For the second time today, I’m blogging a series with a truly enormous amount of heart. Unlike with Ginga e Kickoff, though, this Shirokuma Café ‘s episode is the last one – the end of a memorable one-year run for a show that’s melded smart comedy and genuine emotion as well as any we’ve seen for a long time. Simply put, Shirokuma Café is a wonderful series, and it ended on a wonderful note – though I had not the slightest worry that it would end any other way. Shirokuma is a sort of series that was custom-made to deliver beautiful farewells.
I held it together pretty well, better than I expected to be honest – but then Full-time Panda-san had to go and show up. Before that, though, we got a healthy share of straight-up comedy. True to itself right to the end, Shirokuma stuck to the script that’s served it so well for the past year – delivering laughs in the first chapter and going for the heart after the break. The big tease was whether we were finally going to get to see how Penguin-san gets onto his stool, thanks to a video camera borrowed from Rin-Rin (Panda-kun must have really wanted to know if he was willing to ask the creeper florist for help). Alas, Llama-san and his considerable bulk deprived us of that satisfaction, but we did at least get to see the rather artful way he gets onto a chair as a consolation prize.
Penguin-san has really been the mystery man all along I suppose – I don’t blame Panda and Shirokuma-san for being curious about just how Penguin manages to afford his rather leisurely lifestyle. Most of the good tidbits from Panda-kun’s detective work were about the supporting cast though (well, we did see Penguin-san go to a karaoke booth to take a crack at one of the old series OPs). My favorite among these was the fact that Sloth-san talks at normal speed when he’s drunk, but we also learned that Anteater-san eats anything when he’s drunk.
I’ll say this much – Shirokuma Café definitely went the low-key route with the second chapter. It was certainly heartfelt, but there was absolutely no way this of all shows wasn’t going for a heartfelt final episode. But given all the credibility that’s been built up this is a series that could have gone for the full-bore tearjerker ending and made it work. Rather, they went for a quiet restatement of the core message of the series, which is really all about friendship and community. It wasn’t without comedy – Polar Bear’s sweetfish candy version of the Ryoguko Kokugikan (the national sumo stadium in Tokyo, from which I wrote a post a few months back) was agreeably random in that Shirokuma way. And we got an appearance from not just all the Miss Penkos, but their seven little sisters – Penguin-san’s worst nightmare, though Llama-san has no trouble telling any of them apart (of course).
I think the most powerful emotional moments of Shirokuma Café are when we see the characters for whom the deeper emotions seem out of character – namely snarky Shirokuma-san and frivolous and self-absorbed Panda-kun – display them. And it’s at those moments that we realize that those emotions aren’t out of character at all, and that they’re always just underneath the surface. Shirokuma-san is quietly saddened at the notion that Penguin-san might move away – no histrionics or waterworks, but for him, silence is the ultimate sign that he’s off his game. He even writes out the caffe mocha recipe for his old friend, though fortunately Penguin-san decides to stik around in his old apartment. And rather than a sloppy display of relief, Shirokuma simply closes the Café and decides it’s time to have an O-Hanami.
It’s certainly sakura time here in Tokyo (very early this year, fittingly) and it’s only right that a series which so expertly portrayed all the holidays on the Japanese calendar should close with a delightful one-year symmetry, finishing as it began with the cherry blossoms. Naturally all the gang shows up to join, Gri-chan bringing the booze, Tree Kangaraoo-san and Masaki the coffee, and Full-time Panda-san his family – back from Singapore for a week’s visit. Panda-kun never expresses himself so openly as where Full-time is concerned, and he throws himself into a bear hug (well, it was) at the sight of him. It’s a huge party and everyone’s invited – Rin-Rin is in heaven surrounded by pandas, Mei-Mei in heaven surrounded by Han-sama, and Handa-san a bit worried that Kirino-kun is getting so friendly with Sasako-san. No, you’re not going to get any real development on any of those major plot threads – just a wink. But that’s the sort of show this is. It closes with one last visit with the origami cast, but this time we see their seiyuu behind them – a fitting way to bring Shirokuma Café to a funny and touching close.
It may be wishful thinking, but I take some hope in the final words of the cast – “See you again!”. No one really knows how the Blu-rays are selling as they’ve been an Animate! exclusive since the beginning, but I do know that there’s quite a bit of Shirokuma Café merchandise available and that the manga seems to be quite popular. There was a report at the time the ending of the anime was announced that “another project based on the manga” is being planned – though just what that is I have no idea. I also don’t know how much of the manga is left unadapted, but it’s certainly nice to think that there might be more anime ahead for this delightful series. It’s the sort of show that would in no way feel cheapened by a sequel – indeed, its absence is going to leave a gaping hole in my week no matter how many new series I end up covering this season.
When a show that’s been running for an entire year comes to an end, there probably isn’t a whole lot I can say in a “Series Review” post that I haven’t already said. All you really need to now is that I love this show, even if it wasn’t always the easiest show to blog – it has a kind of “you had to be there” quality to it. The humor works because of the brilliant voice cast and the brilliant use of context for the most part, and that’s a hard thing to communicate in an episode post. Shirokuma also has the quality many of the greatest classics of TV comedy – especially British TV comedy – possess, in that it’s funny both being very smart and delightfully dumb. We get incredibly lame puns (the Japanese love their puns above all other nations) right alongside LOHAS jokes and incredibly obscure references like the “flatus patsy”.
More even than the hilarious comedy, though, what I’m going to miss most is simply spending time with these characters. Shirokuma Café masters the art of making the cast feel like old friends as well as any anime ever has. The absurdity of the scenario is never forgotten and indeed, often mined for inspired comedy, but it also gives the series the opportunity to be incredibly insightful about the human condition using that premise as a cover. Most of these characters may be zoo animals but they’re as recognizably human as any cast in any anime currently airing. All of the supporting cast seems to embody a certain segment of the character spectrum perfectly – Red Panda-kun, Sloth-san, all of them – and especially my favorites among the supporting players, Llama-san and Grizzly-kun. The mains are as good a core group as you’ll find, wonderfully mismatched yet a perfect fit with each other. What really comes across is how much comfort they all take simply in knowing the others are always going to be around – even when they needle each other (Shirokuma-san rarely stops needling and Penguin-san rarely stops being needled) the affection is always obvious.
“See you again!” is definitely the feeling I want to walk away from this series with – “Sayonara” is simply too painful to think about. It really does feel like a group of friends I’ve been meeting every Thursday is going away, and the older we get the more we realize just how great a treasure friendships are. We’ve been treated to something even better than caffe mochas and bamboo grass every Thursday, and if “see you again” is the message these friends are parting with, I can think of no better reply than to quote directly from Shirokuma-san’s (and Sakurai Takahiro’s) sublime final ED for the series – “Itsumo arigatou.”