As I sat down in front of my television Saturday I contemplated all of the choices Netflix had to offer. Behind on multiple critically acclaimed series like Stranger Things and Babylon Berlin, as well as being left in wake of the cultural tidal force that is Game of Thrones, I was looking for something to enjoy a relaxing evening with. This is when I noticed Rilakkuma and Kaoru, a show out of Japan that I was vaguely aware of. It had been announced alongside other much more prominent titles, part of Netflix’s attempts to tap into the anime streaming market and animation space. Little did I know at the time that I was setting out to watch the season’s animation sleeper hit.
Before we get started, Rilakkuma is a San-X character property. No, not Sanrio (the makers of Hello Kitty, which I had mistakenly believed was his creator) that stars a bear with a zipper on his back that debuted in 2003. San-X is a Japanese stationary company that is known for its cute anthropomorphized animal characters, one of its most popular being the show’s titular Rilakkuma. So popular is the bear mascot character that he has books about him, plushies, and even dedicated Rilakkuma merchandise stores in Japan. The name Rilakkuma comes from a combination of the Japanese translation for the English world relax, rirakkusu, and the Japanese word for bear, kuma. When combine them you get Rilakkuma!
Now for why you are really here, why you should watch Rilakkuma and Kaoru. The first and most obvious reason is that the show is a stop motion animation, an art form that seems exceedingly rare nowadays. Once a beloved medium with huge hits like The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Wallace and Gromit, it’s a style that has since fallen off in favour of CG animation — likely due to the time consuming nature and talent required of such productions. Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a wonderful example of what makes the medium truly special though, demonstrating a caring and loving eye for detail throughout the work. As anime (and animation in general) increases in exposure and popularity, expressions of detail and style can help works to find ways of standing apart from the crowd (like last year’s season of Thunderbolt Fantasy); to whimsically capture one’s attention, and invite the viewer to experience something different — Rilakkuma and Kaoru establishes it’s presence immediately.
The main cast of characters live together in a small antiquated apartment that look like it has been lived in for years, showing off Kaoru’s eclectic taste in decorating. Fond moments and memories shared between the group are presented to the viewer as photographs and trinkets scattered about — it truly feels like somebody’s home. It’s a level of sophisticated intention that isn’t exclusive to the backdrops, as each of the characters appear crafted uniquely and with great detail. Rilakkuma’s bear suits look as if they have been worn throughout his adventures, showing little tufts of loose wool when close-ups occur; Kaoru’s wardrobe, which changes every episode, is made from fabric, meaning someone had to make each and every one of her outfits from scratch to be put on her claymation body. The characters are deliberate and articulate, clearly emoting their feelings, which is hugely important when a portion of the cast don’t communicate in human language. And even the human characters, who do speak normally, are enhanced by these artisanally crafted expressions. It’s a level of detail that’s easy to forget when you might be used to reading subtitles or lengthy exposition, but seeing it handled with deliberate intention and artistry is a welcome sight.
Featuring a small cast of mainstay characters (Kaoru, Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, Kiiroitori, and Tokio), each has a distinct and unique presence on screen. None stand out more than Kaoru, a Japanese office worker whose unfulfilling job, coupled with a penchant for bad luck and non-existent love life, seem to capture the millennial condition perfectly. While I originally came to the show for the cute bears, I stayed for the very real troubles and hope filled resolutions of Kaoru’s story lines. The show strikes an interesting balance between the youthful playfulness of the animal cast, and the stark reality that is Kaoru’s life.
In the very first episode of the show, amidst troubling news of salary cuts at work, Kaoru looks forward to an afternoon picnic and enjoying the newly bloomed cherry blossoms with her friends from college. Upon arriving at the spot, her friends notify her by text message they can’t make it due to work, sick children, a successful book tour, etc. Kaoru’s feelings in that moment of abandonment are instantly recognizable to anyone who has felt inadequate when comparing themselves to their friends, or their parents, while trying to figure out life for themselves. Meanwhile, Rilakkuma and friends spend the day mimicking Kaoru’s earlier cooking frenzy by fixing themselves a large stack of pancakes back at the house. Kaoru spends the afternoon drinking alone in the park and stumbles home to be greeted by the bears and her pet bird. Sensing her distress, the group welcomes her home with a picnic at the edge of the local river. It’s moments like these that make Kaoru a very real and sympathetic character. Coupled with her warm and empathetic animal companions, the show creates a relaxing atmosphere to set your heart at ease.
At first glance Rilakkuma and Kaoru appears to be an animation created specifically for young children, but it quickly subverts the viewer’s assumptions by providing a robust emotional narrative. With each episode only lasting somewhere between eight and eleven minutes, the program captures bite sized glimpses into the cast’s life while establishing a through line of a year’s time across the inaugural season. Powerful, resonating, and beautifully animated, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a must watch for animation fans. And to get that extra bit of believability, I would highly recommend watching its original Japanese dubbing to really put you, the viewer, smack dab in the daily life of this odd family.
If you enjoyed this article and wanted to watch other amazing animated shows premiering this season check out our Shows to Watch: 2019 Spring Anime Season article which showcases some of the best anime Japan has to offer this spring. If you want to hear our opinion on said anime (and video games), check out our podcast The Goners.
Image(s) Source: Netflix/Netflix Japan