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.
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 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:
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:
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:
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.