It seems funny to start a post by saying that this was definitely the least funny Shirokuma Café ever, and have it be a positive one – but it definitely will be. We’ve seen this show go the serious route on a few occasions, certainly, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this – for the series itself, or for Panda-kun. That it was able to pull it off really shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the sure emotional touch the series has displayed already.
It was pretty clear right from the beginning that something strange was going on with Full-time Panda-san. The extended head-rubbing was probably the biggest clue, but Panda-kun is typically pretty dense about such things. This ep serves as a reminder that he’s not just childish, but actually a kid himself. As such, he was woefully unprepared to deal with the news that Full-time had been transferred to a zoo in Singapore – and that goes beyond just the worry that his cuteness would be less noticeable without Full-time as a reference point.
I confess I was pretty curious to see where the show would go with this – we’ve seen Panda-kun in some pretty serious moments before, but this was of a somewhat different level of finality. It was pretty surprising right from the beginning, starting with his stoicism (which Handa-san was rightly concerned about). I guess that was the “denial” stage of grief, as it was pretty early for acceptance. The moment when he finally broke was when he was approached by the tissue hawker on his way home from work (trust me, you meet those people everywhere in Tokyo). That was quite unlike any other moment in Shirokuma – we’ve had our share of emotional peaks but they’ve tended to be of the heartwarming variety. This was just abject, unapologetic sadness – Panda-kun breaking down in tears. Pulling out the sad, sad panda may be cheating just a bit, but it’s hard to watch something like that and not feel a litle something.
What that proves, I suppose, is that for all his clueless self-involvement Panda-kun is vulnerable just like anyone else. Here PBC surprises us yet again, as Panda-kun responds to his emotional low ebb by becoming a workaholic. Having a panda only two days a week is an obvious financial problem for the zoo, so Handa-san gently asks Panda to work full-time – “Even three days a week is fine” – and he surprisingly asks to work all seven. Workaholic Panda-kun? That’s a coping mechanism if I’ve ever seen one, and he doesn’t just phone it in – he really works his tail off, service out the ying-yang. He ends up so exhausted that he falls asleep in the rain, prompting the male half of a visiting Valentine’s Day couple to complain “This sucks!” Here we have the other highlight of the episode, as Penguin-san – who’d been visiting the zoo because he was worried about Panda’s state of mind – ripping into the thoughtless man with a vigor that was surprising, even for him.
The episode ends as it probably should – with a simple confirmation of the power of friendship, followed by the return of the Full-time Panda ED. Penguin-san referring to Panda-kun as his “best friend” is interesting, but I think probably accurate (which is sadder for Penguin-san than anything, I suppose) given that Shirokuma would surely call Grizzly-kun his. Penguin is surely more self-aware than Panda, but they both seem to take pleasure in the re-statement of their odd relationship – and Shirokuma-san treats the both of them to their usual on the house as an acknowledgement that he knows what they’re both feeling.
This is an odd sort of Shriokuma post for me, because it feels like I’m reviewing another series – and that’s because this was surely the most “conventional” episode yet. It had a plot that carried through the entire episode, and the sort of character drama that you might see in a typically very different sort of show. Still, there was the essence of Shirokuma Café here even in the absence of its usual humor – the show has always had a surprising emotional depth, and this ep simply explored a different sort of emotional spectrum than the series’ usual. It really amounts to the same thing the show does every week – using the cover of animals as characters to explore the human condition in a subtly profound way.