In Little Tokyo, it’s pretty difficult to avoid seeing Rilakkuma, the soft brown bear character created by Japanese company San-X, in one form or another. From having his face screen-printed on children’s T-shirts to being featured on every school supply item you can think of, Rilakkuma is proudly displayed in the windows of the various shops on Second Street and beyond, a symbol of kawaii culture.
So I was surprised when I watched an episode of “Rilakkuma and Kaoru,” Netflix’s new stop-motion animation series about the beloved character, and discovered the show to be, while very cute, also very adult in its subject matter, though not in an inappropriate sense.
“Rilakkuma and Kaoru” chronicles the suburban adventures of Kaoru, a young human woman working a typical Japanese office job, and Rilakkuma, along with their close friends Korilakkuma, a smaller white bear, and Kiiroitori, a yellow chick. Together, the roommates experience the changing of seasons, take part in Japanese festivals, and eat a lot of dango, all while Kaoru experiences the growing pains of adulthood.
From the first episode, “Cherry Blossom,” it becomes evident who the show is trying to reach. At the peak of sakura season, Kaoru packs an elaborate lunch and plans to meet her girlfriends for hanami, a picnic beneath the cherry blossom trees. It’s a tradition they’ve kept since their college days, but after waiting a while on her blanket, she receives notifications from her group text, all messages from her friends giving excuses as to why they have to cancel. One has a sick child; another has met a guy.
Kaoru furiously chugs down a few beers and returns home with a slight hangover. Who else can relate?
Where the episode dives deep, though, is when the roommates try to cheer Kaoru up and have their own picnic at night. Kaoru stares off as the trees shed their petals and says softly, “I’m the only one who hasn’t changed.” She’s reached the age where her friends are beginning to drift apart, no longer tied to one another in tender college-aged memories, but bound by other grown-up responsibilities, like motherhood.
This feeling of impermanence is intensified by each falling flower, as Kaoru reminds her animal pals that cherry blossoms have short lives.
Kaoru battles with the realities of adulthood throughout the show, but luckily, the whimsical situations the roommates find themselves in always give her respite from her thoughts. I didn’t have the heart to quit watching after witnessing Kaoru’s quarter-life crisis – I’d found a real friend in her and felt comforted in our shared struggles with navigating life, as well as by the sight of her Marie Kondo-approved apartment and cute collared shirts.
“Rilakkuma and Kaoru” as a Japanese animated show geared towards millennials isn’t a new concept – “Aggretsuko,” the series based on the popular Sanrio character, who is a red panda, revolves around Aggretsuko and her dissatisfaction with her office job and her tyrannical boss. Both shows document the ways in which its protagonists find escape from the annoyances of their lives: while Kaoru makes pancakes and runs around with the Rilakkuma gang, Aggretsuko quietly locks herself in a karaoke bar and screams death metal into her mic.
It’s worth noting that these shows aren’t just about adults, but millennial adults. Though they’re coming out of Japan, the fact that so many Americans can relate speaks truths about our generation’s collective struggle. We’re searching for our higher purpose, or at the very least, a way to turn our hobbies and hidden passions into full-time jobs for which we get paid enough to dream of one day owning our own houses.
Some of our friends seem to “get it” more than we do and are quickly settling down, while others are stuck in their college days or are still living with their parents and are hungry for freedom. We’re also constantly being hit by a barrage of bad news from all fronts, and the media is so ingrained in our lives that to escape it seems unthinkable. We’re frustrated and confused and stunted, and we’re all looking for our own escapes, too, whether we know it or not.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can try to relieve this weight I’m bearing. I’ve reduced the time I spend on social media. I’m adjusting my expectations when it comes to work and instant gratification. I wish to cast off this burden completely. But what “Rilakkuma and Kaoru” seems to suggest is that by finding your own pockets of happiness and relief throughout the day, it’s possible to make your pack lighter a couple rocks at a time.
I think I’ll try it out, thought it’d be a much easier task if I had a couple of bears and a bird to walk me through it.
Taylor Weik is a writer whose passion lies in celebrating and serving the Japanese American and larger AAPI communities, with bylines in NBC Asian America, OC Weekly and more. She can be reached at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]