This is one of those shows where my affection for it outweighs the amount of time I’ve spent writing about it. It’s so easy to take a show like this for granted, and this one is especially hard to blog sometimes. But it’s becoming clear as we near the end of its one-year TV run just how much these characters have come to mean to me. It surely isn’t accidental, but it’s really striking just how human they are despite their appearance – and I guess it’s the genius of manga Higa Aloha and director Masuhara Mitsuyuki (who between PBC and Chi’s Sweet Home has brought us some of the most heart-warming anime of the last few years) to use the cover of anthropomorphism to to explore genuine human interaction is a gently and affectionately satirical way.
There’s genius in this show in other ways, too, most obviously in the sheer effectiveness of the comedy, and we saw a lot of it on display this week. The first chapter was very low-key, even by Shirokuma standards – a wistful tale of Sloth-san’s journey to the onsen (one which he never completes, on the air anyway). Sloth’s urge to experience life the way other, less velocity-challenged creatures do has always been rather touching, and here it manifests itself in his quest to reach a hot springs under his own power, even if it takes forever (which, of course, it seems to do). He picks up Panda-kun, Shirokuma-san and a reluctant Penguin-san – who’d had his heart set on one-man karaoke – as traveling companions on the way. They manage to make it as far as the local sento, and everyone has a nice bath – but that’s not good enough for Sloth-san, who’s so refreshed by the soak that he’s newly determined to make it all the way to a real onsen. And this being Shirokuma Cafe, his friends stick around – even as the journey takes them past their own houses and into the small hours of the morning, where they’re rewarded for their loyalty with a stunning view of the city from a hilltop lookout.
The real comic high-point of this episode comes not from one of the chapters themselves, but from the omake, and it’s some of the brightest and funniest comedy in 48 eps. The cutout figures from the preview get shifted to the middle of the episode (along with their theme music) where they engage on a hilariously silly journey with running commentary. There are shifts from cutout figures to drawn animation on a film background – and back – cutout Shirokuma and Panda playing the pun game, and a visit from Doraemon complete with his magic door, which takes the quartet to London (though copyrights are protected just in the nick of time). It’s wonderful hearing the cast have fun with this nonsense (Kamiya Hiroshi really seems to shine in these types of situations) but I think my favorite moment is when Tortoise-san shows up to interact with the cutouts – in the form of a real tortoise.
The closer is a teasing chapter about White Day (which is today, by the way) which naturally centers on Handa-san and Sasako-san. This close to the end, were we finally going to see real romantic movement in Shirokuma Cafe? No – and I never believed for a minute we would, to be honest. Sasako-san seems utterly clueless – though she did manage to send Handa-san some obligatory chocolate via Panda-kun on Valentineis Day – and Handa-san is just as clueless, though in a totally different way. Though Llama-san makes an offer he can’t refuse, he’s not much help, and Handa-san’s own ideas about what to get Sasako-san – a bike, 10 gallons of water – are startlingly inept. Though he finally settles on chocolate himself he chickens out on giving it to her, and it’s only a chance meeting outside the soopa that allows him to give her a bag of mandarins and make it seem innocuous enough that he can go through with it. That won’t stack up to Shirokuma-san’s gift of a candy sculpture of Goreme National Park in Turkey (it’s a World Heritage Site, you know) but it should at least trump Penguin-san’s bamboo grass fish cakes.
In closing the cutouts return for their usual preview appearance, complete with the others enjoying their newly discovered power to send Penguin-tan flying with a gust of wind. And just to reiterate, I absolutely love the Shirokuma ED – it was so worth the wait. One of the best anime EDs of the last year.