Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 25th 2011
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
Daikichi takes a break from his work-centered bachelor's life to attend the funeral of his recently deceased grandfather. It is there that he meets Rin. Rin is six years old, very quiet, and Daikichi's aunt. Daikichi's family is mortified that their patriarch had not only a mistress, but a child at his age. Rin and Daikichi take to each other almost immediately, so when the embarrassed relatives start to talk orphanages, Daikichi decides to take her in. In that instant everything changes. With a few words, Daikichi is no longer a bachelor; he's a father.
There's something very basic about Usagi Drop. Its concept is simple, its presentation unpretentious, and its scale deliberately and intensely small. It's the story of a man and a girl learning to be family, nothing more—no frills, no twists, no drama. It is mild and self-deprecating to a fault. And it'll put a lump in your throat the size of a fist, guaranteed.
If there were a Nobel Prize for loveableness, Usagi Drop would win it. How could you not love the story of a lonely child finding happiness in an unlikely father figure? Or of an unlikely father figure discovering the size and depth of his own heart in his love for his daughter figure? Rin and Daikichi's relationship is so tender, so real, that your heart can't help but go out to them. The series maps their life in little mileposts divided by miles of magical minutiae. We see their first meeting, their first fight, their first nursery school, their first graduation, their first grade school, Rin's first friend, Daikichi's first sacrifice for his new daughter (figure), their decision to accept their odd relationship rather than force it into father/daughter roles. We watch as they go to bed, get up, go shopping, make meals, brush their teeth, bounce on futons, leave for school, come home, entertain guests, go to parents' day, jump rope, plant trees—and all of it is magical because it's part of this new, exciting life they are embarking on together. As a portrait of family life (however strange) it qualifies as one of the finest, and warmest, in anime.
The series is very much skewed towards the adult side of the Daikichi/Rin family unit, which means that it's also anime's finest evocation of the confusion and joy of parental love. Maybe the only. Through Daikichi we experience the terror of having a sick child, the wonder of having someone to wake you in the morning and comfort you when you're down. We sense the miracle of a child trusting you to carry her, comb her hair, put her to bed. We experience the shock of being needed so strongly, the weight of one's importance in this half-formed life, and the complicated satisfaction of shouldering that burden. This may well be the closest that non-parents ever get to feeling what it's like to love a child.
A lesser series would drown in that sweetness. Usagi Drop is no lesser series. Any saccharine tendencies that make it through its minimalist storytelling are generally snuffed out by its rueful humor. The series has a keen eye for the inherent humor of everyday life, and an artful habit of deploying it whenever events trend too serious. And even were that not the case, the series is too honest to turn to treacle anyway. One glimpse of its unsparing, compassionate treatment of Rin's highly unpleasant mother is all you need to tell you that this is too complex a series to dabble in Hallmark uplift. It deals very frankly with abandonment, divorce, and marital strife; and with their effect on children. Even its warmest developments are tempered with a cold dash of reality. Daikichi takes Rin in as much out of disgust with his selfish relatives as out of affection, and he isn't without his ambivalence about the sacrifices parenthood requires. He makes mistakes, doubts himself, and is frequently mystified by the strange little creature that has come into his life. In short, he's human. As is everyone else in Usagi Drop: imperfect, selfish, and yet capable of great kindness. Paradoxically that makes the series even sweeter—but not artificially so. Lesser dramas are strawberry-flavored candies; Usagi Drop is the strawberry itself.
If there is one thing that viewers (the ones with hearts anyway) may honestly dislike Usagi Drop for, it's its artistic approach. There's no denying that the series' aesthetic is an acquired taste. For no particular reason, the backgrounds sometimes switch between eye-pleasing realism and simplified watercolors designed to evoke a child's drawings. The character designs are simple—nearly all comprised of a few basic lines—and often flat, particularly in profile. Male designs, specifically Daikichi's, can also be less than attractive.
However they strike your palate, though, there's no denying their effectiveness. The characters are as much the products of Production I.G's deceptively simple wizardry as of their voice talent, or even Taku Kishimoto's script. You can see Daikichi's embarrassed happiness in his bowlegged stride, can sense his cousin Haruko's hidden strength in the set of her face when she speaks of her grinding home life. Rin's rambunctious school buddy Kouki would be a cliché were it not for the micro expressions that surface occasionally to inform you of the emotional life brewing beneath the troublemaking, and Rin wouldn't be nearly the complicated, huggable delight she is without her fragile cuteness or adorable SD frolicking. There are moments of great beauty, most involving flowers and trees and wind, and great clarity, when faces snap into focus with great detail, and the shifting watercolor texture of the series' coloring is as striking as it is difficult to describe, but it's the subtle meaning that informs every movement and line that is the series' greatest artistic strength.
Suguru Matsutani's music is very similar to the series' visuals in that it is almost skeletal in its elegance. A little piano, a few strings—rarely is more than a single instrument used at one time. And yet the score has an uncanny ability to hit just the right note at just the right time. Many is the time when a lone piano chord is all that stands between failure and success, and always the chord is the right one.
The opening theme is another winner by pop veterans Puffy, set to a weird yet appropriate series of evolving children's scrawls. The ending theme is a more downbeat pop tune accompanied by an ever-changing kaleidoscope of picture-book imagery.
Earlier I mentioned Hallmark uplift. It is true that Usagi Drop wants nothing to do with cheap, manipulative uplift. But it is uplifting. Not in some shallow, cheer-me-up sense, but in the sense that it elevates and inspires. It makes you want to be a better person; it makes you glad to be human, to be part of a species that can feel these feelings and inspire them in others. And frankly, it isn't often that you feel that way.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Combines simple storytelling with complex characters and feelings to create a tale capable of melting icecaps; refreshingly adult-oriented.
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