The Quiet Relatability of Rilakkuma and Kaoru

Released fresh from the Netflix original factory in April, and armed with enough cuteness to give a puppy a run for its money, Japanese stop-motion series Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a perfect show to sit down and watch after a long, tiring day. It'll turn your frown upside down with its cute antics, while also making you nod along with its inoffensive relatability as it covers the many niggles of adult life.

Created by San-X, the show focuses on the life of an office lady called Kaoru. Her work is stressful and she feels unimportant in her job role. She's indecisive and she worries a bit too much. She feels left behind as her friends have gone on to lead much more involved, successful lives, finding love and having children. Then there's the problem that she's older and too sensible to be invited along to anything the younger women are doing in the office. However this doesn't mean her free time isn't lacking in excitement, because living in her small apartment is Rilakkuma, a brown toy bear who spends his days eating and sleeping (his name literally means "relax bear"), as well as Korilakkuma (basically a smaller, female version of Rilakkuma) and Kiiroitori, Kaoru's pet chick who really loves to keep the place clean. How did these two bears end up living in Kaoru's apartment? Did they simply show up one day? Did they come down from space in a UFO? We don't get told until the very end of the series, but sometimes, we don't need questions like that answered straight away. Sometimes it's simply okay to accept things for what they are, and that is what makes Rilakkuma and Kaoru such an uninvolved but calming watching experience. I mean, who wouldn't want these cuddly teddy bears living in their apartment? Why question something like that? Especially when it looks this damn good too.

The hard work from the show's creators is constantly on display. It was revealed in a behind-the-scenes video that ten seconds of this show's animation can take an entire day, a fact that just makes everything all the more impressive. The show's presentation is bursting with life and colour, featuring expertly crafted scenery depicting the sleepiness of rural Japanese suburbia. If it wasn't for the stop-motion characters that inhabit it, I'd be convinced I was looking at something real. Speaking of characters, Rilakkuma and the gang, whose adorable antics take up a large share of the show's screen time, all look and move like cuddly toys brought to life, all complete with fluid movements that match their sizes and personalities. Rilakkuma moves heavy and lethargically, while Korilakkuma is much more energetic to match her smaller size and enthusiasm. Kiiroitori jumps around frantically, not just because he's a chick, but because he is often prone to bossiness and a temper. Along with their movements, the facial expressions and sounds these cute characters make manage to convey their emotions perfectly. This bunch really are the star of the show, with their cute little routines and attempts to be helpful providing the highlight to any episode.
When it comes to human characters, they're all represented using dolls. They remind me of something from a Tim Burton animation (Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.), although definitely nowhere near as grotesque-looking. There are occasions where the dolls pass into uncanny valley territory (creepy fortune teller, ghost girl), but it's usually only to emphasise the eccentricities of their characters, and nothing that will keep you up at night. Kaoru herself looks like a perfectly normal office lady. Her simple, plain, but endearing appearance sets her aside from the other human characters in the show, and in turn makes her easier to relate to.

In the average episode of Rilakkuma and Kaoru, Kaoru will find herself in a typical adult life-related predicament. The inconvenience caused and its resolution will be the main focus of each episode, but its never anything dramatic or life-changingDramatic tension in this series is overall pretty minimal, and the stakes are never raised to any serious extent. You see, Rilakkuma and Kaoru seems to be another production in a wave of shows from Japan that are affectionately referred to as "iyashikei", a Japanese word that can be translated to "healing". These shows often involve little to no conflict, and place emphasis on the little delights in life - with the aim being to relax and soothe the viewer. I've discussed one of the forerunners of this genre previously on Alt:Mag, the absolutely wonderful anime Laid-Back Camp, but it can also be seen in other anime shows like Girl's Last Tour and K-On!. On a surface level, the average viewer might see shows in this style as not being all that deep, but in the case of Rilakkuma and Kaoru, if you take a step back and think about it all for a second, it is a much more relatable show than you might think. Often in life we find ourselves in Kaoru's situation: we get tunnel vision about the simplest of dilemmas and wonder how we'll ever find a way out. We waste hours of our lives stewing about such inconsequential nonsense, before finding our solution through a series of simple happenings, or someone helping us to see past it by thinking another way. In this series, Rillakkuma and the others are the metaphorical shoulder Kaoru can lean on. Their simple, easy existences and lack of responsibility make them the polar opposite to Kaoru's stressful adult life, and sometimes she needs to see things through their simplistic lense in order to get the clarity she has been so desperately in search of. An example of this is seen in episode four, where Kaoru has trouble making decisions, and envies Rillakkuma and the other's ability to just simply pick the thing they want without the added stress. The episode ends with her learning from Rillakkuma and the others that she doesn't always have to pick between things all the time, and can instead have more than just one thing. A simple solution to a simple dilemma, but the mountain that Kaoru makes out of this tiny molehill is bound to be relatable for many.

Netflix have really become a trusted name when it comes to exclusive shows, and in an attempt to broaden their content, they've slapped their name onto some brilliant and unique Japanese shows; anime, live action, etc. Sanrio's Aggretsuko is a particular highlight from their catalogue (seriously, if you've not seen Aggretsuko, you need to watch it) as well as the absolutely amazing Hi Score Girl (I swear I will finish my review of that at some point). It's clear Netflix has some clout when it comes to endorsing shows, and Rilakkuma and Kaoru is continuing in this trend of quality. If you've had a rubbish day at work, I guarantee it'll make you feel better, making you think just a little as you smile a lot.

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