There’s just something about Tanabata that makes the Japanese go all doe-eyed and sentimental, if the festival’s many depictions in anime are any guide. And when you think about it, a holiday based around such a sad and beautiful legend is something quite wonderful, and I love the notion of tying wishes to the bamboo tree in memory of the legend. So I was happy to see Shirokuma Café take on the tradition in this week’s episode, though the final results were somewhat surprising.
Indeed, the conclusion of last week’s episode hinted what I thought it might – the romance flag had indeed been raised for Handa and Sasako. But I was never expecting the episode that explored this possibility to have the depth and seriousness that this one did. Depth and seriousness are a controversial path to tread for light comedies like this one, and I suspect this is an episode that might divide the show’s fanbase quite a bit. Certainly, there was nothing in the first 12 episodes to make me think Polar Bear’s Café had either the inclination or the ability to do what it did this week in providing an episode that was bittersweet, thoughtful, romantic and even quite emotionally powerful. I loved it – I’m guessing not everyone is going to feel the same way.
While I admit I’m a sucker for emotional warmth in the right sort of comedy (Shirokuma – yes, Haiyore! – no) I still think an objective view would say that this ep struck a really good balance. It was wistful and full of gentle humor, much of it built around the puns the series is no for – Panda-kun’s misunderstanding of the Tanabata festival involving “Onihime” and being a demon love triangle for starters. Of course it’s understandable that a panda would think a festival involving bamboo would entail eating it. You also had Panda-kun telling Full-time Panda-san he was “Latino” for some reason (perhaps there’s a Japanese pun there I’m not getting) and the “assertiveness” confusion.
In the end, it all came down to the wishes. Some were predictable, like Penguin-san’s. Some were silly, like Tortoise-san’s “I want to ride a bike” and Sloth-san’s “I want to win a marathon”. But there was no mistaking the intent when Polar Bear’s said “To stop global warming”. Pretty heavy stuff for a comedy – but then, that’s certainly something a polar bear should get serious about, even this one. I pretty much guessed what Panda-kun’s wish was going to be in the end – but I still got a little warm feeling from seeing it. It felt right in the moment, though it’s always a risk for this kind of series to leave irony behind completely and go all-in on sincerity. But even in a comedy like this, I like to see characters grow. It’s more interesting that way.
Neither Handa-san nor Sasako-san have been my favorite characters in this cast, but it says something about the quality of the writing that this ep really made me care about what happened to them, and to root hard for Handa-san. It’s nice to see a nice guy who’s also a shy and socially unskilled loser treated with dignity in this sort of situation, and I thought his halting but sincere progress with Sasako-san was especially well-portrayed. I liked the fact that in the end, he put his wish on the tree and let her see it, and I like the fact that Panda-kun genuinely and honestly pushed him forward with the intent of helping him out. I salute the series for being to pull this episode off in a way more serious romance series could take lessons from, and I hope we see this thread pursued further in the months ahead.