Usagi Drop Ep. 7: Behind the smiles

I found this episode incredibly disturbing. Oh, you guys will tell me that I’m reading too much into things or that I’m missing “the point” — we all know how this dance goes.

Haruko has run away from home with Reina in tow. Essentially, Daikichi’s cousin feels alienated in her own home. With no other family to turn to, Haruko decides to stay with Daikichi for the time being.

At first, I enjoyed Haruko’s characterization. Often times, parents in anime tend to blend into the larger familial pastiche. They act and talk like parents, but they don’t have personalities of their own. Haruko breaks through this mold, confessing her private thoughts and concerns to her cousin. She’s a mother, but now, she’s also Haruko. Before, she was only the former who we would sometimes refer to as the latter — if that makes any sense.

Why is it important for Haruko to stand out as her own character? Well, have you ever noticed those blurbs about the author at the back of a book? “So-and-so likes to drink tea in the park” or “He walks his dog on the beach in his free time.” You could be reading a book promoting Nazism, but there would still be this cheesy bio painting the author in the most humanizing terms. That’s the key right there: humanization.

Like I’ve said above, parents in Asian dramas can often fade into the background as the collective values take center stage. “All for the family!” “Family first!” Blah blah blah. Parents are just cogs and wheels within a larger family machine. And with Japan’s birth rate being so dangerously low in recent decades, now’s not the time to let up on any anti-family sentiments!

This is why I was so surprised at first to see the anime humanize Haruko. She steps out from the shadows of the family machine and voices the concerns of many Japanese mothers:

  • The husband who’s rarely home: “…my husband doesn’t look at me anymore….”
  • The over-bearing mother-in-law: “I wonder if peaceful cohabitation between a wife and her in-laws even exists….”
  • A life of conformity: “Ever since I got married, I’ve been living with my feelings bottled up!”

Too often, people would look at someone like Haruko and dismiss her concerns and worries as selfish, arguing that there’s something larger at stake, i.e. the family. Mothers like Haruko aren’t arguing for the destruction of the family, however; they just want their plight to be legitimized and voiced. Maybe if more stories would humanize young mothers like Haruko, things could be different for those trapped in domesticity.

But alas, there’s something quite disturbing in how Haruko spills her guts. There are some tears and some anguish, but for the most part, Haruko brandishes a smile as she confides in Daikichi. The soundtrack at the start of the anime, for instance, juxtaposes Haruko’s troubling revelations with some light-hearted menagerie of sounds, suggesting that the mood is somewhat comedic and not-quite-so-serious. There is thus an ironic distance between Haruko’s words and how the anime portrays her dilemma.

The horror soon becomes all too real by the end of the episode, when Haruko explains to Daikichi that she will bear her domestic problems for the sake of herself but mostly Reina:

“Besides, I’ve been putting up with it for years now. I’m sure I can keep at it. As long as I try not to feel anything, I can hold out, more or less.”

In the end, the family machine re-subsumes Haruko, the person, and she returns to being just another mother in a landscape of troubled households. Any individualism is just a passing fancy. After all, family is absolute. Much of my dismay could be allayed if there were any hints whatsoever that Haruko’s family life will improve when she returns home, but I don’t think that’s what we get.

When Haruko’s husband arrives to pick her and Reina up, this is the first time in a long time — as implied by Haruko — that the husband has left work early. Notice, however, that the young couple doesn’t even embrace. He doesn’t even offer to carry his wife and daughter’s luggage to the car. While he did first hug his own daughter, the next thing the husband does is apologize to Daikichi: “I apologize. Haruko caused you so much trouble….” Honor is apparently far more important than your alienated wife. Meanwhile, a slow piano solo seems to suggest a hopeful mood. Hm.

At the end of the episode, Daikichi thinks back to when Haruko was just a young girl; he remembers how she used to be such a crybaby (in an affectionate way). As we watch the adult Haruko leave Daikichi’s home — her eyes wide with conviction — we naturally are meant to think that she is now such a brave and strong woman for re-assuming her wifely responsibilities. There’s a nagging feeling deep down, however, that her family life won’t improve whatsoever.

Daikichi, the Gary Stu
Oh Daikichi, can you do no wrong? Midway through the episode, Daikichi calmly informs his cousin that he has called her home to quell any potential worries. He seems to know just exactly what to do, doesn’t he? Daikichi’s such a perfect guy, it’s almost unbelievable.

There’s the slightest hint that Daikichi might be interested in Yukari, but gosh, he’d never be forward about it since the now-single mother and Kouki have been through so much. Here’s a 30 year old bachelor with a chance at a pretty woman and he’s so even keel about it, it’s almost bewildering. It’s okay, Daikichi, to think about sex every once in a while.

Speaking of Daikichi and Yukari…
Oh, what’s this? Yukari’s bonding with Rin and Daikichi’s bonding with Kouki? I haven’t read the manga. I’ve only spoiled the ending for myself. So the extra scene at the end is probably in the manga for all I know, but oh how I do wish it was a sign of things to come. In other words, let’s not adapt the manga’s ending, shall we?

The new and improved Reina
To be honest, Reina has improved ever since she acted as a spoiled brat in the first episode. The little girl couldn’t have been more annoying, drawing a contrast between her and Rin at the start of Usagi Drop.

Once we’ve moved past the beginning, however, Reina has suddenly turned into an endearing, little girl. When characters’ personalities suddenly change for no explicable reason, this is what I mean when I say anime can sometimes feel contrived or manipulative.

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16 Replies to “Usagi Drop Ep. 7: Behind the smiles”

  1. Spot on everything.

    I wonder how do they think about the declining birthrate thing. Great that Daikichi nailed this adoption thing, but those kids already exist. Why the fuck would anyone want to start a family, if it becomes shit like this? Which message is anti-family after all?

    1. One of the pressing concerns about the declining birth rate is that there won’t be enough people to support the older population. But if you have to deal with impossible in-laws to solve this problem, it’s no wonder that young people don’t feel like shacking up these days.

  2. I was surprised by Reina’s change of attitude as well. Rather than believing it happened for ‘no explicable reason’ thus making it contrived, I put it down to her being a child in an unsettling situation. That is, her mother taking her and up and leaving had an effect on her change in behaviour.

    1. I’ve noticed Reina’s change of behavior before this episode, however. To me, she was really only annoying in the first episode. This is one of the few flaws in Usagi Drop: the children are just plot devices to serve what is largely a story about Daikichi.

  3. One fascinating thing about children is that they more seem bratty at first, but when you get to know them, their behaviours start to be endearing and we see the lovely side of them. I imagine this might be related to our reaction to Reina.

  4. I definitely can see why you find this episode incredibly disturbing. I definitely see where you’re coming from here.

    Now, I do think the implied message you’re seeing here is a valid way of interpreting the work, and it is a very questionable message to send, yeah.

    But an alternate (or rather additional) interpretation I see here is that Daikichi was perhaps living under the impression that married parenthood is easier than single parenthood, and Haruka’s situation clearly demonstrates that married parenthood can have its own problems as well. That the two parent/two child/white picket fences/smiles everywhere image of the happy family usually does not reflect reality, even for two-parent households.

    Basically, I think the most likely lasting impact of Haruka’s situation on the broader narrative is how it’ll impact on Daikichi. What I mainly see in Usagi Drop is Daikichi gradually learning more and more about the life of the parent – of its struggles, its rewards, its sacrifices.

    I don’t think that Usagi Drop is saying “Look at that great woman Haruka, sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of Reina!”, but rather “Parenthood is not easy. It’s not something that should be entered into lightly. It’s not going to be all smiles, no matter what family dynamic is at play – single, married, divorced, or widowed.”

    I do think that Usagi Drop argues that, on the whole, raising a child is worth the sacrifice, but it doesn’t sugarcoat what that might mean in practical terms.

    My heart really does go out to Haruka here. She has lost so much of her independence. :(

    1. The big issue is that there seems to be no acknowledgement whatsoever that solutions to Haruko’s problems exist. All it would take is a knowing glance from her husband; this wouldn’t have been difficult to include — it’s two or three seconds of animation, at most? The anime, however, ends at a moment of uncertainty. So either Usagi Drop believes mothers can only tough it out, or the anime — a thoughtful one thus far — is conveniently unaware of the implications one can draw from its ending.

  5. Didn’t miss the point at all, or at least I think so. I had the same thoughts when watching Haruko.

    In fact, sometimes the series tends to be manipulative in the fact that everything seems so “easy”. Rin is so well behaved and doesn’t put up much resistance at all, except for a few humorous scenes. I was reading somewhere else that Usagi Drop tends to leave out more of the hardships a parent can have adopting a kid. Are we supposed to just watch everything unfold or is this not a sort of simple utopia after all?

    Looking past Daikichi, we see that Haruko, like growing mothers, also has her own share of troubles. Was in class today and lead to an interesting discussion talking about Japanese culture and marriage.

    1. Didn’t miss the point at all, or at least I think so.

      Oh, whenever I bring gender issues up, I get accused of reading into things.

      There’s no doubt about it — Usagi Drop is such an idealized portrayal of child rearing that it might even be irresponsible considering the target audience! I feel like Kouki resembles more of what having a child would be like, but he’s just a supporting character. I hope nobody thinks they could go out and grab themselves a six year old cutiepie and think it’s as easy as 1-2-3. The show only makes up for this shortcoming through its charming tone, in my opinion. I’m sure others have different reasons for following the series.

  6. The hopeful tone seemed to come from the fact that Haruko now has someone she can turn to– because this is still mostly about Daikichi and how great he is, after all. I was more bothered by the slight, slight implication that she was feeling tsundere for Mr. Workaholic! Or was I just imagining that?

    1. That’s still such a depressing result. She’ll go back to being a doll in a dollhouse so long as she has someone to rant to for a bit… until Daikichi gets married and he doesn’t have time for her.

  7. This episode hit close to home with my fear of being shackled with a child/family that I can’t find any compromise with.
    ‘Bout the only thing I really didn’t like about it overall though was Reina’s personality shift. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when children become tolerable, but it was just a little jarring.

  8. I didn’t find Reina’s change in behavior unbelievable at all. It seemed very natural to me. In the first episode Reina was repeating all the things she was hearing the adults say. Kids are very in tune to adults. Rin sensed that she was unwanted, so she hid and was silent, and made herself scarce. Reina sensed that the adults considered Rin “a headache” and so she announced it to Daikichi because being a kid she didn’t know that you’re supposed to only say stuff like that in whispers to people you know will agree with you. Once the adults changed their mind and decided to accept Rin, then Reina was happy to as well.

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