Ink & Paint XII: Usagi Drop

Fatherhood is in the cultural eye this fall. A pair of movies debuting this month, Courageous and The Way, deal with the challenges of being a father, and how tragedy can spur men to re-assessment of their role and track record as a parent. It’s a powerful theme. Much is made of taking dramatic, public action to make amends for past shortcomings and, where possible, get back on the right track.

Today, though, I want to talk about a little anime series that quietly, without bombast, fanfare, or tortured soul-searching, depicts a young man stepping up to the responsibilities of fatherhood, and it’s all the more powerful for its gentleness and simplicity.

Adapted from the manga by Yumi Unita, Usagi (Bunny) Drop tells the story of 30-year-old Daikichi Kawachi, a self-absorbed middle-manager at a garment factory, who returns home for his grandfather’s funeral and finds something he didn’t expect. It seems his grandfather left behind an illegitimate six-year-old daughter. The girl’s mother, who had been working as the grandfather’s maid, disappeared suddenly a few months before his death, and the extended family is struggling with the embarassment of their patriarch’s indiscretion and the problem of what to do with this girl, Rin, who now doesn’t belong to anybody.

As the funeral preparations continue, Daikichi listens with mounting disgust as each member of his family refuses to take charge of Rin. Her presence is awkward, and an inconvenience—there are institutions for dealing with this sort of orphan, aren’t there? Meanwhile, Rin follows Daikichi silently around the house. She seems as curious about him as he is about her. At the funeral ceremony, Rin has a minor meltdown over part of the ritual, and Daikichi realizes she knows something about his grandfather that nobody else noticed. The relatives are outraged, and it’s the last straw for Daikichi. He announces he will take responsibility for Rin, silencing his relatives, who are flabbergasted at this turn of events.

Has Daikichi taken leave of his senses? Even he’s not sure. He quickly realizes that he might have bitten off more than he can chew, but he’s determined to fulfill his vow to take care of Rin, no matter what the cost. This is where the series launches in earnest, but not in the manner you might expect. There’s little drama, beyond the predictable little crises experienced by new parents—who will take care of Rin when Daikichi’s at work? Where will she go to school? What sorts of clothes does she need? Will he be able to cook proper meals? What if she gets sick? Even the fact that he’s now sharing his bachelor pad creates new problems to solve.

The beauty of this story revolves around the way Daikichi steps up to the challenge he’s accepted. It’s not easy. There are innumerable small sacrifices, and he doesn’t take them all on readily, or happily. A good night’s sleep is a distant memory. He turns down a promotion at work to have more time with Rin and make their schedule more manageable. And Rin’s not perfect. She has issues that Daikichi struggles to understand. She can be unreasonable and unpredictable. After a long search and some detective work, Daikichi locates Rin’s mother, but she’s pursuing her own dreams and isn’t pleased with the idea of re-entering Rin’s life. Rather than forcing the issue, Daikichi accepts the fact that he’s the only parent Rin will ever have, and he marches on.

Daikichi and Rin muddle through life together, and we watch the bond between them grow and expand to include the people around them. Daikichi’s parents begin to see a new maturity in their son, and they realize that Rin has a lot to do with that. They slowly accept her as part of the family—neglected traditions and memories are dusted off and shared with Rin, while Daikichi gets to experience them from a whole new perspective as a parent himself. Rin and Daikichi are growing up together, and he wonders more than once who’s raising who. We follow them through a series of milestones in Rin’s life—nursery school graduation, birthdays, holidays, school pageants, and community festivals.

There’s a joy and power in the small, shared moments of life, and Usagi Drop savors every one of them, communicating their emotional resonance without becoming trite, saccharine, or manipulative. Above all, it feels genuine and rings true with my own experience as a father. The artwork, like the story, takes pleasure in simplicity and small details. There’s often a shift to a soft, pastel style reminiscent of a child’s chalk or crayon drawings, perhaps in an effort to connect the audience to Rin’s view of her world. The musical score is likewise simple and subdued, and complements the emotional tone of the story perfectly. The title sequence is a whimsical fantasy kaleidoscope set to a bouncy song by Japanese pop duo Puffy Amayumi.

If you looking for thrills, spills, and laugh-a-minute comedy, you’ll be disappointed, but if you enjoy stories that are a little more contemplative, gently humorous, and carry an emotional punch that will knock you off your feet when you least expect it, I think you’ll like Usagi Drop. Check it out. It’s currently available via free streaming video at Crunchyroll.com, http://www.crunchyroll.com/usagidrop.

Japanese, subtitled in English. Some brief instances of harsh language, some smoking and drinking, and given Rin’s circumstances, I’d recommend parental guidance if sharing this with tweens, though the story is written with an adult audience in mind. 

UPDATE (May 16, 2014): At the time of this review, the manga was still incomplete, and there was some concern the story might veer toward the end into an inappropriate relationship between high-schooler Rin and Daikichi, 24 years her elder. That’s what happened. The anime, however, didn’t go that far into the manga storyline, and is perfectly enjoyable on its own considerable merits.

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