The Spring 2022 Preview Guide
Kotaro Lives Alone
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kotaro Lives Alone (ONA) ?
Community score: 4.2
What is this?
The story centers on a 4-year-old boy named Kotarō Satо̄, who moves next door to Shin Karino, an unsuccessful manga artist. Kotarō has no parents and lives alone. Not only does he seem to earn a living, he actually seems more put together than his own strange neighbors.
How was the first episode?
Because of my day job, I have a love-hate relationship with anime that feature young children. Write them well, and I'll gush over how the series really gets them; write them poorly or overly-precocious and it's difficult for me to suspend belief long enough to really get into the story. I'd heard good things about Kotaro Lives Alone, but I couldn't feel anything beyond the most cautious of optimism as I started up the first episode. I know four-year-olds, and it was hard to imagine a story where I could both believe a child is four and is capable of surviving on his own.
Somehow, miraculously, the first episode manages to strike that balance, painting a tragicomic picture of a young child who has been forced to grow up way too fast. Part of the reason it works is because of the way Kotaro wears certain affectations, such as copying the extremely formal and old-fashioned language from a samurai cartoon he likes, like a suit of armor as he imitates adult behavior. Moments like the brief shot of him reading a newspaper on the toilet – and Japanese newspapers have a lot of difficult kanji in them, at an age where a child is barely expected to read hiragana – with his little legs dangling speak volumes.
What Kotaro Lives Alone understands is that a four-year-old doesn't become this uncanny mix of adult and child from growing up in a healthy environment. Nothing has been explicitly stated so far, but there's a lot of little one-off lines that indicate that something in his former home life forced him to grow up way too early, and whatever happened, it was neither fun nor cute. There's a tragic undercurrent to every laugh, whether it's due to Kotaro or the hot messes that are the other adult tenants in his building, that keeps it from becoming cloying or too-sentimental. If anything, it's a bit too real of a reminder that children are denied their childhoods every day.
I turned 30 this year, and the older I get, the happier I am to see domestic anime that focus on more “adult” issues. Despite the very peculiar and almost fantastical nature of its premise, Kotaro Lives Alone is right up my alley. Shin Karino is exactly the kind of protagonist that I'm interested in seeing more of these days: a real human person who deals with real everyday struggles. He's trying to rekindle his creative spark and salvage his career as a manga artist; he's got to deal with his colorful and bizarre neighbors; he even throws out his back just getting up from the table (it happens to the best of us, my man, don't sweat it). The only “weird” angle to Shin's life is that he's suddenly found himself involved in the day-to-day adventures of an incredibly precocious and eccentric four-year-old that apparently lives on his own.
This is the angle of the plot that I was unsure of, since unrealistically independent and intelligent tots are such a cliché for anime in general, but I like the way that Kotaro Lives Alone characterizes its titular tyke. The very childlike issues he goes through—figuring out how bathhouses work, successfully bandaging skinned knees, procuring a TV to watch his favorite cartoon—all contrast nicely with the jaded adults around him. Mizuki clearly has some drama in her personal life and work as a hostess, and even the outlandish Tamaru feels more grounded once you learn that he's having a hard time keeping his own family together. The jokey bits where Kotaro's “feudal lord” act clashes with his inherent immaturity could have come across as tacky or try-hard, but the show always manages to get the viewer to empathize with the boy's trials and tribulations as much as the grown-ups. Who among us hasn't also marched into a complete stranger's home just so they could tell you that you did a good job?
I only have one major complaint about Kotaro, but it's kind of a doozy: the show is pretty ugly. The art style is apparently going for this strange kind of abstraction that isn't quite Crayon Shin-chan, but all of the faces and bodies are just oddly proportioned and stretchy enough to look off-putting. It's a look that might appeal to some folks, but I just couldn't warm up to it no matter how hard I tried. Still, Kotaro Lives Alone was a very pleasant surprise, and if you can get past its rough presentation, you might come to love the kid just as much as his neighbors do.
Watching this episode, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to laugh or cry—and I suspect that's exactly what the creators were aiming for. After all, it's got a setup that is either inherently comedic or inherently tragic depending on the tone of the work. And let's be clear here, Kotaro Lives Alone works hard to walk the line right between them.
First, the comedic side of things. We have a four-year-old kid doing all the things a person living alone for the first time needs to do. 90% of the time, he does it just as well as any adult, which leads us to assume that this is his norm. The humor, therefore, comes from the unpredictable moments when he acts like the child he actually is, betraying our expectations in an obvious way. (This is exact same joke framework used for Stewie and Brian in Family Guy). It's an easy way to get a laugh, especially if you care for the character.
Then there's the tragic side of things. We have a kid, ostensibly with no parents, living alone in a rundown apartment building and surrounded by unscrupulous adults. Worse yet, he has a streetwise mindset that no child his age should have—such as knowing how to bring down the swelling from crying too much—which has some heartbreaking implications. Moreover, he clearly still wants to be loved: to have his hair washed by an adult and be praised for doing something on his own for the first time.
But the real hook of the show is that everyone in that apartment building is just as alone as Kotaro is. We have a manga artist who is struggling to live up to his breakout hit; a hostess who escapes her financially abusive boyfriend by getting drunk; and a low-level mobster who isn't allowed to meet his son anymore. Despite their circumstances, this group of broken people has a chance to become something by stepping up and becoming the family Kotaro so desperately needs. It's a show that plays with your emotions in the best way—and one I will most certainly be watching to the end.
Is it weird to say the thing this premiere most reminded me of was Garfield fancomics? Not like, the body-horror ones that go viral on Twitter every once in a while, but the more grounded and dramatic ones that try to apply a sense of emotional realism to the static, archetypal characters of the eternal comic strip. Because the premise of this one – an eccentric kid named Kotaro Lives Alone in a low-rent apartment block and gets into low stakes adventures with his adult neighbors – feels like something you could find running for 20 years in a newspaper comic. That is, until it starts slipping in darker punchlines with much more serious implications.
It's an odd balance to strike, and not one this first episode totally manages to keep. There are long stretches of this episode that are just a couple of jokes being repeated and iterated upon without much escalation or change. Likewise, the initial shock of the implications about Kotaro's life before he wound up a Pre-K lease-holder wears off fairly quickly, and once those hints keep piling up it becomes decidedly harder to chuckle at him strutting around town with his plastic samurai sword. There's definitely a version of this setup that can work – be great even – but as of this premiere it doesn't feel like they've figured out the right formula.
Like sure, there are a handful of moments that are funny, or charming, or bittersweet, but they stand as isolated incidents that don't coalesce quite right. And since they don't properly gel, it winds up feeling like each fraction of what this show's going for is struggling for attention. Are you enjoying this silly segment of Kotaro being pestered by a bird? Well that's over so we can have him learn about his neighbor's failed marriage and struggle for visitation rights with his young son. Are you feeling compelled by Kotaro slowly letting his neighbor in, and perhaps accidentally admitting to his own loneliness? Try to hold onto that feeling while he and Kotaro walk around the supermarket and the guy freaks out over the thought of having an unknown baby of his own.
The upside is the entire series is already up on Netflix, so it's not much of a wait to see if things start to mesh better moving forward. And there is something genuinely engaging to this material – if nothing else Kotaro's striking eyes and bizarre speech patterns kept my attention through the entire first episode. So hopefully this can congeal into the best form of itself, because there's definitely potential here.
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