It almost goes without saying that there’s no other anime quite like Shirokuma Café, but the fact is I can’t imagine another one trying to pull off the first chapter this week. Even by the standards of this series, it was spectacularly laid-back and reflective – in fact the very premise of the piece was laying back and relaxing. And apart from some more abortive attempts by Penguin-san to unleash his hideous Rakugo stories on the world (which seems to be an increasingly common theme), that’s pretty much all that happened.
Of course the anime staff couldn’t possibly have known, but the timing for this episode couldn’t possibly have been more perfect: just as Tokyo was getting it’s biggest snowfall in years, we got a story about a big snowfall. I’ve never owned a hammock, but I confess I found this chapter curiously affecting. Watching Shirokuma-san show Panda-kun and Penguin how to lie in a hammock, and then seeing the three of them share it, had such a feeling of warmth and unpretentiously gentle charm to it – there was no attempt to justify asking us to spend our time watching something so seemingly mundane. The best part, though, was getting to see Shirokuma as we rarely see him – being reflective, and indulging his natural inclinations as a polar bear. The sequence where he reclined in the hammock beneath the night sky and imagined himself floating in the Arctic Ocean was beautifully done, without a trace of irony. And what a novel idea for a bear too large for conventional tubs to use a hammock to recreate the feelings of his youth.
The second chapter was far more conventional, but no less involving for it. It started out innocently enough, with Shirokuma trolling Grizzly-san yet again and antics at the Panda household so normal that they ended with the classic “Suwanai de!” moment. I especially enjoyed Panda-kun’s attempts to defend his laziness to his mother – first with his “Anytime I’m not awake” response to her query about just how much he needed to sleep, and then his indignant – and completely incorrect – “Mom, bears don’t call it hibernating – they call it staying in for the winter!”
I always feel like Shirokuma Café is taking a risk whenever they show Panda-kun in a sincere mood, but somehow it always works and pays big dividends. The crisis this time comes when he eats his mothers tulips thinking they’re negi (seriously?) and she’s understandably quite upset, as she’s been planning to try and grow a garden that would impress the esteemed Ms. Tasha Panda. This is Panda as we rarely see him – genuinely mortified about what he’s done, not just scared of his Mom’s wrath. He goes to the café for help – naturally – and Penguin-san suggests a trip to Rin-Rin’s shop to see what the expert suggests is the right way to make it up to Panda’s mother. It says something about just how contrite he is that Panda-kun is actually willing to face the dreaded Pandacon florist to try and make things right.
I don’t know how the final scene will play with others in the audience, but I didn’t find it over the top or saccharine – just honestly and sweetly sentimental. Somehow this very silly and irreverent show always manages to score a direct hit on the rare occasions where it really goes for the heart, and the fact that Panda-mama is such a stern Mom – I don’t think we’ve ever seen her show a sign of affection or approval towards her son at any time in the series – only makes the moment when she sees the scuffs on Panda-kun’s paws and smiles just a little that much more poignant. Even here she’s a rock – the only thing she offers him is a simple “Arigatou” – but coming from her, I’m sure he sees that as a grand gesture. It’s the sort of moment that much more overtly sentiment-driven series often mess up, but this little gem proves once again that it’s cast is among the most recognizably human of any anime there is.