The first episode of Netflix’s Rilakkuma and Kaoru has the stop-motion anime’s human protagonist looking forward to meeting up with her friends for their annual picnic. First, though, she’s got to get through a day of her boring job, and also make sure the two plush bears living in her house have lunch set up for them.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru is based on a stationary character of the same name. The premise is simple: a year in the life of a normal human woman and her three roommates, two of which are bears (Rilakkuma is the big brown one; Korilakkuma is the smaller white one) and one a pet chick, Kiirotori. Told in lush, cozy stop-motion, there is an intrinsic warmth and delight to the show. But the show isn’t just cute. It’s also pretty emotionally impactful.
Though to be fair, it is pretty darn cute. In both the English dub and the original Japanese, the bears and Kiiroitori don’t talk, but instead communicate in small chirps and coos, making them all the more more endearing. We never find out where the bears come from; they just appear in Kaoru’s apartment one day, much like their stationary empire backstory. No one really questions that they’re there. The animals interact with other people, even get jobs at one point, without anyone really batting an eye.
But what makes the show stand out isn’t just the whimsical creatures, though they are certainly a delight. It’s the juxtaposition of the whimsy with the mundane. While Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, and Kiiroitori’s plush designs make the show seem directed to children, Kaoru is a twenty-something woman dealing with the problems of a twenty-something woman.
Kaoru’s struggles may bring to mind Aggretsuko, the other Netflix anime based on a cute stationary character. There is a key difference that changes how Rilakkuma and Kaoru resonates: Retsuko’s conflicts come from external factors and she channels that through her rage, Kaoru struggles with internal conflict, and she turns inward to deal with them.
She’s stuck in a job that doesn’t value her, all her close friends have found love and success and rarely keep her in mind, and because of that she often feels worthless. The show doesn’t shy away from showing how all-encompassing her depression can feel. In one scene, when she feels particularly lonely, she imagines herself falling into a dark, endless hole.
The animals help Kaoru as much as she helps them. She feeds and cares for them. They remind her that there’s good things in life, encourage her to be more open to possibilities — no matter how small they might be. The third episode, for instance, sees a gloomy Kaoru resolve to buy a new umbrella at the end. It’s a small step, but for Kaoru, it’s something big that still fits within her comfort zone.
It’s not without conflict, though the little arguments between the animals and Kaoru take a backseat to Kaoru battles grappling her own insecurities and mental health issues. The biggest takeaway from each episode is packaged in a tiny text, integrated in Japanese into the show’s setting, but translated in subtitles on the screen. But even without the little adages, the warmth and love of all the characters is tangible.
The stop-motion animation makes the whole world of Rilakkuma and Kaoru absolutely vibrant. The changing of the seasons in particular, that pull me in. I can practically feel the sticky summer heat and smell the petrichor of the rain. It’s a cozy, intimate look into a year-in-a-life, showing one woman’s internal growth — and the love of a bunch of very cute animals.