The Usagi Drop Effect Part One

So perhaps this is as far opposite as the anime timbre needle can reach? Could Usagi Drop be the penultimate symbol of a medium reaching the end of the reflex line in regards to how it is presented, and sells itself to the masses? Admittedly, not having not spent a lot of time with the Summer anime season, a part of me was ambivalent at best by considering even watching my way through an entire series. As much as the studios have been racing to seek out new conceptual niche(Ie- giving Shinbo more work), and otherwise spinning away at their remix machine(Shinbo, again..), it is telling that Production IG opted to adapt Yumi Unita ‘s popular manga for the animated screen. In many ways, to envision anime as a place where we could be host to a world, and situation not unlike those in real life, where single-parent living is a large functional reality in the lives of so many is something that not only tells us how strange a zeitgeist we are currently within, but also of very real dreams, concerns, and perhaps even laments that a modern urban Japan is going through. If so, the anime version of Usagi Drop is something of an effective, yet doubly melalcholic yearning for  a new breed of beginning in a landscape awash with change.

When Daikichi and family make the bombshell discovery of a six-year old daughter left behind after his grandfather’s death, the 30 year old salaryman eventually takes to the unusually independent, yet alone Rin Kaga, and begins a journey that will likely change both forever. Of the many new life choices Daikichi must make in order for his transformation to begin; including  a new commute habit, watching his health, and downgrading his sales job for the sake of Rin’s schooling, we are witness to a man who having grown up the only boy among sisters , is unexpectedly adept at being what could very well be akin to an adoptive father. There are many challenges, and speedbumps natural to assuming this role without having known this little girl through her earliest years, many of which involve his need to better understand Rin’s role, and her regards toward her new circumstances. The ways in which both characters shape and alter one another’s lives is at the core of Usagi Drop, noItaminA’s summer offering that serves as an exciting respite from the all-too-familiar barrage of tropes for their own sake tv anime culture one expects from the season. A few episodes in, and it becomes clear that the source of such excitement comes from characters played with the right pitch, and storytelling with unerring patience, and faith in the sublime.

Upon reflection, the show’s initial episodes do a pretty solid job of establishing the domestic world as something rife with moments worth illustrating, all the while whisking us through a universal tale of single-parenthood. There are nearly entire episodes that eschew the all-too convenient cliche of voice over in order to inundate us with often confusing and superfluous musing. While voice-over eventually does happen, it tends to carry a more utilitarian function. But when this isn’t so much in need, there are sections that actually show rather than tell, which is going to sound strange, but refreshingly retro. As Daikichi’s life begins to crystallize into something more than that of a mildly successful trader, we are privy to his world prior, his relationships with co-workers and family, and even his own personal quirks before facing one new facet of the guardian life after another. We even witness Rin’s contrasting nature to that of other children her age(most telling, is by watching Daikichi’s niece, who in many ways resembles a 1970s comic brat, exaggerated mouth, twin-tails and all). There are touches that are directed, rather than spoken away in a confusing line or two. For the show to take the time to visualize what far too many anime skip with voice over, creates an environment that trusts the audience and it’s ability to relate, instead of giving in to short cut solutions. So when he has to contend with co-workers & family members agape at this very sudden lifestyle shift, as well as simpler day-to-day concerns such as school admissions & potential bed-wetting, Daikichi’s life has become an endless trial by fire that he seems to have been born to brave. The show’s first half leads us to the revelation of Rin’s up til now unseen mother, and Daikichi’s burning concerns regarding the future of Rin’s name. Along with his meeting of the unexpectedly young Masako(played by-SURPRISE. Maaya Sakamoto), and his understandable frustration at the young mother for seemingly abandoning her daughter for the sake of her career, it is made clear that her role has only begun to reveal itself. With all the hints that episode 5 leaves for us, there is room to understand that even her character will receive a decent amount of humanization before the 11 episode run comes to an end. All the while,  Rin’s growing affection for Daikichi, and yet noble nature are having a profound effect on both leads.

Now having read the previous, it is clear that I have a certain affection for this series, and what it has offered thus far. And while I am aware of where the story goes in the manga version of events, I hardly see what comes next as any kind of trouble, lest the storytelling takes some kind of unforseen nosedive. The animation’s novel watercolor teaser sections are reminiscent of Horuou Musuko, and grant the show a classically unique flavor that accents its modern world encompassing nature. The aural/visuals of the series are quite lovely in places, and often feel more like a live action film mix than an anime one. Performances have been quite effective thus far, with Hiroshi Tsuchida’s performance driving the piece as a man, seemingly facing what seems to be his lifelong destiny, joy and pain in a beautiful package. So much sensitivity is granted in the writing, the requirement that his range be quite wide, yet real is high priority, and it comes together quite well here. Matsuura’s a great Rin, but also falters due to obviously having a register much older than the character. That said, she is up to the task. Much of Unita’s visual humor, and attention to daily minutae is terrific without seeming typical of what many have dubbed Slice Of Life anime.  There are so many warning signs that could allow Usagi Drop to become just another animated drama from Japan.  But as of this point, this is a solidly written and directed series that stands nicely apart, true to the classic noitaminA thrust. If this is where anime reaches the apex of its more domestic side, I’m more than willing to explore it as long as there are stories worth telling, and characters worth following in the name of something new & sincere with our animated entertainment. And much like our two leads, I’m apprehensive, yet eager to see what happens next.

To Be Continued..

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