House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
I've never raised a child, but if it's exactly like taking care of a small dog, then I'm an expert at it. Bunny Drop is a manga about a 30-year-old single father raising a child, not a "lovable bundle of sunshine" child like Yotsuba&!,but a slightly more real child, a five-year-old with real needs who doesn't just freely wander around the neighborhood getting in trouble. Not quite a moe manga about pure cuteness (it's not drawn well enough anyway), it's a manga about the issues of parenting, and relationships, and about…well, shouldn't I save the spoilers for later in the article, Dear Reader? After reading this series I don't really want to review it, but here I am before the deadline and it's the manga that's freshest in my mind, so take a drink of something and let's do this.
When his 79-year-old grandfather dies, 30-year-old Daikichi goes to the funeral, although he hasn't seen the old man in years. Among all the old tired faces is someone new: Rin, a shy six-year-old girl who spends most of her time playing quietly in the garden. Daikichi soon discovers the shocking secret: Rin is his grandfather's love child with an unknown woman! It's a big scandal, and no one wants to take care of the girl, so she's about to be put in a foster home. Angered by this callous decision, Daikichi tells of his relatives and asks Rin "Wanna come home with me?" The little girl follows him home and so, he changes from a carefree bachelor to a single dad.
Maybe "carefree" isn't the best word: Daikichi's actually a serious, almost workaholic guy. Not a NEET or an otaku like the dad in Otaku no Musume-san, he works in sales at a clothing company (random fact: he speaks Chinese to talk to foreign clients!), managing a small team and generally keeping it together. He's a bit of a downer actually, looking weary and continually complaining about his age ("After you hit 30, it's geezerdom all the way"); I wanted to force him to read a Fumi Yoshinaga manga, like Antique Bakery,for proof you can still be a sexy bishonen even when you're thirtysomething. (Okay, biseinen.) He has no love life (there's an offhand reference to him having a girlfriend in the past), he apparently has no sex drive, he has no serious dreams or hobbies, frankly, the deck's sort of stacked in favor of Daikichi being able to make room for a child in his life without being resentful or having second thoughts.
That still doesn't mean that it's easy. From the moment Rin sets foot through his door and they sleep together on side-by-side futons, Daikichi's life priorities completely change. No more nights out drinking with his coworkers. He's got to find a daycare center. He's got to teach Rin not to wet the bed. He's got to feed her, clothe her, bathe her, comb her hair, take care of her when she's sick and comfort her when she's sad. He even takes a demotion to a lower position so he'll have to work less overtime. For advice, he goes to his friend Gotoh, a mom who works in his department, and one day her just blurts out, "Have you ever thought you're sacrificing yourself for the sake of your child?" It's a question that comes up several times during the series, and different characters give different, thoughtful answers, but basically the answers are always the same: you've gotta do what you've gotta do for the sake of your children, and YOU've gotta love it, because you love them.
Bunny Drop ran in Feel Young, a josei magazine that's printed the work of Moyoco Anno, Mitsukazu Mihara, and Mari Okazaki, among others. Josei manga often deals with the workplace and the burdens of balancing work and outside life (I haven't yet found a josei manga about a super-businesswoman who has a loving family and sexy love affairs and just magically solves everything she touches, like a female Section Chief Kosaku Shima), and it's easy to see Daikichi's struggles as a mirror of the struggles that women face when they have to balance being workers and mothers. Some of it is specific to Japan ("A company with daycare…what country can I find that in??" Daikichi thinks), but most of it is universal. Daikichi finds a kindred soul in Yukari, a single mother whose son, Kouki, is Rin's age. Did I mention she's super-attractive? But Daikichi isn't very good with women, and kids come first. A subplot involves Daikichi's search for Rin's mother Masako, who, it's eventually revealed, made the opposite decision; she abandoned Rin to focus on her career as manga artist, one of the most time-consuming professions imaginable. Daikichi thinks Masako is immature and his gut instinct is to hate her for abandoning Rin. Although Masako grows up a bit and returns to become a slightly different character in the second half of the manga, she never replaces the role of Daikichi as Rin's caretaker/father/mother.
It's called "Bunny Drop" because this little bunny (Rin) just 'drops' out of nowhere into Daikichi's care, like an item in a video game. From one perspective, parenthood is scary, but from another perspective, like the main character in Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference, even if you sort of look down on your classmates who settled down and had kids right out of high school, you might secretly envy them as well. It might be nice to imagine being a parent, especially if you get to skip ahead over the really difficult, crying-all-night and toilet-training part. ("It's nothing out of the ordinary really, being someone's parent. You look around, and there are parents all over the place.")
In short, it's a sweet four-volume manga about what it's like to be a parent. Oh wait…sorry…there's six more volumes! (I really am sorry.) Between volumes 4 and 5 the story jumps forward about ten years, and suddenly Rin is a teenager. (Daikichi, however, looks the same at 40 as he did at 30. Perhaps Unita didn't think the series would go that long, so she drew him too old-looking from the start.) High school life brings a whole new set of problems, which are now seen more from Rin's perspective; chiefly, Kouki, the boy who she grew up with like a brother, is now 16 and in love with her. However, Kouki has grown up to be a playboy, a goof-off and a bad boy. When Kouki confesses his love to Rin and asks her out, Akari, one of Kouki's exes, gets jealous and starts harassing her, leading to a tangle of relationship trouble and an abrupt shift in direction for the manga.
The first thing I thought after the time-skip was "Huh? What?" The second thought was "Why are all these characters still hanging out with the exact same people at 16 that they were at 6??" Even if you're lucky enough to have the same friends from kindergarten to high school, hopefully you've also made some new ones, and the fact that everyone in Bunny Drop is still hanging out in the same cliques ten years later struck me as lazy storytelling…or worse, sort of a shut-in, limited life.
Rin, Daikichi and Kouki are still the main characters spinning in this little rut. Daikichi is 40, but he still bickers with and plays video games with Kouki like they're the same age. (His relationship with Kouki's mom goes nowhere due to his own cluelessness, as shown in a scene in volume 5 that is equal parts "sad" and "makes me want to beat Daikichi into unconsciousness.") They're also both protective and vaguely paternal towards Rin, who has mixed feelings for Kouki's affections. Y'see, Kouki is kind of a flake, and Rin has grown up to be a very practical, housewife-y young woman; when her classmates are out partying, she's home making dinner for Daikichi. Daikichi, too, is responsible and reliable, "old man strong": he can drink all night (with a pair of 16-year-olds, of course, since there aren't any other characters) and in the morning he's still ready to pull on his suit and get to work. ("I'm not forty for nothing!") Rin starts thinking that she wants to be the one to take care of him when he gets really old, that she doesn't want to leave home ever. "I don't wanna tie her down for the world," Daikichi thinks about Rin. But gradually Rin starts to realize that all other men are just little boys to her. Her feelings for Daikichi are more than daughterly. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Daikichi reminds her of her father, she finds herself falling in…
By volume 7 it's pretty obvious where this is going: Bunny Drop stops being a story about a man who raises a little girl and becomes a romance beween a man and a woman 24 years younger than him whom he raised as a daughter. Some fans of moe manga claim that it's not really about sexual attraction to super-young girls; rather, it's about the desire to be a parent. While some moe is almost purely parental/familial (Yotsuba&! for one, probably), and others blur the line between lust and family feelings (like Oreimo), Bunny Drop changes from one to the other like a switch was flipped, going from a manga that appeals to single parents (and women who are attracted to single dads) to a manga that appeals to pedophiles (and women who are attracted to father figures).
Manga is a world of fetishes and fantasies that don't necessarily reflect on reality, and I don't feel the need to give readers a morally righteous sermon on Why Incest Is Bad. (Well, actually, I do a little. It's in the next paragraph.) There's plenty of manga about oyajicon (old guy fetish), like Ristorante Paradiso where the old waiters are like nonthreatening cuddly kittens because they've been mellowed (dare I say softened?) with age; and there's many Japanese stories about raising a child who falls in love with you, dating back to the oldest Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. (This is the plan of the narrator in the novel Lolita as well.) And the essence of stories is that different readers can read the same story for different reasons. But readers who went into Bunny Drop expecting a cute story of parenthood may feel like they've been the victims of a bait-and-switch when it turns into a romantic celebration of shattering the biggest taboo in human culture. Not that Yumi Unita is interested in showing the social disapproval that would realistically fall upon our hero and heroine for their relationship; the one character who discovers Rin's attraction to Daikichi is startled at first, but a few pages later they're encouraging her, saying "You should go for it!" Of course it's not Daikichi falling in love with Rin, because that would be too creepy, but if it's Soon-Yi hitting on Woody, it's OK, right? (Also adopted!)
Yumi Unita vaguely tries to cover her butt towards the end of Bunny Drop, when the characters discover that Daikichi's grandfather wasn't Rin's real biological dad. But the supposed revelation that they're not related by blood is meaningless: the #1 reason parental incest (should) squick people out isn't (1) your children might be a little mutated or even (2) the age difference. Its that it's a bad idea to have a sexual/romantic relationship with a parent or guardian who raised you and has power over you. There's a scientific theory called the Westermarck Effect that proposes that people who were raised together are naturally disinclined to view each other sexually, and even though there's a sort-of counter-theory, Genetic Sexual Attraction, that applies mostly to relatives who didn't live together in childhood and meet up the first time when they're adults (and besides, that's a whole 'nother manga!). Sadly, Rin grows up with such a stunted vision of life that she has nothing better to do than fall in love with Daikichi, and Daikichi, who never had much of a life anyway, has nothing better to do than return the affection. (The way he just goes along with it her desires is almost more disturbing than if he had secretly had the hots for her all along.) It's a closed circle, an incredibly depressing vision of their future, and it's hard for me to imagine that some people thought it was romantic, but evidently Feel Young readers must have liked it or it wouldn't have gotten published. In addition to being skeevy and emotionally hard to believe, volumes 5-9 are also padded-out and drag on too long, since there's not many twists and turns once Rin realizes her feelings. (Volume 10 is a collection of short stories, some of which are set in the early, better days when Rin was younger.)
I must reiterate that the beginning of the manga is all right, and maybe that's the root of the problem: "Initially this was supposed to be a one-volume series," Yumi Unita writes in volume 9. According to Unita, her editor gave her the one-line concept and then she developed the series from there, a practice which is common in manga. And really, it's the concept "a single dad raising a little girl" that people love about this manga; it's a popular concept that's been done again and again and will probably be done in every generation (or at least until the idea of single dads is unremarkable), although I keep thinking of 1987's Three Men and a Baby. This theme is such a crowd-pleaser, it almost doesn't matter how you develop it. Still, perhaps I'm not the only person who didn't like the direction Unita took it in; I can't help but notice that both the anime TV series and the live-action film adaptation pretend that the second half of the manga never existed. You could think of the manga and the anime/movie as parallel universes: one heartwarming (if fairly predictable) and one fetishy and gloomy. Maybe it was important to Unita on some emotional level to develop the story the way she did. Or maybe not. It takes talent and work—lots of work—to develop a concept into a story, but it also takes talent to fuck it up this badly.
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