You know, I can usually find at least one thing to criticize about anything I watch. No matter how much I like the story, no matter how high the production qualities are, there are always one or two issues, however niggly, that I can address in a review. In all honesty though, there was not a moment of Usagi Drop that I didn’t find absolutely, unquestionably, one hundred percent adorable. (Which isn’t to say that Usagi Drop is ‘objectively perfect’ in every way – just that I personally found it to be as flawless as it’s possible for an anime to be.)
Our tale begins when thirty-year old businessman Daikichi returns to his family home for his grandfather’s funeral, where he suddenly learns that his grandfather had an illegitimate six-year-old daughter named Rin. Looked upon as an embarrassment to all his relatives and treated with cold disapproval, Rin is not only painfully shy but also appears to be emotionally underdeveloped. When it becomes clear that nobody is willing to take the girl in, Daikichi stubbornly decides to adopt Rin himself, despite the fact that he lives alone and has no experience raising a child. The subsequent episodes are mostly about Daikichi adjusting to life as a single parent, and about Rin as she gradually learns to trust in Daikichi while discovering more about the world and her place in it. The narrative is hardly complex, but viewers of Usagi Drop will be rewarded with more substance than can be said for many of the more plot-driven anime out there.
What first struck me about Usagi Drop was actually the silence. One of the reasons I tend to be fairly picky about my most-loved anime is that so many titles seem to involve a lot of unnecessary dialogue. It’s like they’re terrified of having too much empty space, so they hurriedly fill the gaps with scripting that adds absolutely nothing to the overall story. (Seriously, go ahead and pick just about any anime series at random. Then watch one episode, and count all the times where dialogue is used when it either isn’t actually important to the plot, or else fails to achieve any kind of significant character development.) Every now and again though, an anime comes along that isn’t afraid of the quiet. I see this quite a bit in Miyazaki’s work (particularly in My Neighbor Totoro), and also in shows like Mushishi. Occasionally, we also get anime that take silence to extreme levels as in Texhnolyze. Usagi Drop is one of those rare examples of anime that doesn’t shy away from having a few scenes where people are just going about their business like normal, but without talking much if there’s nothing important to be said. It’s a fantastic example of a story that shows rather than tells, and I noticed that right from the first couple of minutes.
The other truly excellent factor about Usagi Drop is the realism of its characters. Refreshingly, Rin is a child who actually talks and acts like one; once she opens up a little, she delights in the little things like picking out cereal at a supermarket and losing her first tooth. She’s anxious about being the last one to be picked up from school and clearly has some hang-ups about what will happen to her if Daikichi dies or abandons her, yet bosses him about putting his elbows on the table and holding hands while crossing the road. She wets the bed at night and claims it’s sweat, asks Daikichi awkward questions about divorce, and doesn’t think much of the fact that he isn’t her real father. In short, Rin says and does everything that I imagine most six-year olds would in her position, and in a way that feels genuine – enough to have me (plus a couple of my guy friends, one of whom loathes children) all but dash for the tissue box on more than one occasion. Of course, it helps that Rin’s character is voiced by an extremely talented child actor instead of a high-pitched adult attempting to mimic one (the latter being another of my pet peeves).
Those with a vested interest in day to day Japanese culture should find this series particularly rich. In the first episode we get to see part of a Buddhist funeral. In episode six, Daikichi and Rin plant a baby tree to commemorate her entrance into elementary school, and Daikichi reminisces about how his mother planted trees for both him and his sister after their births. In one of the specials, the pair makes traditional weather amulets (teru teru bōzu) to prevent rain the next day. Nearly every episode includes several small cultural references of this sort, and it’s a lovely touch to an already realistic show.
All of this is wrapped in a pleasantly simple, obviously lovingly crafted art style, with seamless animation that doesn’t detract from the artwork by being overly flashy. While Usagi Drop’s characters still look like anime figures, there’s a softness about everything that lends it both subtlety and sophistication. In other words, it fits the overall tone of the series to a tee.
By this point, it should probably be evident that Usagi Drop isn’t going to appeal to viewers looking for an action fix. Much like other slower-paced, josei-based titles such as Honey and Clover and Natsuyuki Rendezvous, it’s a slice-of-life anime with elements of comedy and drama. However, as a shorter series that generally doesn’t lean towards the melodramatic, the pacing and execution is among the best I’ve seen of any slice-of-life title, regardless of demographic. Simply put, Usagi Drop manages to balance the seriousness of many of the situations being depicted with a deft light-heartedness that makes me want to throw away my natural cynicism and be optimistic about the world. If you don’t like unhurried, down-to-earth anime that showcase the best of human interaction and parent/child relationships, you should definitely look elsewhere. Otherwise? I’m voting Usagi Drop as the best televised anime to come out of 2011.
Question of the post: What did you think of the Usagi Drop anime? Have you also read the manga, and if so, which do you prefer? Given the somewhat sensitive nature of the story after the 10-year time skip that occurs in the manga, are you glad or disappointed that the anime covered only the first half of the story?