Hyouge Mono Episodes 1 and 2 – There’s No Accounting for Taste
It might be important for me to preface my review of Hyouge Mono with a confession: I don’t like tea. I’ve never really understood the appeal of dirtying my water with vegetation in the first place, and I don’t like hot drinks that aren’t also sweet. A show about tea isn’t likely to get my attention.
Nonetheless, I had to take a look at Hyouge Mono because it just seemed so unusual. Shows in the set in the warring states period of Japan are not uncommon, but shows treating the period with historical sensitivity are. Indeed, this show might be an outlier for anime, but it is still quintessentially Japanese: in culture, in worldview, and in choice of subject matter. But, just as modern Japanese culture is an uneasy mix of Eastern and Western, with a few frankly bizarre elements thrown in from God knows where, Hyouge Mono also has trouble pulling its various strands together. It’s one of the most unique shows this season, in a season filled with unique shows. But I’m just not taken with the result.
Sasuke Furuta is a samurai serving under Nobunaga Oda, who is fighting to unite all Japan under his rule and is doing a rather good job of it. Sasuke himself is a messenger, but he manages to attract Oda’s attention by being in the right place on more than one occasion, and also through a rather un-samurai-like obsession with the intricacies of Japanese tea ceremonies.
Sasuke fancies himself an aesthete (Hyouge Mono means something to the effect of “seeing the appearance of things,” I think), but while he pays attention to many forms of beauty, all things tea-related really drive his passion. His focus on such matters earns him no small amount of derision, but Oda seems alternately amused and impressed by his interests.
Sasuke himself, however, continually has trouble balancing those two aspects of his life; he’s distracted during negotiations by the presence of a famous tea kettle, and weeps when it is later destroyed. He knows the call to be a warrior and the call to appreciate art are not parallel paths, and is continually having to chose between the two.
He doesn’t choose the same way each time, however. At one point, he chooses the way of the honor-bound warrior, threatening to, and nearly carrying out, the execution of his own wife to bring his rebellious brother-in-law back into submission. She’s beautiful, and they love each other, but his duty as a warrior to his liege Oda transcends such concerns.
Yet, a few scenes later in the same episode, he makes the opposite choice, abandoning the prestige of killing another rebellious general in exchange for a masterwork tea bowl. It’s an odd reversal for someone who decided to abandon the way of an aesthete, and one which looks like it may get Sasuke into no end of trouble.
The reversal of what would be traditional Western priorities (save the girl, leave the teapot) doesn’t feel completely out of place—it was not uncommon in Japanese history for a superior to order a subordinate to kill family members, and be obeyed. But not only does it make Sasuke less sympathetic as a character, it shows his extraordinary obsession to a particular craft that I just couldn’t care less about.
Sasuke’s actions are hardly the only thing going on; there seems to be some behind the scenes skullduggery on the part of some of Oda’s generals, and the political aspects of the show, while confusing to a novice, seem reasonably engaging. But the show just doesn’t grab me; however much I enjoy anime that falls outside the usual checkboxes of harem, mecha, or neverending shounen action series, Hyouge Mono is just a little too different.
That being said, I’m not going to tell anyone not to watch the show. If nothing else, I have to recommend the first episode for the novelty. This is something sui generis, and so whether you’ll like it is something I don’t think I can fairly predict. Thus far, neither the action nor characters have grabbed me and I still don’t think any more highly of tea, but maybe someone who already appreciates that aesthetic will have a better experience.
Alternatively, it’s possible that the award winning manga this show is based on was never meant for a TV screen. It’s possible that the direction is mediocre and story composition and pacing is poorly executed. What’s certain is that, just like with the more extreme forms of Bushido, the obsession Sasuke has with tea will strike many Westerners as simply insane. And that group of Westerners happens to include me.