Raising a child isn't easy, and every parent or guardian knows just how taxing all of the daily tasks can be, the sacrifices that need to be made in terms of work and social life, and the almost constant stream of considerations and worries. The truth is that looking after children is one of the biggest causes of stress and grey hairs (or hair loss), amongst adults, but given that the majority of people in the world are (or will be), parents, it's a little odd that such a major topic is still a rarity in anime.
The again, who wants to watch a show about the trials and tribulations of raising children, especially when the steady diet of fanservice, explosions, brainless muscular heroes, top heavy heroines, nonsensical plots, pseudo-psychology, quantum-hokum, etc, are apparently what passes for entertainment these days. It's a sad fact that in a medium where literally any story can be told, the ones that may actually cast anime in a positive light are constantly overlooked or ignored completely.
Which is why Usagi Drop is such a rarity.
Adapted from the josei manga by Unita Yumi, the story begins with Kawachi Daikichi, a 30 year old salesman who has returned home to attend a family funeral. During his stay he finds out that his deceased grandfather had an illegitimate daughter called Kaga Rin. Nobody knows who the girl's mother is, so the family begin arguing over who will raise her until Daikichi, who has become increasingly annoyed and disgusted by their behaviour, asks Rin if she wants to live with him.
Usagi Drop is one of those uncommon adaptations where the anime has tried to stay true to the source material, and while that does place a number of limitations on it, the series also manages to retain the charm of the manga. The story develops at a measured pace that can sometimes feel a little slow, and there's a surprising lack of over the top melodrama that is so often a hallmark of shows like this. The plot takes a much more mature approach to the issue of parenting than one might initially expect, and while certain problems that Daikichi is faced with are specific to Japanese society, the overall theme is one that will resonate with anyone who has raised children.
Which is also the reason why some viewers may not enjoy this anime, but we'll get to that in a bit.
In addition to the story, the artwork also tries to stay as true as possible to the source material. The characters are depicted in a stylized form, and the rather simplistic approach to emotions is surprisingly expressive. The design is focused on showing each person as an individual not only facially, but also in their build, posture, and even their movements. The animation is fluid, if a little utilitarian at times, and it's clear that attention has been paid to each character's physical traits and personalities. In addition to this each episode is preceded and concluded by short, but rather charming scenes that are notable for the watercolour style palette that is used in them. The dichotomy between these scenes and the style and colouration used in the main body of the narrative adds a nice, almost picture book touch to proceedings.
Between these shorts and the story proper lie the opening and ending sequences, both of which are designed with children's paintings in mind. The opening theme, "Sweet Drop" by Puffy AmiYumi (yes, they of Teen Titans and Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi fame), is a surprisingly well suited J-pop song that's very much in keeping with Rin's character. In contrast to this the ending theme, "High High High" by Kasarinchu (a pop duo consisting of a beatboxer and a guitarist/singer), is more reflective of the overall atmosphere of the series.
As for the background music, Usagi Drop features a variety of tracks that are generally quite mellow or upbeat, but every so often the score is punctuated by a slow, simple piano piece to highlight the more sensitive moments of the story.
Now it's a trite thing to say that good acting can bring any type of story to life and give it the feeling of something new and different, but in this case it's actually a true statement. The simple yet natural script allows the seiyuu far more room to express themselves than one might expect, and with little in the way of manufactured melodrama, all of the cast (especially the child actors), are able to deliver some truly worthwhile performances.
The most interesting character in Usagi Drop is, without a doubt, Kawachi Daikichi. Part of the reason for this is because much of the story is told from his perspective, but he's also one of the most defined adult male leads in anime to date. From the start he is shown to be a complete individual with his own thoughts, habits and values, and rather than trying to develop him, the narrative is more focused on evolving him through his relationship with Rin, and the problems, worries and sacrifices he works through in order to be a good parent.
On the other hand Rin is very much how one would expect a child of her age to be - inquisitive, precocious, and somewhat withdrawn around people she doesn't know well. As with Daikichi, she doesn't really develop as a character, but instead what the viewer is shown is a little girl who is slowly coming to terms with her new life and coming out of her shell. Now this is surprising as it's a clear message about how resilient children actually are and how they are able to cope as long as they know they have the support of the adults who care for them.
Speaking of support, aside from the two leads there are a surprising number of well written characters in Usagi Drop, both adults and children, and it's their presence in the story that really rounds out the whole thing. The particularly strong friendship between Nitani Kouki and Rin for example, or the slightly befuddled attraction between Daikichi and Kouki's mother Yukari, all add to the overall charm of the series. In addition to this, one of the things that really stands out about Usagi Drop is the lack of angst where relationships are concerned. While there are events like the death of Daikichi's grandfather, these don't cast a pall over the narrative, and this allows for some interesting interactions and dynamics to emerge, the prime example of this being the bond that develops between the two lead characters.
Usagi Drop is a simple, straightforward and charming tale about what it means to be a parent, and while the story and characters are presented in an ideal form, this doesn't really detract from one's enjoyment of the show. It goes without saying that anyone who has experience of raising children will be able to relate more readily to a number of the themes in the show, but it should be pointed out that the plot is simple enough to allow anyone to enjoy it.
Which brings us back to why some people won't like this series.
Aside from the sometimes slow pace, the main theme of the show is one that many younger fans (and even a few older ones), may not like, especially if their penchant is for action, heavy melodrama, etc. On the surface it can seem as though Usagi Drop is nothing more than another lighthearted slice of life drama that's only different from the likes of Aishiteruze Baby because a full fledged adult is cast in the role of parent instead of a teenaged playboy, but there's more to the show than that.
The simple fact is that this anime is one of those rare titles that doesn't use the word "mature" as a marker for violence, gore, sexual content, etc, and this makes it almost unique when one considers the shows that have been released this past year. The emphasis on realism, albeit in an idealized form, may also be a factor as there are a few people out there who want pure fantasy and escapism.
Whatever your opinion or taste, one thing remains true - Usagi Drop is clearly aimed at a more mature audience than the norm. The fact that it doesn't demean the creators with pointless gore, violence or fanservice, or insult the viewer's intelligence by explaining everything that happens, are what sets it apart from many other slice of life shows out there.