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Hugh David on the acclaimed anime born from a controversial manga

Usagi Drop aka Bunny Drop the manga was written and drawn by Yumi Unita, serialised in Feel Young magazine from 2005 until 2011. In that final year, it also became an anime and a live-action movie, the latter from director SABU with Death Note/Gantz star Kenichi Matsuyama. The latter two were made just as controversial elements of the manga became apparent. Both of them avoid the latter and reach for much wider audiences, but only the anime really succeeds in offering the heart-warming slice-of-life tale the first story arc is all about.

That first arc (of two) of the manga concerns a thirty-year-old man named Daikichi, who works for a clothing company, and spends all his time at his job. On his return home to his parents for the funeral of his grandfather, he discovers that the latter sired an illegitimate child with his maid. The poor lonely 6-year-old girl, technically his aunt, is subject to the disapproval of the rest of the gathered family, and when they are all discussing what is to be done within her, a spark of decency in Daikichi causes him to suddenly make the very adult decision to give the girl, Rin, a home.

Comedy and compassion ensue in equal measure, as Daikichi not only starts to understand the responsibilities of parenthood, but starts to see his colleagues, family and his own life in a completely new light. He goes from being an all-hours, all-work office guy to a shift worker on the factory floor of his company, hanging out with folk who understand and appreciate the changes he’s made to his life. Meanwhile we watch Rin learn and grow out of her shell, discovering an artistic talent we learn is inherited, and making friends at pre-school and then school.

Produced for Fuji TV’s late-night, more adult-focused noitaminA slot by the legendary Production I.G, the 2011 anime could have been a disaster, with a first-time screenwriter in charge, a senior staffer debuting as director and a vocal fanbase awaiting it. Instead, coupled with experienced character designers and key animators, and with a heavily female staff (in keeping with the manga’s own readership and noitaminA’s viewership) contributing their views to the director, what has emerged is the premier slice-of-life comedy drama to grace anime this century. Even more so than Honey & Clover, an earlier noitaminA slot-holder with which Usagi Drop bears a striking resemblance, and the 90s’ delightful TV version of His & Her Circumstances, whose quirky stylings seem to be a visual influence here, Usagi Drop rings true to the details that make up the way we live our lives, as children and as adults.

I.G’s famous taste for show-offy effects here manifests itself in incredible detail in everything – backgrounds based on Osu, Nagoya itself (where the manga is set), the functionality of Daikichi’s home, clothing – rarely have so many animated characters been dressed with such a lifelike wardrobe (watch out for the Uniqlo cameo early on!) – furniture, phones, cooking, weather and so on. The Japanese voice acting is of the best kind, without the affectations typical of anime dubs, instead striving for realism, casting child VAs as kids for example. The eleven episodes re-work the first four volumes of the manga, combining them with the real-life experiences of the screenwriter (who was employed precisely because he was raising a child at the time of writing) and various staff members’ anecdotes. The opening and end credits by separate creative agencies are both beautifully conceived and executed, with great songs – the opener is from the famous PUFFY, who also cameo in an episode as daycare centre workers.

With the kind of cross-media timing that often eludes Western film and TV companies, the anime aired on Fuji TV and the live-action film hit cinemas in 2011 as the manga ended. The second half of the manga is set ten years after the first four volumes, making Daikichi 40 and Rin 16. Told from her viewpoint rather than his, the final storyline sees her realising she is in love with Daikichi, admitting it to him, and finding him eventually willing to reciprocate. As a “happy ever after” scenario, it certainly provided some of the loyal Feel Young readers with an ending they hoped for; for others, however, it was a debatable finale at best.

Comments from the anime’s creative staff in the interviews accompanying the DVD/Blu-ray releases of the series suggest a clear decision taken on this issue, resulting in the anime focusing solely on the earlier timeline. This means a second season is highly unlikely to appear, but then this may be one time that less is indeed more. It is rare that one finds an anime that looks to sidestep the controversy of an original source; still rarer that said anime is one of the finest of its genre.

Usagi Drop is available on UK DVD on 10th November from MVM.

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