A Delusion Plotted: The Eccentric Case of 有頂天家族 (The Ecstatic Family)

The sins never die. Can’t wash this blood off our hands.
Let the world fear us all. It’s just means to an end.
Our salvation lies in the Father’s sins
Beyond the truth. Let me suffer now.
In my heart, I just know that there’s no way to light up the dark in his eyes.


Donna Burke
“Sins of the Father”
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Once upon a time, E.M. Forster has once distinguished in Aspects of the Novel the difference between stories and plots. A story is a “narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.” The king dies, then the queen dies. But a plot has “causality” and links events together: The king dies, then the queen dies of grief.

This sutra is often chanted in creative writing and literature classes all over the world. Writers will later support or challenge this idea, but everyone more or less agrees that grief is a powerful sentiment. Grief can drive people to do either do the most beautiful things or commit the most inane actions. It is why so many works will one way or another explore this concept.

有頂天家族 or The Ecstatic Family is the first of a trilogy of books and anime titled the Tanuki series. It is also Morimi Tomihiko’s first foray into a series. Before, Morimi primarily wrote novels and short story collections. As a Morimi fan, I am curious if he is able to write a series of novels because he has never struck me as the type of writer who can manage to pull it off.

Morimi belongs to a class of writers who writes in a form called “novels-in-stories”. Their novels are actually linked short story collections in disguise. Morimi, in particular, likes to write sketches and vignettes with sometimes no thematic connection whatsoever. He admits that he plots novels out of his daydreams and delusions. The first novel he has ever written, 太陽の塔, is a series of diary-entries-like episodes with a million digressions. There is no buildup. Instead, there are amusing observations on items stored in our closets and Christmas. In later Morimi novels, he begins fleshing out these observations into full short stories. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these “short stories” then intertwine with one another to create a meta-narrative of sorts and reveal the structure as a huge scope of ideas and themes that few novels could ever boast of possessing.

So I find it interesting to find out that 有頂天家族 is a 2007 book, published right after his two best books 四畳半神話大系 and 夜は短し、歩けよ乙女. The latter two books are known for displaying Morimi’s finesse in this style of storytelling. Meanwhile, the second book of the series 有頂天家族 二代目の帰朝 was published in 2015 and there is still no date on the final third book. As of this writing, the second season of the anime adaptation is still ongoing.

有頂天家族 is about a family of shape-shifting raccoon dogs who lives in Kyoto. Yasaburo (矢三郎) is our protagonist and the third son in the Shimogamo family. As the name suggests, Yaichirou (矢一郎) is the eldest son of the family and feels the most responsible for the upbringing of his younger brothers. But Yajirou (矢二郎) hasn’t fared well and opted to become a frog in the well instead (a possible allusion to a Zhuangzi fable, perhaps?). Yashirou (矢四郎) is the youngest of the four brothers and works in the 偽電気ブラン factory; he is often bullied by the Ebisugawa twins there. These four and their mother together are trying to cope with the death of their father, Souichirou (総一郎), while finding a way to live together in a Kyoto with tengu and a club of people hungry for raccoon dogs known as 金曜日倶楽部 (Friday Fellows) roaming around.

Once you get behind the zany premise, the emerging theme of the book is obvious and the naming of the characters allows zero subtlety. 総 means something like “total” and the sons are named numerically. Together, the names evoke the idiom of a single arrow easily being broken but a bundle of them would not.

But the discord between the brothers happens because they have different ways to living up to their father. Throughout the book and the anime, the brothers have their own existential crises in following the footsteps of their father. In episode three, Iwayasan Konkobu makes a visit to Yasaburo’s tengu teacher Akadama. Iwayasan mentions how badass Souichirou was — at one point, the raccoon dog has shapeshifted into a mountain to defeat the tengu. Yashirou is flabbergasted and falls deeper in his admiration over a father he has never really met while Yasaburo wonders if he will ever live up to their father’s greatness.

This Oedipal complex resurfaces every now and then in the narrative. Can anyone in the family ever live up to the patriarch? This ecstatic family can’t be ecstatic forever, right? Such a life would be impossible to live forever.

And yet, the show/novel ends with the characters believing that the fun will never end. You make the fun happen. This is what their father sort of says when he makes his children remember that they have his blood. The 阿保の血/fool’s blood. The family must stick together at all costs and the brothes must learn to tolerate each other. They are family:

「狸界にはいけすかん狸もいるし、おまえはまた頭の固いところがあるから、喧嘩をすることも多いだろう。だが、一匹の敵を作るときには一匹の友を作らなくてはいかん。五匹の敵を作るときには五匹の友を作らなくてはいかん。そうやって敵を増やしてゆき、いつか狸界の半分を敵に廻しても、かたわらを見ろ、おまえには三匹の弟がいる。これはたいへん心強いことだ。それがおまえの切り札となる日が必ず来る。俺がつねに哀しく思うのは、その切り札を自分が持たないことだ。俺は弟を信頼せず、弟は俺を信頼しなかった。俺たち兄弟が相争う仲になったのはそのためだ。血を分けた者が敵となるとき、それは最大の敵となる。だからおまえたちはつねにたがいを信頼しなくてはいけない。兄弟仲良く! 忘れてはいけないよ。兄弟仲良く! なにしろ、おまえたちには、みんな同じ『阿呆の血』が流れている」

His philosophy lives on in the family and it also appears in the lyrics of the opening:

面白くない世の中
面白くすればいいのさ
自分で見つけりゃ
ほどほどにパラダイスだ

気がつけば何時だって
有頂天人生だ

milktub
「有頂天人生」

And you see the whole concept of 阿保の血 appear throughout the narration as well: 阿呆嵩じて崇高となる。我らはそれを誇りとする。踊る阿呆に見る阿呆、同じ阿呆なら踊るがよいというならば、なるべく上手に踊るばかりだ。

Be as foolish as one’s father, accept that you are his son, and create your identity for yourself — that’s the theme of this book and the show. That is the hidden message: family is great. Ecstasy is all you need to survive. Once the ride is over, you can let everything go without any regret. This is what it means to accept the fool’s — their father’s — blood.

「まあ、さして誇るような血でもないか」

And that’s the whole gist of the story. I mean it. There’s nothing else to extract from the story’s themes. 423 pages/13 episodes to tell a story that shouldn’t be this long. And there’s two more books/shows because it’s a trilogy.

I am still not sure what exactly I have read and watched. Was there even a plot?

Morimi has never been a writer known for his plots. Rather, it is the experience of threading scenes together into one beautiful knot that makes the reading journey fun. Indeed, in 四畳半神話大系 (The Tatami Galaxy), the realization that the reader is an active participant in shaping the story structure is so fulfilling. While the characters are unaware of the events happening and themes floating beneath the words, the reader takes all of the time loops into account and create a grander narrative by themselves. They are the ones who shape the story with Morimi’s guiding hand.

That is the magic of Morimi. Referring to how his stories are the same formulaic hero’s journey but shaken up a bit, he eloquently describes this structure in 宵山万華鏡 as “kaleidoscopic”. All you have to do is twist the kaleidoscope and you see a new image. The content may not have changed, but it is in a different order and becomes something original. The viewer makes sense of the visuals they see and “shapes” them accordingly so!

Thus, his writing stresses that you don’t have to be different in order to change. You shape what you see. Morimi praises laziness in 聖なる怠け者の冒険 and worships the Taoist doctrine of letting things flow. You don’t have to be a superhero and enforce law and order. Humans are naturally good and will give you a helping hand like the characters who lead the protagonist to the heroine in 夜は短し、歩けよ乙女. Sometimes, the forces of nature will make you grow up and you need to learn how to let go. In Penguin Highway, that is the case when the young protagonist learns the truth about the world. Change will happen regardless of your acts. Be yourself and prepare to do the inevitable when the decision comes.

These stories share the same themes because they are the same story. The soliloquies of drunken men on the eternal recurrence in 夜は短し、歩けよ乙女 and a child pondering about penguins and quantum immortality in Penguin Highway are the same thing, their contents rearranged so to look different. Characters and settings from previous novels have appeared in later novels. 有頂天家族 is no exception.

So we are merely saying the same words over and over again. All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Writers, artists, filmmakers, storytellers, playwrights, and more have always tried to demolish narrative structures, but in the end they cannot defeat the concept of an arc. John Gardner, a novelist, once said there are only two types of stories: a stranger comes into town and the protagonist leaves their home. But I believe the most revealing of all when it comes to aesthetics in storytelling comes from a Catalan architect observing forms and structures of buildings:

Originality means going back to our origins.

Antonio Gaudi

When all is said and done, we are observing the shapes and contours of a story like how we observe buildings. We need to look at its primal nature, its bare naked form, to learn anything new. To be original, Morimi understands that he has to be faithful to his kaleidoscopic-styled storytelling. And that means he knows he is an architect of his novels. Morimi may say he is writing based on delusions, but his delusions are extraordinary. They are extraordinary not because they are fantastical but because they are very structured in his head. Whatever he writes has a shape.

But the same cannot be said with 有頂天家族. It lacks a cohesiveness that his stories follow. Information is repeated the same way a chemistry teacher tells you to remember what an ion is: repetitive and unsuccessful. His characters are all over the place. Benten, in particular, is a unique disservice; she is a fascinating character with emotional baggage, but she has few scenes. When she does appear, it is more like a reminder she exists so don’t take her out of the picture just yet. The family theme disappears and appears when Morimi is reminded that this book is in fact about family and not the 金曜日倶楽部/Friday Fellows; family, of course, wins in the end as it should and readers cannot question the causality. It’s like Morimi has forgotten how to plot a novel — or rather, a delusion again.

There is still charm to the series. Morimi’s play with language and philosophically challenging dialogs is impossible to not notice as usual. It’s amusing to read about a frog in a well thinking how narrow-minded the world is:

「井戸の底から見える景色などたかが知れているけれども、空と星だけはよく見える。だから井戸の底の蛙だといっても侮ったものではない。世間は狭いが夜な夜な宇宙を見ているのだから、いわば宇宙的規模の蛙さ。そうやってひとりぼっちで宇宙を眺めていると、頭の奥底がシンとしてきて、ひじょうに知恵がついた気がする。知恵のついた蛙として言わせてもらうと、何かたいへんイヤなことが起こりそうだね」

But there is something missing that makes 有頂天家族 a worthwhile read/watch. This sense of plotlessness that I have never felt reading/watching the series should not have existed. Morimi has never plotted properly in his life. However, I am aware of this nagging feeling that it feels slow, repetitive, and bland.

I know from feeling it that there is no shape in 有頂天家族. It is just a Playdoh mould with thumbprints all over it. Meanwhile, I look at the other Morimi novels I have read thus far and they don’t look remarkably different. They are just as messy, sometimes messier. Yet, there’s something that holds the structure together unlike 有頂天家族. It is curious they have their own shapes.

The missing element, I believe, is motivation. Morimi’s characters are propelled by the forces of emotions. Love, desire, and despair move people and trigger events. Without these reasons, the characters don’t have a reason to wander the streets of Kyoto to find something happening. They make the scenes happen, the journeys undertaken, and the delusions structured like a plot.

And 有頂天家族 should know better. It plays on the most primal — the most original — of all causalities and motivations in storytelling: grief. Morimi has chosen to write the story of a family picking up their bootstraps as the first volume of a series. Grieving is in the past; the characters are looking forward to a future. This vague notion of the future has is a deviation of Morimi’s formula, which deals with the present. It has no shape.

In the anime adaptation, Yasaburo shapeshifts in front of the Friday Fellows (金曜日倶楽部) to several animals and objects to impress them. One of the things he shapeshifts into is the Sun Tower of Osaka — a reference to Morimi’s first novel 太陽の塔 which he based it on.

When I first saw it, I realized the staff truly loved Morimi’s books. Each scene they adapt from the novels is a concise retelling of the events in the book with unnecessary details left out as well as following up what Morimi has written. For example, he writes of a cafe in the western corner the Kamoo Oohashi Bridge but decides to not mention any name (加茂大橋の西詰にあるカフェ); the anime staff has taken it upon themselves to go to that place and take a picture, so they can recreate it in the anime.

It is mesmerizing to see the backgrounds, while sourced from photographs, be the same way I imagine Morimi novels to be. The luminescence of Kyoto in the day and the gloom of Kyoto in the night play with one another to craft a beautiful vision of the city. They may not be representative of Kyoto — not in the same way as つきがきれい (Tsukigakirei) was when an episode recreated the tourist districts of the city — but it is a bright cartoony world. Only 京騒戯画 (Kyousougiga) has done it better.

The anime staff understands the original intent of 有頂天家族 far more than the writer has. They have developed a visual language to ascribe to the form and structure of the novel. Morimi’s delusions for the first time have to largely be shaped by others. And the staff has done it well. It is no wonder that this anime is more successful than the novel is.

But like father, like son, the anime falls into the same pitfalls that the novel struggles to get out from too. We cannot however blame the anime for its sins. Its source is the problem. All the anime can do is grieve for its perceived shortcomings, that they cannot live up to their father, and all we can do is listen to them tell their story. It might be delusional of the son to see him in this way when we know who is in the wrong, but we cannot do much more. We can only wait for them to accept their father’s sins.

That, I believe, is the plot of what 有頂天家族 has come to in my mind. It is shaping up to be a tragedy, a very sad tragedy of lost potential.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s