The humble tanuki, or raccoon dog, holds a place of particular significance in Japanese folklore. The creature has become a symbol of prosperity, and many Japanese households harbor at least one tanuki statue. Each statue shows the tanuki eagerly cuddling a gigantic bottle of sake while displaying an impressive pair of ... testicles.
(Rocket would be impressed. And more than a little jealous.)
Initially considered malevolent spirits that eagerly caused doom on unsuspecting humans, today the tanuki is mostly known as an altruistic shape-shifter, a trickster who will cause mischief because of boredom, or because it’s flat-out drunk and everything seems like a good idea when you have a sake-filled belly. Modern Japanese folklore dictates that tanuki, first and foremost, love to have fun, and will go out of its way to bring about frivolity.
The Eccentric Family is a story about two tanuki clans vying for control of tanuki society. The best way I can describe it is Game of Thrones crossed with a Ghibli movie, with a smattering of This Is Us. Here’s why you should check out this criminally underrated anime series.
“Humans live in the city, tanuki crawl the earth, tengu fly through the air.”
The Eccentric Family explores the complex relationships among three very diverse groups who all live in modern-day Kyoto. The series begins with the Shimogomo clan reeling from the tragic and sudden loss of their patriarch. Soichiro was a beloved and well-respected member of tanuki society. He was, out of all the tanuki, the tanuki-est. He caused more mischief, drank harder, and transformed better than anyone else, which meant that he was the only tanuki worthy of leading the rest of them. And tanuki meetings easily devolve into chaos:
Anyone who could wrangle this into some semblance of order is definitely worthy of praise.
With Soichiro gone, his widow Tosen tries her best to keep her sons in check. Eldest son Yaichiro wants to take over his father’s former position and keep the family’s reputation in check. Yajiro, the second-oldest son, has isolated himself from the rest of the family. Youngest brother Yashiro is painfully timid and worries that he’ll never live up to his father’s fun-loving legacy. Third son Yasaburo, the protagonist of the series, is a self-proclaimed idiot who is just following his whims, as he believes that’s what his father would’ve wanted. After all, he inherited his father’s “idiot blood.”
While the Shimogomo family is struggling for relevance, another tanuki clan, the Ebisugawa family, sees the sudden vacancy in leadership as prime fodder for a power grab. Patriarch Soun is Soichiro’s brother, but married into his current clan and has taken on his wife’s name. Soun is actively campaigning for the chief tanuki position, ahead of the tanuki elections. His twin sons Kinkaku and Ginkaku act as foils to Yasaburo, and despite Yasaburo’s self-proclaimed idiocy he often gets the better of these dim-witted twins.
Tanuki aren’t the only supernatural creatures to get the spotlight in the show. The tengu, bird-like demons with red faces and ridiculously long noses, rule the skies over the city. One tengu, Akadama, is considered a font of wisdom among the tanuki, and so the Shimogomo family continually seeks his advice. Akadama harbors a sour personality because an injury has left him unable to fly, but does a flightless tengu still matter?
Humans, though not many, weave their way into the mix as well. An exclusive club known as the Friday Fellows, whose seven members adopt the names of the Seven Lucky Gods, meet up every Friday for ... fellowship. Their New Years Eve tradition involves the cooking and eating of a single tanuki in a stew. Since tanuki meat is tough and unappetizing, ancient Japanese would only eat tanuki stew during famine. Tanuki, like their raccoon namesakes, have a reputation for eating anything and everything. Even in times of great hunger, a tanuki would still have enough meat on its bones to feed an entire family. In modern-day Japan, no one needs to resort to tanuki stew, so the Friday Fellows’ New Years dish flaunts common sense for the sake of ridiculous tradition.
Soichiro was last year’s chosen tanuki, but his family doesn’t know how or why he was sacrificed. Why would the most tanuki of the tanuki, the best trickster of them all, the best shape-shifter, why would he allow himself this fate? Yasaburo tasks himself with seeking out answers, even if his family wants him to leave the mystery unsolved as he risks becoming the Friday Fellows’ chosen tanuki for this New Year's Eve.
It’s about identity, performance, and keeping your sense of self.
Tanuki are depicted as surprisingly adept at navigating human social norms. In the first episode, Yasaburo speeds through the streets in Kyoto and switches effortlessly between tanuki and human form. The tanuki don human guises, and none of the humans in Kyoto have any idea that their town is teeming with supernatural creatures. One tanuki has been a rock forever, and no one’s willing to snap him out of his shapeshifting, to the point where no one is sure if the rock at the shrine is an actual tanuki or just a rock. A tanuki’s “tanuki-ness” relies on how well it imitates other things. Its entire identity relies on performance. The tanuki solve conflict between each other with a transformation battle a la Madam Mim vs. Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. Each tries to outdo the other until there is only one victor.
Yasaburo’s penchant for imitating humans leads him to cultivate a friendship with the newest member of the Friday Fellows, a man tasked with finding a tanuki for their New Year's Eve stew. At first, Yasaburo only wants answers to the mystery of his father’s death, but he comes to genuinely understand the man’s motivations for being a part of the Friday Fellows. Yasaburo discovers that humans can be just as foolhardy as tanuki sometimes, and that insight brings him closer to connecting with humanity.
Yasaburo slips in and out of three different societies within the course of the series. Tanuki society doesn’t expect much out of him since he’s not the eldest son, so he’s free to explore his options and express himself without sullying the family name. His relationship with humanity starts out tenuous but evolves into deep friendship. He also feels indebted to Akadama and the rest of the tengu who help moderate conflict within the tanuki clans. Yasaburo finds his place in each of these societies without losing his sense of self. He considers his “idiocy” as integral to his personality. He doesn’t know any better, so he sort of stumbles through these places without care. But this isn’t indifference. Yasaburo just loves people, no matter what the species, and he’s eager to continue to fit in wherever he goes. He doesn’t give up his tanuki identity. He fully expects someday to end up like his father, boiled in a stew pot, but for now there’s food and fun and exciting times.
There’s an underlying current of ancient vs. modern.
Kyoto is a city of contrasts. The former Imperial capital escaped much of the destruction during World War II. Thus, many of Kyoto’s ancient shrines and temples are still intact. This lends a sense of preternaturalism to the city, as if the mundane and the supernatural could comfortably exist side by side.
The Shimogomo family is firmly grounded in the past. They live in an ancient shrine, and eldest son Yaichiro prefers to wear a traditional Japanese yukata more than the T-shirts and jeans of his younger brothers. In contrast, their rivals the Ebisugawa clan are extremely modern. They own a power plant and are considered wealthy and successful. Even their summer festival float just happens to be a ship that resembles the American frigate that carried Commodore Perry to Japan to establish diplomatic relations. It’s a clash between ancient and modern, as well as Western and Eastern. The show’s narrative wants the audience to sympathize with the Shimogomos, struggling to maintain existence against the mightier and Westernized Ebisugawas.
The ladies take center stage.
The Friday Fellows are a club that relies on the fragility of the male ego. The members are a group of rich old men who flaunt their wealth by eating rare and exotic delicacies, which makes their choice of tanuki stew for New Year's even grosser than it already is. As mentioned above, you don’t eat tanuki stew unless you’re starving and there’s not else left. Choosing to eat such a dish implies that you’ve given up on everything else that the world has to offer, and you just want to be jerks about it.
Anyway, there is one female member of the Friday Fellows. She calls herself Benten, named after one of the goddesses in the Seven Lucky Gods pantheon. Benten is enigmatic, selfish, and a complete delight to watch every time she shows up in the show. She finagles her way into the club, but she also seems to low-key want to shut the club down, or at least usurp leadership from the ancient bearded man who runs the Friday Fellows now.
Benten was once a normal human, but Akadama, the tengu, became infatuated with her and kidnapped her. She became his unwilling apprentice, and he taught her the ways of the tengu. Benten has the power of flight and of subtle manipulation, and whatever the opposite of Stockholm Syndrome is, Benten has it. She took her captor’s teachings and used them against him, eventually escaping from her captor. She’s not a tengu, and she’s not entirely human either. She is something utterly unique in the world. A monster, and like all freed monsters, she’s eager to test herself and explore the limits of her powers. The tanuki are deathly afraid of her because of her clout with the Friday Fellows. None of them want to end up as tanuki stew. However, Yasaburo, true to his foolhardy nature, has a deep friendship with her. Benten seems to cherish her relationship with Yasaburo, but she would still eat tanuki stew, even if he were the main ingredient.
Friendship is complicated.
The other main female characters all carry their share of badassery. Tosen, the Shimogamo matriarch, is often the voice of reason within her small clan unless she’s in the local pool hall grifting unsuspecting humans of their money. Kaisei Ebisugawa is incredibly tired of her family’s feud with the Shimogamos, and continuously rebels by informing the Shimogamos about her family’s schemes. She’s also the only tanuki who can actively stop Yasaburo from keeping his concentration while transforming.
While The Eccentric Family is not the most well-known of anime series, this magical tale of shape-shifting raccoon dogs and high-flying tengu is one of the most surprisingly enjoyable and satisfying anime of the past few years. Here’s to hoping for another season!