isn’t enough to definitively say that the show was being overdramatic. It’s more of a minor complaint with the directing choices than anything.
This brings me to my final point, which relates back to what I had been discussing earlier about Uchouten Kazoku’s approach to storytelling. Although one purpose of its drama is to create empathy with the characters, the scenes also build upon our pre-existing knowledge of the cast and events. Prior to these episodes, we’ve learned important facts pertaining to the Tanuki culture, Benten’s role and most importantly of all, how the death of Yasuburou’s father has impacted the ties between everyone. What this ultimately means is that Uchouten Kazoku has forged a very strong foundation by taking the time to establish a wide array of inter-character dynamics and motives. Essentially what we’re witnessing here is the payoff of Yasuboru’s meddling, and it would be an injustice to consider any of the previous lead up to be aimless. In fact, if it seems that way, it is precisely because the brothers have lost their way in life, due to the rift the death of their father caused.
Additionally, there have been some more subtle benefits to the inclusion of the recent dramatic tone. More than anything, these last two episodes have done a fantastic job at conveying the true strength of bonds between the Shimogamo family. Despite the ongoing feud with the Ebisugawas and the distance between the brothers, when push comes to shove, the family still bands together. This is evident from even the smallest of actions, such as Yaichirou’s decision to not bring Yashirou (the youngest brother) along when he confronts Yajirou. Even though Yaichirou is aware that he will inevitably hurt his older brother, he is still looking out for him by preserving good ties between the oldest and youngest siblings in the family. In many respects, this confirms what Yasaburou has to say at the start of episode 7, that “blood is thicker than water.”
In closing, melodrama is a tool that is often misused whenever writers feel the need to throw a figurative emotional sucker-punch. Uchouten Kazoku proves that it can still execute these types of scenes well, and more importantly, uses its strengths in storytelling to construct a flourishing environment driven by the relationships of its cast.