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"Usagi Drop": How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Becoming A Father

by on January 16, 2012

Imagine waking up to the news that your grandfather had passed away, then finding out at his funeral he had fathered an illegitimate child with the household maid. This child seems some what mute and emotionally closed in the wake of her father’s passing.

Then imagine ending your carefree, go-getter, single life to take care of that child when everyone in your family and her mother has decided that, for one reason or another, taking this child would be an untenable burden. You take a demotion in your company so you can work more stable hours; your friend group goes from the boys at work to the other single parents; and you don’t even see them much except for school events your adopted daughter/technical aunt are going to.

That is the setup of Usagi Drop, a story about a thirty-something man named Daikichi who takes in his grandfather’s 6-year-old daughter, Rin. Just as a concept, that’s a pretty bold work. Bolder still in this day of anime, is the absolute lack of cheaply exploitative fan service or pandering. This is a brilliant and realistic Josei title that very realistically captures what would actually happen given this setup. All this little trials of being a new parent, such as balancing work with parenthood, working out the morning commute, figuring out which school your child can go to, readjusting your social life, visits to the relatives and more–Usagi Drop captures all these in a amazingly loving and real way. Daikichi’s struggles with Rin cover a lot of very real and everyday points of parenting.

Yet, at the same time, they capture the subtle details of their specific situation as well. Rin gradually blossoms from a PTSD-like silence into a vibrant, sweet and independent girl as she and Daikichi gradually become more comfortable with each other. Correspondingly, the rest of the family warms up to her, and her to them, with Daikichi’s mother becoming the most doting “grandmother” you’ve ever seen. A little romance–or at least a terribly awkward crush between Daikichi and the single mother parent of one Rin’s friends–starts to blossom, and the tension between them is so clumsy and honest it’s hard to think of them as only characters.

At same time, Daikichi’s attempts to reconnect and then maintain at least some connection with Rin’s birth mother might stretch the boundaries of believability. This is because it’s a little convenient that her mom was a busy manga-ka in a work that was originally rendered as a manga. At the same time though, it depicts that work in an appropriately mundane and grueling fashion on screen, maintaining the realism of the world, and doesn’t feel like the actual manga-ka used the character as cheap self-insertion. Additionally, the amazingly principled and selfless nature of Daikichi seems almost unbelievable, except that by the end of it, he feels like a role-model, and perhaps even if most people wouldn’t make the same moves if in his shoes, you would hope that you would.

However, any moments of disbelief are offset by fact that even the smallest moments–like Daikichi attempting to snap a good picture of Rin on his cellphone during her nursery school graduation and cringing at the mediocre result–are just so human and true. The aforementioned scene only a half-second moment, but even if you’ve never been a parent, stuff like that is universal in the modern world, and rather than omitting such everyday occurrences, they are embraced to establish just how everyday this situation could be.

If it feels like I’m talking in vignettes here, it’s because while there is definitely a continuity and progression in Usagi Drop, it is slightly episodic, and it captures even the shortest moments so well it’s hard to focus on any specifically stand out piece, and that’s quite an achievement. If anything, people might take issue with this general realism in the same fashion as they do with some animated sitcoms in the US. Like those series, one might suggest there is little reason to animate Usagi Drop rather than shoot it in live action, and indeed, an excellent live action adaptation of the manga has been done as well. Yet, the usage of a slightly different animation style for the opening and closing shorts add a certain charm and softness that brings the inviting tone of Usagi Drop to another level, while the realism keeps it from becoming saccharin and trite. That precision and balance make it something of an achievement. This could have been an awful title for a lot of different reasons these days: It could have been pedantic and cloyingly sweet, it could have been loaded to the gills with unrealistic, skin-crawlingly creepy fan service, and either way it could have been little too loosely arranged or so distracted by episode-to-episode momentum as to miss including the little asides that are more about the setting than the main story. Yet, it just dodges all of that without a second thought.

Frankly, Usagi Drop is one of the best anime of 2011, and I wish I already could buy it. However, it’s only streaming on CrunchyRoll, and so I recommend streaming it if you get the chance, even if it doesn’t quite do the animation justice. The story it tells is almost entirely unique in the world of animation, and if you do enjoy it, check out the similarly superb and fresh manga, which you can buy right now. Unless of course, you’re an animation localization firm reading this, in which case, get to bidding, then buying, then dubbing, then releasing. This is the anime to sell to otaku with kids (a growing demographic,) or who may want to one day have a family. Usagi Drop, even with its depiction of the sacrifices that go into parenthood, may make you want to be a parent by the end, it’s so charming. If you’d told me a show could do that, I wouldn’t have believed it, so if that doesn’t speak to it’s quality, what does?

Oh, maybe the fact the manga is up for a Eisner Award and the anime was produced by the legendary studio Production IG. Yeah, those might underline how good this is too.

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