You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family, or so the saying goes. By placing them side by side, Uchouten Kazoku is able to explore the various relationships forged between family members, friends, lovers, rivals, and business partners alike, similar to how the ever-rotating wheel of relationships between tengu, humans, and tanuki form the series’ background tapestry of modern-day Kyoto.
As it is with most social systems, this Kyoto is separated into multiple strata, with certain groups controlling different areas of the city. Likewise, within these groups there are inevitably the haves and the have-nots, all in a constant state of flux to out-do each other in order to reach the top. From Yasaburou Shimogamo’s perspective, none are as dangerous, influential, or as irresistible as Benten. She seemingly leads a charmed and incredibly successful life, full of wonderful things, and a bevy of humans, tengu, and tanuki all eager to please her.
How is it then, that she is the loneliest, most isolated, and sorrowful character within the series?
We are initially introduced to Benten through a memory of Yasaburou’s – not by coincidence, it’s the memory of when Yasaburou first met her – when she was still Satomi Suzuki, still learning to fly. Her beauty is obvious, but understating it is the pure joy that she takes from flying around a cherry tree, observing the blossoms as she weaves through the branches. This woman is vastly different from the polished businesswoman that Yasaburou later converses with in Uchouten Kazoku‘s first episode. The latter Benten is shrewd, calculating, and obviously holds a great deal of clout. She no longer sees her mentor, the tengu Professor Akadama, and is on rocky terms with Yasaburou, presumably due to her involvement and overwhelming guilt in the Professor’s injury, which restricts him from flying. Throughout their conversation, she continuously reminds Yasaburou through her words, demeanor, and teasing lilt in her voice that is her and only her who is in control of whatever relationship they may have.
In fact, Benten seems to control all relationships that she chooses to take part in, using a vast majority of them to further her position and social standing. Seemingly, she avoids becoming close to others, as she is unable to separate her tendencies of consumption from any emotions that she may have. Her friendship with the Friday Fellows is more of a position than a friendship. She supplies eye candy and entertainment for the evening while ingratiating herself with the most influential humans in the city.
“But if you eat the thing you like, then the thing you like will be gone!”
-Benten, Uchouten Kazoku, episode five.
Benten’s approach to all other relationships in her life puts her continued pursuit of Yasaburou into an interesting perspective. Yasaburou, in spite of his existence as a tanuki, is not like any hot-pot ingredient, fan, floating tearoom, or other possession that Benten owns. She doesn’t own him at all, and never will be able to, unlike her position as owner in all of her other relationships, including her involvement with the Professor. In fact, an interesting thread can be followed from the ways that the Professor dotes on Benten with material things, and the way she sees relationships with others as material things in turn. Following her involvement in Professor Akadama’s accident, she seemingly has sought to distance herself as far from him as possible, unable to face hurting one whom she presumably did care for emotionally. Her after-hours cocktail party with Yasaburou on the rooftops of Kyoto suggests that she realizes how empty her social position truly is with no warmth or emotional contact to support it. Additionally, she is admitting that she is now unable to separate her methods of consuming everything and anything she comes into contact with, in spite of knowing how ultimately isolating those tendencies are.
While Benten, from her tutelage under the Professor, the Friday Fellows, or elsewhere, has learned to treat her relationships as assets, Yasaburou, through the love of his late father and his filial bonds, has only learned how to love others emotionally. He may protest and bluster while professing that his main goal is to “lead an interesting life,” but his actions speak far more than his words. Yasaburou ensures that Professor Akadama is taken care of, not out of guilt – although that may be present as well – but out of genuine caring. For as much as he may detest the ideas of upholding the social traditions and obligations that his eldest brother claims to love, Yasaburou is always there for his family members when it matters.
In contrast, the entirety of episode five, and additionally the events that lead up to Yasaburou’s flight to Osaka, could all be seen as an elaborate scheme for Benten to not only assert her dominance over Yasaburou, but a way for her to spend time with him while working within the system of social capital that she has climbed to the top of. Unable to simply say that she wants to be with Yasaburou, or reach out to him in a straightforward way, she instead relies on her connections and power to inevitably draw him to her, all the while knowing that her relationship with him could eventually destroy him.
And that, Satomi Suzuki, is the saddest thing of all.