Failed Tanuki and Half-Baked Tengu: Identity and Community in The Eccentric Family – Part 2
By Dee Hogan
“Tengu, tanuki, humans… why are all of you so foolish? I’m completely surrounded by fools!”
In Part One of our winding two-part Tour de Kyoto, we talked about the assumptions and expectations attributed to the tanuki, tengu, and human populations that inhabit The Eccentric Family‘s world, as well as how the pressures to live up to an unattainable group ideal affected Akadama and the four Shimogamo brothers. Here in Part Two, we’ll take the show’s exploration of personal and group identity one step further, looking at the characters who defy their “natures” and deny their names, and how the lines between the three groups get blurrier as the series progresses.
What does it mean to be a tanuki? A tengu? A human? Is there any real distinction at all? Our characters insist there is, but their actions tell a different story.
“Tanuki Don’t Do Horrible Things Like This” – Stereotypes and Falsehoods
“A tanuki who boils tanuki in a hot pot? We’re not talking about tengu or humans here. Such a cruel tanuki does not exist in this world.”
It seems like for every individual who’s the epitome of what a tengu, human, or tanuki is “supposed” to be, there’s another who doesn’t fit that generalization at all. Akadama is fierce and proud to the point of hurting himself because he refuses to ask for help or admit he’s lonely, but his retired tengu buddy is amiable, looks after others, and is more than happy to join tanuki on a leisure cruise without making a big fuss about it. Likewise, Friday Club leader Jyurojin is a self-serving human who uses others and takes what he wants, while Professor Yodogawa sacrifices his career and throws himself in front of a gun in order to protect tanuki.
And, of course, standing opposite the “magnificent tanuki” Shimogamo Souichiro is his estranged brother, the embittered Ebisugawa Soun. Clinging to his goal of becoming the Trick Magister, there’s no question that Soun sees himself as a tanuki even as he sheds (sorry) the characteristics that supposedly make tanuki what they are, going so far as to conspire to have his fellow furballs boiled in hot pots.
Soun makes for a dangerous antagonist not just because he’s the antithesis of assumed tanuki behavior, but because he’s aware of those assumptions and uses them to his advantage. When Yaichiro publicly accuses him of conspiring with the Friday Club to have both him and his father killed, Soun argues that “no tanuki would ever do that,” so clearly Yaichiro is lying. That his words echo Tousen’s from the previous episode shows that the rest of tanuki society is inclined to agree with him.
The fact is, though, that Soun did do everything Yaichiro says he did. So either he isn’t a tanuki even though he calls himself one, or the image that tanuki have of themselves is at best over-simplified and at worst flat-out wrong. Just as a “self-serving” human can risk their life to defend a tanuki, so too can a “peace-loving” tanuki betray his own. And if that’s the case, then what does it mean to be a tanuki, or a tengu, or a human at all?
One obvious answer is that it ultimately comes down to that “blood” which is so important to the Shimogamo family. After all, despite not perfectly matching the stereotypes associated with their groups, no one ever denies that Akadama is a tengu, Yodogawa is a human, or the Shimogamo and Ebisugawa clans are all tanuki. Others might call them “pathetic,” “outcasts,” or “failures,” but they don’t question their places among the three Kyoto spheres. So maybe “to be a tanuki” is simply to have been born to a couple of raccoon-dogs, and there’s nothing more to it than that.
Except, well… there might be more to it than that.
“I Am (Not) a Tengu” – Birth and Choice
“I’m sure you’ll become a sly old tanuki someday.”
“And you’ll become a magnificent tengu, Nidaime.”
“I’m not going to become a tengu.”
Just when it looks like we might have a neat, tidy explanation of how to define the three spheres of Kyoto, Akadama’s two “kids” have to come along and throw a wrench in the works.
Benten and the Nidaime are a pair of mirrors, identical and opposite. They both have all the fierce pride and elemental powers associated with tengu, but while Benten was originally a human forcibly trained to become a tengu, the Nidaime was originally a tengu who chose to reject that role. In so doing, they both challenge the idea that one’s birth determines one’s place on the “ladder” of Kyoto society—but they also imply that the price for breaking away is a great deal of loneliness.
Benten flies between spheres and worlds, a force of chaos existing everywhere and owning little. The Nidaime holes up in an isolated mansion, a force of order surrounded by a mountain of possessions.
Benten accepts and collects identities (Suzuki Satomi, Benten, human, tengu, half-tengu, celestial maiden, demon) as if they’re gifts she doesn’t hate but isn’t all that attached to. The Nidaime won’t take any identity at all, rejecting “tengu, tanuki, and humans” alike as unrefined fools. He doesn’t even have a name, really, as “Nidaime” is just a title meaning “second generation.” He denies this title but never offers an alternative, leaving him functionally nameless. His lack of identity stands in sharp contrast to Benten’s surplus.
“Dammit, you humans really are so nasty…”
“I’m a tengu!”
“Nope, you’re a human. No matter what you do, human.”
In short, Benten defines herself as positive and multiple while the Nidaime defines himself as negative and null. Yet there’s an awful lot of similarity in those differences as well. Both struggle to (or are unable to?) establish a single affirmative identity because none of the ready-made labels fit who they want to be. And, when they do attempt to define themselves, Yasaburo denies them those labels, as he initially insists Benten is a human (although in Season 2 he does seem to have accepted her position as Akadama’s successor) and teases the Nidaime for saying “tengu-like” things.
Perhaps most importantly in a story with “family” in the title, both exist just outside the three Kyoto spheres. They lack a proper supportive community, with only the tenuous (if not outright hostile) bonds with Akadama, Yasaburo, and one another to keep them anchored to the city at all. Lost as they both are, lacking not just a group but a solid sense of self entirely, it’s no wonder they’re simultaneously drawn to and repelled by each other.
Rumor has it The Eccentric Family is intended to be a trilogy of novels, and I suspect that however Benten and the Nidaime’s stories conclude will tell us a lot about where the series falls on these questions of identity and blood relations. Given the way Yajiro has returned to tanuki society and Yasaburo has accepted his betrothal to Kaisei, it’s entirely possible Benten will go back to being “just a Suzuki Satomi” and the Nidaime will accept his role as Akadama’s successor.
Personally, though, I hope that’s not the case, or at least that it’s not that simple. The series has already spent a lot of time blurring the boundaries between groups and suggesting that the lines between tanuki, tengu, and humans are either very flexible or outright nonexistent. Maybe they can’t control the accident of their birth, and maybe that birth will affect some of the things they can do, but The Eccentric Family doesn’t seem to think it fully defines them, either. It’s more complex than that, particularly when those spheres start to mingle and clash—for better and for worse.
“Poking My Nose In” – Blurred Borders and Fallen Walls
“Long ago, a wise, old tanuki once said: ‘Tengu getting involved in tanuki disputes…this is no good. Tanuki getting involved in tengu disputes… this is also no good.’ I didn’t like that saying.”
In addition to the variety of individuals within a group, there’s also a growing sense throughout the series that there’s a lot of similarity between groups as well. Despite those allegedly separate spheres of ground, city, and sky, our three groups are not nearly as distinct as they think.
Everywhere in the story we find instances of the groups interacting and interfering with one another. Our “model tanuki”
Souichiro starts this trend when he helps Akadama kick a gang of rowdy Kurama tengu off his mountain. Yasaburo carries this proud tradition into the next generation, as his two “sensei” are a tengu and a human, he’s initially smitten with a human/tengu, and even briefly has the “honor” of being a member of the Friday Club.
These relationships can get messy and cause trouble, but they can also be quite beneficial. Despite that “wise old tanuki” who warned everyone to stay out of each other’s business, the series itself doesn’t seem to be advocating for “like to stay with like.” It’s more nuanced than that.
True, humans getting involved with the supernatural has led to Jyurojin taking to the skies like a tengu and Tenmaya being able to trick tanuki. But Yodogawa’s connection to Tousen and Yasaburo could spark an end to tanuki hot pots (two years in a row is a good start!), and Akadama’s reluctant “adoption” into the Shimogamo family has helped both him and the tanuki (Yaichiro and Gyokuran might never have gotten up the courage to say “I love you” without his interference, after all). The “good” or “bad” of each relationship all comes down to the individuals themselves.
These blurred boundaries aren’t just a matter of hanging out together—it’s also about how each character thinks and behaves. Benten may have the pride of a tengu and the fickle possessiveness of a human, but she also has the fun-seeking impulse of a tanuki. Like Yasaburo, she can’t resist the urge to get involved in others’ disputes, so it’s no wonder the two echo each other in their excitement about things getting omoshiroi (a catch-all term the subtitles translate as “interesting,” “amusing,” or “fun” depending on context) in the second season.
There are echoes like that throughout the series, in fact. Jyurojin and Souichiro both like to say that “an omoshiroi thing is a good thing,” and Yodogawa surprises Yasaburo when he blames his love of eating on his “fool’s blood.” All of which continues to hammer home the point that the clear lines between tanuki, tengu, and human simply don’t exist. Everyone can be fickle, or possessive, or so wrapped up in themselves that they lose sight of others. Everyone has their pride. And everyone has more than a little of that fool’s blood running through their veins.
“Everything is Fun to Me” – Eccentric Families and Interesting Lives
“I don’t care if you’re a frog or what you are. I’m just happy to have you all in this world.”
So if a tengu can be flightless, and a tanuki can boil his own kind in a hot pot, and a human can have a love of the omoshiroi, and anyone can decide to become a tengu (or not), then what the heck makes someone an anything at all? Are we defined by who we say we are? By how we act? By the place we were born? What makes someone tanuki or tengu or human?
This is normally the part where I’d come swooping in with a Grand Conclusion, but the more I examine the series, the harder it is to find a single, succinct answer. Just when I think I have it in my hands, like a wily tanuki or a whimsical half-tengu, it always finds a way to slip free, scrambling into the underbrush or flying off into the night.
And maybe that’s the point. Like the doors that fall down between the humans, tanuki, and tengu during the first Trick Magister election, or the train that crashes Benten’s chaos straight into the Nidaime’s order during the second, maybe it’s so mixed-up and muddled that the lines are supposed to disappear altogether.
Yes, there are arbitrary divisions and power structures within this Kyoto, but should there be? Why must tengu be obeyed and respected? Why do tanuki have to accept their fate as part of a human’s hot pot? And why do humans need to put tanuki in hot pots at all?
There’s no reason, really. Yasaburo proves that when he cheerfully outwits and uses the tengus’ pride to his own advantage. Yaichiro and Gyokuran prove it when they crash the Friday Club’s party to rescue Yasaburo and Kaisei from the hot pot. And Yodogawa proves it when he founds the “Thursday Club” to keep tanuki safe.
So maybe this idea that tanuki, tengu, and humans are “like this” or “like that” is fallacious from the get-go. Maybe each character’s “identity” has nothing to do with the groups they were born into or the arbitrary name they call their own, and everything to do with their individual temperaments and—perhaps most importantly—relationships with one another.
None of our characters are who they are because of some ingrained “truth,” but because of the lives they’d led and the relationships they’ve had with others. It’s enough to be a single person meeting another single person, clashing or commiserating, forming bonds of love or hate or both. A Benten influencing a Yasaburo. A Tousen changing a Yodogawa. Teachers instructing their students. Parents leaving their marks on their children. And on and on.
Ultimately, then, maybe it doesn’t come down to broad social groups based on faulty generalizations, but to families—to the community each person decides to trust and spend time with and protect. To the “home I can come back to,” as Yajiro says when he leaves on his journey.
The Shimogamo mom and brothers are so tightly knit and their senses of selves so much stronger than the Akadama “kids” not because they identify as tanuki or share genetics, but because they look after and support one another. Their community isn’t defined by arbitrary expectations and stereotypes. It’s defined simply by having people who love them.
Our central community doesn’t stop there, though. Thanks in large part to Yasaburo’s mingling and meddling, he’s expanded his family to include the tengu Akadama, the human Yodogawa, and the two tanuki Gyokuran and Kaisei. You could also argue that he’s (hesitantly) extended hands to both Benten and the Nidaime, though both are so caught up in trying to stand apart as individuals that they haven’t accepted his offer yet.
In The Eccentric Family, individuals and communities aren’t about three distinct groups and their rigidly defined spheres. They’re muddled: Tanuki and frogs, tengu and half-tengu and not-tengu, humans who eat tanuki and humans who defend them. Unique, messy individuals with unique, messy relationships. “Delicate balances” and “wise old tanuki” be damned, Yasaburo has the right idea here. Watching this diverse, chaotic wheel spin is a whole lot more interesting.
About the author, Dee Hogan
Dee is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. To pay the bills, she works as a technical writer. To not pay the bills, she devours novels and comics, watches far too much anime, and cheers very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog for long-time fans and newbies alike, as well as on Tumblr and Twitter.