Mamoru Oshii achieves something incredible with his monologue-driven work about genealogy, narrative, and the demise of the traditional family unit: he doesn't bore us. Of course, Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai is not as abstractedly spectacular as his infamous Angel's Egg, but that's because it actually aims for meaning and coherence. How it succeeds despite its heady plethora of themes requires some expository groundwork, however.
Firstly, as a mash-up of melodrama, absurdity, and farce intent on simultaneously exposing and breaking storytelling convention, Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai belongs to that niche group of awesome experimental tragicomedies. Its mise-en-scène mimics the world of theatre, where characters express their internal monologues under glaring spotlights with backgrounds of jet black and in scenery largely composed of stage props. Furthermore, the comedy largely boils down to slapstick or fierce irony, neither of which makes for subtlety but pounds home Oshii’s rebellious style like a boot to the face. I recall one peculiar scene in which a character, Bunmei, spends several seconds tripping and stumbling in front of a massive Coca Cola sign. While it seems an extraordinary punishment for the only antagonist of the show, the scene’s true object of derision is the cancerous presence of advertising in anime.
Add to that the way Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai (meaning ‘long live the ancestors’) blatantly fixates on the concept of genealogy using supremely geeky bird documentaries as metaphors. The first episode opens with a story about the cuckoo who breeds by dumping its egg in the nest of other birds, thus mirroring the abrupt arrival of the young girl from the future, Maroko, at the Yomota family’s house. Not only does the introduction imply she is an impostor, but that she antagonises the very foundations of family, just like the cuckoo chick that destroys all the real eggs of the bird whose nest it has invaded. Maroko’s existence triggers schisms between the Yomotas almost instantly as the mother Tamiko urges her loved ones to turn the suspicious girl away while her son Inumaru only sees his lofty new status as Maroko’s ‘grandfather’ as an excuse to drag her into sexually compromising positions. After that, it’s only a matter of watching their lives get crushed by an avalanche of paradoxical misfortunes so classic in execution it’s almost Shakespearean.
Finally, at its apex of Oshii-ism, the show functions as a deconstruction of 'the story' in its abstract sense by playing out an analogical narrative that constantly questions itself. Not least, its characters are conscious of being players in a work of fiction to the point where Inumaru pre-empts and manipulates events to suit his lecherous desires for Maroko. After running away with her to a grimy apartment where he fails to make her fall for his advances, he muses, 'Inside this slice-of-life scenario, I thought that the drama of a young couple's passionate love would begin, or at least a big love story. That's the reason I also introduced into this home drama taboo elements, like violence.' Such self-conscious disregard for the audience’s suspension of disbelief occurs often enough that we suspect it becomes the point; Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai repeatedly tries to outwit itself and expose its own trite construction, thereby throwing acceptable conceptions of 'the story' into question.
It sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? But this is in fact one of the tightest scripts I've come across and certainly my most revelatory experience thus far. Here, Oshii does not just provide an eccentric titbit of storytelling, but a sweet-and-sour concoction of artistic hedonism and intellect that blends without fault into an emotional epic. The final episode left me wallowing in a highly complex soup of emotions, a reverie only broken by an addict’s urge to go back for more. I watched the whole thing again, at first in sequence and then non-chronologically and then backwards; I would wait days before savouring random individual episodes. I played it in the background while I typed this and I toyed numerously with individual scenes, and yet the show never failed to throw me a remarkable new detail every time.
By the way, Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai happens to be one of those lucky, lucky OVAs that pooled the best of Japan's animation talents. For example, the show owes its character design and animation direction to Satoru Utsunomiya, who has worked on the most lush anime to date (Akira, Armitage III, Fullmetal Alchemist, X). This skill becomes most apparent in scenes when the camera can simply stay still and depict everyday banalities with revolutionary zest. During an argument between Bunmei and Inumaru, for instance, the characters’ mouths fill the frame and move with hypnotic nuance as if the animators took the opportunity to say 'look what I can do!' without once breaking the flow Oshii's vision.
But, more than anything, Oshii is a visual engineer, leaving the balance of his message not just to what's happening in the foreground, but to the environments, the empty spaces, the colours and textures and angles of light. Few shows exist that can be rediscovered as often as this one purely on a visual level.
And how could I forget the soundtrack, which is as prominent a personality as the animation. From each episode's individual ending theme to the inspired slapstick injections of foghorns and farts, composer Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Death Note, The Sky Crawlers and then some!) and sound director Shigeru Chiba (Kirarin Revolution, Guardian Hearts) perform at full capacity to wrap the show in a unique aural package. Charmingly catchy opening theme aside, my favourite moments actually involve Chiba's eccentric sound effects, which usually twist a scene out of its intended context. For example, as the father, Kinekuni, rips a newspaper, it makes the sound of shattering pottery and brings the scene to an absurdist climax.
What makes the cast members unique is that they are aware of being trapped in a family drama, resulting in a blurred reality where they are both characters (people emotionally and psychologically vested in the events because it is their life) and actors (people who recognise they are following a predetermined narrative and consciously react to or rebel against it). The script in effect creates a bizarre tension in the viewer where relating to Inumaru-the-character becomes tricky because we recognise him as just a façade and, on the other hand, sympathising with Inumaru-the-actor brings only dissatisfaction because nobody ever emotionally invests in the person behind the character.
At first, audiences will likely dismiss the Yomotas as mere analogical caricatures; with their bombastic dialogues and cartoon-like desperation, I certainly had no expectations of them except that they function. But their pathos eventually creeps up on us as the family’s fate winds to its inevitable climax, and subversively but surely wrings our hearts.
So far I've shown that Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai is challenging, visually rich, and produces a circus of surprising noises. But I could say that of Fantasia. This OVA soars above the usual surrealist works as a potent work of entertainment because it adheres to the tenets of chaos theory, where its seemingly incongruent events nonetheless blend into a seamless pattern of sharp humour and heartrending tragedy. By the end, Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai demands not just an intellectual response but also a deeply personal gut reaction to Oshii’s universal theme of family.
Put simply, Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai plays out like a postmodern theater play in animated form, for better or for worse depending on how you see it. The story and its characters are quite aware of themselves, each other and the viewer. The show utilizes rarely-used storytelling methods, and some of them may seem deliberately abstruse and artistic, but I can't rule out that there's genuine and masterful vision & technique involved. There are certainly no flaws in the work that I can truly point out that aren't also an issue with my own understanding or tastes.
Personally, I overall liked the series but wasn't completely captivated during my first time watching it, which currently makes me give the show 3 stars (or 6/10). For context, I unambiguously dislike the director Oshii Mamoru's Angel's Egg and Sky Crawlers for their overuse of unexplained symbolism and lack of accessible substance both in story and message. I was quite awed by Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai's artistic solutions and the excellently executed scenes though, and I definitely can see how rewatching may bring the show to its full potential.
I admittedly lack the sophistication to fully grasp and analyze this anime in the way it deserves. However, I'd like to share my thoughts as a concise second opinion to VivisQueen's great and in-depth review.