Usagi Drop: Finding Oneself

What are you really looking for in life?

Usagi Drop doesn’t beat around the bush, so I won’t either. While I can easily relate to Daikichi, being a male, I don’t really know too much about issues of female identity, and I know even less about those issues in Japan. But I have to say that Usagi Drop pushes these issues to the forefront, and does it admirably.

Often times in TV series, the first episode is extremely well directed and has the most polish and detail added to it. Usagi Drop is no exception. It all begins with Daikichi. He is, for all intents and purposes, a somewhat average Japanese male. He’s 30 years old, single, and has a job. There’s really nothing extraordinary about him, save for one thing – his willingness to view Rin as a person. As for everyone else, well, I think Daikichi’s mother said it best:

This shame is often seen in society, and can be traced to a lot of fundamental identity issues. One modern example would be a homosexual person hiding his/her true orientation from his/her parents or even society at large. It’s used in a similar manner here, in that the crux of the matter is that if one takes Rin in, it would be acknowledging her existence and her heritage. Although this sounds cruel, well… that’s because it is. This sort of traditional focus on the family has been in danger of being swept away for quite some time now, and the mere fact that the grandfather even thought of to sleep with a woman many times his senior junior is indicative of that.

It takes someone whose identity is removed from the traditional outlook to step in, take care of, and ultimately humanize Rin. As we find out later, Daikichi is the only person in his immediate family that lives by himself. It’s appropriate for Daikichi to take charge of Rin because he doesn’t really have this conception of familial shame. In fact, he’s somewhat removed from the family:

And this allows him to step outside of any sort of societal expectations that might be forced upon him, and see Rin as a person. This outlook of his is, of course, helped by one of the most grating personalities of all time.

What a bitch…

Anyway, just as much as Daikichi’s identity is defined in the first episode, Rin’s identity is established as well, and there are just as many pertinent issues. First and foremost, it’s pretty crucial in how we were introduced to her. The first line that mentions her would be: “Apparently that girl is Grandfather’s illegitimate child…” No name is mentioned. She’s defined purely in terms of her familial relations. For the first half of the episode, this girl has no real identity of her own. But finally, at the funeral, she speaks for the first time in the episode:

And the first words she says are just as important as the first words that introduce her. She acknowledges the fact that she’s alone in this world. Her last link to a solid identity is gone, and all that remains is his legacy. But this allows her to both move on and find her own identity again. One very simple piece of imagery is used to convey this idea in this first episode, and it also reappears later in episode 3:

The winding of the clock

The clock that kept on ticking stopped for Rin, and Daikichi brings it back to life. It’s a simple yet straightforward metaphor. As if to affirm this new identity:

Someone addresses her directly by name for the first time. It’s an affirmation of her new identity. Not as “that girl”. Not “you”. Not “grandfather’s illegitimate child”. But her actual name. She ceases to become a ghost floating around the house, and comes into her own being as a person.

Even though Rin has become a recognizable person, the fact remains though that her identity is still somewhat in question. As Daikichi proclaims in the following scene:

Although this is said in a somewhat joking manner, Rin is in a rather ambiguous position in society. She has the appearance of a young girl, but she is not one in society’s eyes. This dissonance is at the heart of numerous issues surrounding Rin, which ultimately come to a head in episode 5. When Daikichi leaves, Rin’s mother makes one request:

This single request emphasizes not only Masako’s thought process, but also her understanding of her societal identity. Masako has no real sense of self. She can’t envision herself as a parent, and in fact her only true sense of self is as a mangaka. After all, her pen name is the only part of her current societal identity that won’t change when she gets married. Yoshii Masako may change, but Saionji-sensei most certainly won’t. Her goal to be a mangaka is a fight to retain her identity in a society where female identity doesn’t really exist.

However, she also recognizes the futility of her battle. As she quickly found out, trying to raise Rin and be a mangaka at the same time was an impossible task. Thus she faces a rather heart-wrenching choice, and indeed a choice that many women face in modern society. She can retain her identity and remain a mangaka, or she can give up her identity in order to raise Rin. In the end, she chose to try to retain her identity, but this too is a morbid task. In order to maintain her identity, she had to give up her humanity:

This was the conundrum that Daikichi faced in episodes 2 and 3. Although he remains a single parent, his troubles are distinctly female. He finds little male support throughout the series, and most of his conversations are with female characters (in fact, the only other two male characters that gets more than a few lines are Kouki and Souichi, and in Souichi’s case, it’s essentially a one-way conversation between him and Daikichi). Daikichi finds himself in a situation that challenges him not only as a working member of society, but also as a male:

Surrounded by females…

Daikichi has to work to reconcile his identity as a hardworking businessman and his newfound identity as a parent. The choice he makes is to compromise his identity as a worker and redirect those energies to being a parent – the opposite of Masako. Strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to hit any financial snags when doing this, as would likely be the case in the real world, but he makes other compromises along the way. He gives up smoking, drinking with, and socializing with his co-workers. He is trading off one identity for another. It’s another untenable position, similar to Masako, yet overall Daikichi is undoubtedly happier.

Episode 7 contrasts this new Daikichi with Haruko. She is undoubtedly unhappy, and tells this to Daikichi rather bluntly. She finds herself in a rather nebulous place in society. Although she is married, she finds out that marriage is not all that it is cracked up to be. The nuclear family has undoubtedly been the social norm since forever, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with its ups and downs. Haruko is a clear example of this fact. Although both Daikichi and Kouki’s mother have troubles as single parents, the series also shows the problems that a married couple have as well.

This episode emphasizes the different senses of identity that Haruko and her husband have. First and foremost, Haruko considers herself a mother and a wife. On the opposite side though, her husband, like Gotou’s husband, identifies as a “bread winner” first, and as a parent second. And therein lies one issue with the conventional nuclear family arrangement. Perhaps in the past, where a female sense of identity really didn’t exist, this arrangement might have worked, but not in modern times.

If anything, episode 7 is one of the most tragic episodes to date, as the folly of trying to reconcile two differing personalities comes out clearly towards the end. And the loser is ultimately Haruko, though I can’t help but feel as though her husband also loses out, although in a different sense. In Haruko’s case, this line was undoubtedly the most poignant for me:

This mentality is, as Daikichi noted, unhealthy. But on another level, Haruko has to paradoxically deny what it means to be human in order to properly fulfill her role as a mother and wife. The irony here is that immediately afterwards, she cries and laments the fact that she had to grow strong to bear this situation, which is the most emotionally charged and humanizing moment in the entire episode.

And yet the contrasting figure in this affair is Haruko’s husband. This exchange between Daikichi and her husband says it all:

In sharp contrast to the sympathy that the audience now feels for Haruko, this entire apology from Haruko’s husband feels forced and artificial by comparison. In fact, Daikichi’s seemingly throwaway comment that he’s “wearing the wrong clothes” reveals far more than it shows at face value. In this moment, Daikichi doesn’t think as a human being who is accepting the apology, but rather as a member of society who recognizes that he’s out of place in a social situation. Either unconsciously or consciously, Daikichi recognizes that this is a socially mandated apology, and not one that is necessary genuine.

And although it may not seem like it, Haruko’s husband is also suffering from his own sense of identity. As Haruko prepares to leave Daikichi’s house, we get this shot of her husband:

Checking his watch…

This little act belies what’s on his mind: work. Not his wife. Not his daughter. He may not recognize it, but he’s missing out on living his own life as well. He’s missing out on time that could be spent with his wife or daughter. His face tells it all – he’s tired, worried, and unhappy. The post-credits scene shows his opposite:

Right here

Daikichi finds true happiness in being a parent. Although he has made some sacrifices, he refuses to let society box him into making a clear cut choice between work and family. He has it tough, no doubt about it, but for him, every day is fulfilling. By contrast, Masako and Haruko lack this happiness that Daikichi has found. Masako struggles between working and being human, while Haruko finds herself dehumanized as a parent.

Usagi Drop doesn’t really blame this dehumanization on any single aspect of society, but it instead tries to emphasize both the issues that people in society face and the joy that they can find. Trying to pinpoint where the issues lie is perhaps too complicated; the issues may in fact be systemic. Yet I get the sneaking feeling (and manga readers don’t spoil me on this or anything), that perhaps the reason why Daikichi and Yukari get along so well with each other is because they both share the same identity – as a parent.

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  1. BigFire
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    It is made rather emphatically that Daikichi did sacrifice future promotion at his company with his request of transfer. His old boss was starting to relying on him with more important tasks, and replacing him is not trivial task. I’m not sure if they’ll ever animated a rather fun vignette where an outsider went to his new department and discovered that ALL of the men that worked there seemed to share something common, least of all, the jacket they all seemed to wear.

    • Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

      I would like to see that vignette animated for sure~

      And I was actually expecting Daikichi’s living conditions to take a hit since he stopped working overtime and such, but either the wage drop wasn’t that dramatic or it’s a technical oversight. Though your point about sacrificing future promotion emphasizes the potential future that he’s giving up in order to be a parent.

      • Kit-A-Ron-Ron-Kat
        Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Excellent comments as always. As to Daikichi’s living conditions not getting visibly worse, a few points can be made.

        * Daikichi seem to have a frugal lifestyle, and of note is that he has no car.
        * He is not living in a condo but rather in a small house, and a traditional one at that. Older dwelling may mean lower rent (depends on the location, but still). It is even possible that this home came from his family and he got no rent to pay – notice both his parents and Rin’s father had similar living conditions.
        * He is male, so as far a single parents go his financial situation would be better than Yukari’s one. Also the early childhood which can be extremely taxing on the parent(s) and thus have a huge negative impact on one’s career is already behind them.
        * He is single, contrasting with the “traditional” Japanese nuclear family where the father has to support both his wife and the child by himself – typically by working like he is possessed. With one less person to support, Daikichi may be able to make-do with less insane work hours.
        * Some of the biggest potential financial burdens are yet to come: education for one can become insanely expensive at higher levels, and Rin while still young doesn’t strike me as a dumb kid. Still a bit soon to know if she will go to College, but I feel the potential is there. With any luck Rin won’t be too much into vanity goods and won’t pester Daikichi everyday for a new handbag ! But I am not too concerned with that if she takes after her father and Daikichi.

  2. Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Holy shit, this post was amazing. It definitely hit all the right spots – it always amazes me how people can see all of these little things, these insignificant details that don’t seem to matter but matter so much when put together in the right way.

    I think one of the most amazing things Usagi Drop does is put all of this at us, so that even I (who, admittedly, wasn’t paying much attention to details) get that feeling of what it’s trying to say without going forth and just saying it. Not many anime do this, nowadays.

    • Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:10 am | Permalink

      Thank you ^^

      Usagi Drop is at once forceful and subtle, and though it may meander along at a slightly slow pace, it manages to pack significance into every scene.

  3. Darkfireblade25
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    “… that the grandfather even thought of to sleep with a woman many times his senior is indicative of that.” change “senior” to “junior” :P but other than that this post is brilliant.

    Daikichi really has it lucky though. If he got a child that is emotionally unstable or someone like Haruko’s daughter then he would really have it hard… :/

    • Posted August 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Oops thanks for the catch!

      It makes you wonder if Daikichi would have taken Rin in if she switched personalities with Reina… But then again that’s probably a question that’s impossible to answer. Still makes you wonder though…

  4. Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    awesome post. i hadn’t thought of anything you put your fingers on in this post! such posts make me love blogging! quite inspiring and thought-provoking

  5. Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Usagi Drop doesn’t beat around the bush…

    Indeed it does not. Family secrets, illegitimate children, (gendered) identity issues, social shame, extended families, names, marriage and divorce, (single) parenthood, finding yourself, and finding/ trying to reconcile your many selves… As you indicate, these are complex issues. And yet this show explores them with such a frank, yet multifacetted and tender touch. For example, Haruka’s story (to also focus on a more recent moment) is tragic and yet realistic in terms of the choices she faces, which are far from clear-cut. I won’t go through what you said about her struggles regarding reconciling her different selves, personalities and feelings, as I think you’ve already discussed these very well. Though, I will link them to the wider watercolour/ pastel presentation of the show. In other words, I think the art style is a good choice for a story which is in a large part about ‘growing up’ (in every sense – c.f. Daikichi’s words a few episodes back when he ponders about just who is raising who), with that ‘softness’ appropriate for a show about (nostalgia for) childhood, and also for ‘cushioning’ us from the darker possibilities of some of the aforementioned themes.

    In other words, going back to Haruka, I thought it was interesting that, amid her tragic words about her loveless marriage and sense of unfulfillment, we get those images of her as a cry-baby and of wanting to have remained a little girl for ever (both of which are respectively silly/ absurd). Specifically, I wasn’t sure if the effect was to counteract her earlier depression by making light of her situation as one that isn’t really so bad/ serious, or if it was a way of helping to end the episode on a generally lighter, or at least more progressive and hopeful note. For, ‘hopeful’ is what I think the overall feeling is so far, though that’s also of course due to Daikichi and Rin’s development as such awesome characters (c.f. also the themes and presentation of Wandering Son, perhaps).

    Anyway, this comment is already too long, so I’ll end with saying how much I’ve enjoyed this multilayered show so far and reading your take on it.

    • Posted August 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      The art direction is very tame in this series for sure. It’s very reminiscent of the illustrations in a children’s story, though I have to say that even children’s tales aren’t without their small dose of somewhat graphic imagery (Peter Rabbit’s dad being baked in a pie? D:). Anyway, the animation style has an air of innocence around it, which I think sums up Daikichi and Rin rather well.

      As for the last scene regarding Haruko, I thought that it really emphasized just how much Haruko has had to grow into the role of becoming a mother from her childhood self. She still demonstrates bouts of emotional agony, but on the whole she’s learned to suppress them over the course of her marriage. But at the same time… Perhaps Haruko never wanted to become this way. Maybe she wanted to remain a girl who other people could take care of. But reality is harsh, so I’m not sure whether that speaks to the reality that she has to face, or whether the tragedy that Haruko is essentially forced into becoming who she is today. I think episode 7 can be easily interpreted as a mini-tragedy of Haruko, and the ending of the episode doesn’t necessarily provide any closure as to whether Haruko’s husband will actually step up to the plate (like I said in the post, he’s still thinking about work/his schedule, instead of actually helping Haruko and being with her in the time he has. Also, I just realized this, but I just remembered the line: “He [my husband] doesn’t even look at me anymore…” (said by Haruko). Perhaps he really hasn’t changed at all…

  6. Posted August 30, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    This anime is one of my favorite…lovely story

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