Shirokuma Cafe – the ultimate slice of life

Alternative title Polar Bear Cafe
Studio Studio Pierrot
Genres Comedy, Slice of Life
Source Manga
Episodes 50
Season Spring 2012 – Winter 2013
Director Mitsuyuki Masuhara
Music Kenji Kondou
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    The world seems to be going faster and faster and it’s become not the rarest sight to observe people complaining about enormous piles of new anime that need to be watched. At this point even the 3-episode-rule looks to consume far more time than an average laid-back person has at his disposal. And that’s to say not even taking into account how many great anime have been made before. If you try to keep up with every single more prominent airing anime you must rule out shortening your backlog by the tiniest bit. Another aspect of watching anime nowadays is the shortening of its length. 2-cour shows seem to be getting pretty uncommon as the market is dominated by 12-episode anime. It’s even getting shorter if you take into account recaps that find their way even in 1-cour shows. In all this light it seems very impractical to talk about some older and lengthier anime. Who has enough time and commitment for Legend of the Galactic Heroes? If we are talking about less prominent shows that aren’t considered milestones or anything, it becomes treading the territory of total obscurity. And it turns out there are some little gems here and there. If you have time and commitment that is.

    Chances are on the Internet you have probably seen some weird images of llamas or belly-dancing bears that look like they could have come from an anime. Rejoice – it really is and that anime is Shirokuma Cafe. The show brings the viewer to its weird world where humanized animals live among humans and nobody finds that unnatural or weird. It’s just the way it is. As one of the main characters Panda (yep, that’s both his name and species. Convenient, isn’t it?) is introduced, it becomes more than clear that such a lazy being can mean only the slowest kind of slice of life series, and 50 episodes of that, to be exact. As usual, such a show takes various real life scenarios and puts them into use, so the only difference from many other slice of life anime is that there characters are mainly animals.

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Excerpt from the OST: Odekake by Kenji Kondou

So what would animals visiting a café run by a polar bear (Shirokuma) would do? As expected, all kinds of more or less inconsequential stuff – talking about smartphones, talking about jobs, talking about childhood memories, going on various trips – you name it. There isn’t any overarcing story but from time to time it’s clear that the world isn’t static and among some episodes that can be watched in whatever order there are little stories that provide a clear sense of progression of lives of the characters – for example the misadventures of the love life of Penguin. Still these glimpses are too far apart no to call the show episodic and in the end not everything is concluded the way it could’ve been. There are some patterns in the episodic stories that may look too overused – I can’t even remember how many times Panda had some odd idea fixed in his head and tried to pursue it in his own way (that usually defeats the purpose) before eventually bailing out to start something similar the next episode. Unexpectedly, the show also has an educational side to it – a rare segments tell some details about the making of coffee and somehow I feel weirdly proud to have learned to distinguish some species of Antarctic penguins, so it’s not that everything’s just usual slice of life material.

    Shirokuma Cafe is mainly centered on Shirokuma, the titular owner of the café, and two of his customers/friends – Panda (an embodiment of laziness) and Penguin (pretty much a straight man… ehm… bird). Due to the shows length there of course are many more animals with their own little and quite entertaining stories, but the main trio is never forgotten for long. The animals themselves in Shirokuma Cafe are very similar to ordinary humans – with their own problems, hopes and wishes – the only difference is having tails, flippers, claws and the like. The animality is never forgotten though – a running gag that no one can see how Penguin or Llama gets on a chair in the café may be an example. Such quirks strengthen the immersion and make you believe that if there ever could be a cafe for talking animals, they would behave exactly that.

Perfect excuse

Other quite funny personal characteristics that depend on the physicality of the animals include Llama using a smartphone with his tongue, Sloth being carried on a tree branch in order to go shopping, Grizzly looking for a part-timer for his bar since his winter hibernation awaits. Through all the 50 episodes many animals appear, some of them clichéd like the same Sloth or Turtle who speak unbearably slow. Other may lead unexpected lives like a bunch of porcupines that formed an idol group, but each and every one of the animals gracefully and organically become parts of a bigger picture. The show isn’t completely devoid of humans but they seem to contrast the liveliness of the animals – the two most frequent personae are a waitress Sasako and a zookeeper Handa. Sasako from time to time lets out a funny remark while Handa is best known for having hobbies of keeping everything clean and collecting pebbles. If it sounds dull, it is but for every gag comedy you need some straight characters and these two serve that purpose more often than not. Still, it’s primarily a show about animal interactions so don’t expect anything significant from our humans.

I beg your pardon?

     Apart from the usual slice of life stuff, Shirokuma Cafe also employs comedy (as you probably already guessed), and does that quite a lot. Right in the first episode Panda is forced by his mother to get a part time job. Well, he does that, finding employment in a local zoo as… a panda. Yup, it’s silly, but at least for me it did work brilliantly. The comedy of course doesn’t end here. Shirokuma himself is probably best characterized by his unending puns – purposefully mishearing some words and presenting them visually. As with pretty much all the setting it needed some time to get comfortable with, but once that is achieved, you may find some mild fun. At least a person more or less fluent in Japanese should.  As I mentioned before, many comedic segments come from the animals trying to do human things, and even after completing all the show I can say I’m definitely not tired of the endless inventiveness of the creators in this respect.

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A rare sakuga excerpt from the anime; animation by Yoshihiro Kanno

  Keeping a show running for a longer time usually prevents the animation from anything spectacular and Shirokuma Cafe isn’t an exception. Despite the quality and cuteness  of the character designs the visuals look rather dull, although still serviceable. Sakuga is pretty much nonexistent (apart from one or two special occasions) and you have to be happy not to get anyone off model. Still, there’s some movement and in the end the purpose of the story is not to outshine each and every high-budget production but to simply provide some soothing entertainment and essentially it is accomplished. And I just can‘t get Sasako-san from my head. She‘s just one of the most adorable anime girls ever.

 Best girl

    Knowing that Shirokuma Cafe is a very low-key anime you have to wonder how it came to pass that its voice actor cast is nothing short of spectacular. You don’t need to be well versed in such matters to have heard about Takahiro Sakurai, Daisuke Ono, Hiroshi Kamiya, Jun Fukuyama, Rie Kugimiya, Mamiko Noto or Yuuichi Nakamura. Even Mamoru Miyano, Akira Ishida and Tomokazu Sugita make their appearances. From the top of my head I can’t remember any show that could boast of such a cast, and it’s very puzzling. The class of the VAs clearly shows – each of the characters becomes even more distinctive – so much that you could probably easily distinguish, say, Penguin’s voice from any other‘s or from many other anime characters’ in general. The only minor disappointment was Kana Hanazawa’s performance as Panda’s sister Mei-mei. KanaHana is nothing but typecasted for cute little girls but I think such an energetic performance was at odds with the general lazy-ish image of pandas. The soundtrack although quite varied, naturally mostly caters the same palate as the whole show – rarely picking up tempo and relying mostly on simply melodies and few instruments, one of which usually provides the base and the other – the melody. There are enough quirks here and there (an unexpected rap piece for example) but keeping everything simple takes the priority any time. Especially if you have seen the show and remember the themes, listening repeatedly might bring back the nostalgic laid-back feeling so even if it probably won’t be your first choice, there are countless times worse things to listen when you’re stressed.

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Excerpt from the OST: Oyasumi, Arigatou by Kenji Kondou

    The EDs and previews of Shirokuma Cafe definitely need to be mentioned. In the previews there are paper cutouts of the main characters placed in some real life locations while the VAs provide voice overs. The EDs move even further – the music in them is basically character songs, but the animation goes overboard – live action, various mosaics, stop-motion technique and other methods are used to create if not the most memorable but definitely particularly unique EDs in anime. Even if you have no wish to watch the anime, do yourself a favor and take a peak at the EDs. Please.

    When you synchronize with the rhythm of the show it becomes absolutely unimportant what exactly happens, though to be frank usually nothing happens at all. You just want to immerse and see more of enjoyable characters bantering around, maybe doing some stuff together and then going back to doing nothing. Eventually you start caring because there are lots of endearing moments scattered here and there – the message of optimism and friendship is definitely there. Shirocuma Cafe may be predictable and incredibly silly at times but at least for me it was just what I needed – a little dose of soothing and mood-enhancing medicine from time to time with fond memories for long.

    I believe, this anime is

 1

Decent

     A slice of life for 50 episodes? It’s either madness or a paradise depending on your viewpoint. Anyone looking for upbeat action or impressive story will have to look elsewhere but someone with a simple wish to relax and let all the real life problems disappear for half an hour each time may find the show very appealing. Please try and enjoy!

     Have you perchance seen Shirokuma Cafe? Are you able to tolerate slice of life shows in general? If yes, what are your favorites?

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Kaichou wa Maid-sama! – overlong example of broken storytelling

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Alternative title Maid Sama!
Studio J.C.Staff
Genres Comedy, Romance, Slice of Life
Source Manga
Episodes 26
Season Spring 2010
Director Hiroaki Sakurai
Music Wataru Maeguchi

      It feels a bit strange that my history of watching anime which heavily relies on romance and comedy motives is rather ambiguous in a sense that I usually have no idea if a certain show for me will be a hit or a miss. Such flagship of romance like Toradora! left me with a very sour aftertaste (and that’s probably the biggest difference I have with the public consensus about any more popular show) while Nodame Cantabile felt really sincere and heartwarming. Of course every show uses just a bit different combination of ideas but in my case it feels wrong but I appreciate Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo for its depiction of a struggle to get a future that you want or Ore Monogatari!! for its comedy rather than the romance aspect of both of these shows. In this perspective comedy causes even more trouble for being a very personal preference and that’s obvious enough not to need any more elaboration. Pondering these things I decided to try some Kaichou wa Maid-sama! that appeared to have some fan following as well as be mildly funny after seeing some random clips on YouTube.

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     The premise of Kaichou wa Maid-sama! is a bit unusual and definitely plays a major role in catching an eye of a potential viewer. Not always do you get a random girl who tries her best (well, a shojou protagonist) while living almost a double life – being a school council president and a waitress in a maid café in her spare time. Of course Misaki, that being the girl’s name, is very flustered and ashamed about the situation and tries as best as she can to avoid her school and part-time job worlds to have the slightest common points. Of course it proves to be impossible when Misaki is spotted by the shoujo protagonist, Usui, who in terms of being perfect could almost rival Sakamoto from Sakamoto desu ga? and if you watched that anime you know it’s a big deal. It wouldn’t be a shoujo series if Usui hadn’t started frequenting Misaki’s café and tried to get close to her. Even if it looks like I just described a premise, actually that’s basically everything I could say about the plot even after all the 26 episodes. Well, apart from the fact that (oh, spoilers) Misaki and Usui very unexpectedly ended up together. And that is the biggest problem of the show – apart from having quite an unusual beginning, it does nothing interesting – all the characters just fool around, sometimes getting an episode centered around them (that hardly expands their personalities) and very huge part of the show feels like a filler. It’s not unusual to get the main couple together by the end of the season but when the development during the last episode pushes the story forward just as much as all the rest of the episodes combined, I’m not that content.

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There is also another thing that proves the shortcomings of the story – tell me, what is the point of introducing an osananajimi character when only just a few episodes are left and hoping that the viewers would believe he has  the slightest chance of stealing Misaki from Usui? Well, if you have 2 people featured on a cover of the show and you constantly see those people, what are the chances that some random dude could get between them? By the way, everything ended even more hilariously (spoilers) – Usui got the main girl while the osananajimi ended up with… a tree. Yep, that’s correct. Just like this thing, the majority of the content felt very pointless and more interesting moments could have easily been reduced to a 1 cour anime, or even a film. The show even managed to give a whole episode adaptation of a totally unnecessary manga special that just had me thinking “get on with it already” all over again and again. Come on, that’s why we have a thing called OVA. Heard of it?

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     To be frank, the show has only one character, and that is Misaki. She may not be the most exceptional shoujo protagonist but seeing a person who tries her best at every situation, has a strong relationship with her friends and is ready to do everything she can for them, you can’t at least a little admire her. Sure, there are other character aspects that make her less attractive (like overdoing her feminism activities) but that’s only human. The leading guy on the other hand for me looked like a perfect antagonist and I was very confused if the show really wanted me to like him. Well, sure, Usui has good looks and can do just about anything when the plot requires it (playing chess or volleyball like a pro, acting like a perfect waiter, rescuing Misaki from all kinds of situations – you name it). His perfectness in itself sometimes becomes annoying but that’s only a tip of an iceberg – Usui also among other things treats Misaki pretty horribly forcing her to the situations she doesn’t like, stalking her, being selfish, rude and arrogant so Misaki’s description of him as an “alien pervert” basically fits.  Both of the ED’s try to hint something of a backstory of Usui but that’s too vague to hold any meaning. And that’s a shame because for the whole anime Usui receives no development at all – he remains exactly the same during all the 26 episodes. Well, it’s not a development heavy show but even Misaki’s character got a bit softened during all this time. I can understand that there can be people like Usui and they themselves can be not fully aware of their flaws but making such a person a lead guy in a light-hearted show is beyond me. The supporting cast is pretty dull – usually arriving only when there is nothing else to do but to be targets of some unfunny jokes. A bit of an exception could be Misaki’s sister who has a very weird quirk – an ability to win every lottery she participates in. Some other characters also appear to be not that common in anime – a crossdressing guy, a guy who generally behaves and looks pretty girlish… Oh wait, it’s just a bunch of slightly improved bishounens. Oh shoujo manga, you got me again.

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Excerpt from the anime

     Visually the anime looks dated. I couldn’t believe that it was aired only in 2010 because it looks way older. On the other hand, J.C.Staff isn’t a studio you would remember thinking about amazing visual achievements. Aqua color backgrounds add much of slice of life feeling but that also makes things that get animated very easy to spot. Character designs are straight from shoujo manga – ok but nothing impressive, just as the animation. All this mix makes me wonder what force transported this show some 5 years in the future form the time period it should belong to. Well, the story didn’t require any special effects or performances and the occasional appearance of chibis (comedy time, how else) brought some variety to otherwise really average and unimpressive visual aspect of the show, so I guess the quality of the story correlates with the quality of the visuals.

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     The soundtrack as everything else is a bit of a mixed bag. Some themes, especially those that are associated with Misaki’s café, give an appropriate Victorian feeling by being more of a classical style, just what you need thinking about aristocrats, maids and stuff. Some other themes are also quite catchy but for a 2 cour show there could have been more variety – even the most beautiful tracks could come on the verge of being annoying if you repeat them over and over again. Still, apart from some more interesting pieces of music the majority of the soundtrack remains easily forgettable and that again corresponds to the overall quality of the show.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Odayaka Hoshi Hana Koukou' by Wataru Maeguchi

      Overall as you can see I didn’t particularly enjoy Kaichou wa Maid-sama!. Generally it’s not a bad experience to see how it’s possible to play with various shoujo scenarios and how everything is affected by not that usual setting. Still, for me there are far more interesting shoujo anime or at least some that are able to achieve similar goals but using given time more efficiently. Also, the structure just screams “it’s a manga adaptation” and many actions of the characters happened just because the author wanted. Even when the confession happened (I doubt it’s a spoiler because of course it had to happen) I felt more relieved that it finally did more than being happy for the characters. It’s just the type of anime you have to enjoy (if you can) for the ride and not for the results.

 I believe, this anime

1

Could’ve been worse

     Should you watch it? Well, if you are a fan of romcoms that dwell on the feel-good side of things and don’t bother too much with an advanced story and characters, you certainly can check it out. Otherwise for someone like me who doesn’t have enough tolerance towards such things and looks at Kaichou wa Maid-sama! as something quite predictable, overlong and infested with silly humor, there are far better options to choose deciding what to watch next.

Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou – a comedy not for everyone

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Alternative title Daily Lives of High School Boys
Studio Sunrise
Genres Comedy, Slice of Life
Source Manga
Episodes 12
Season Winter 2012
Director Shinji Takamatsu
Music Audio Highs

     It’s always a very difficult task to evaluate something whose quality is determined by the ability to make people laugh. Everyone just has a different taste of humor and I believe among all the means of entertainment – be it anime or something else – comedy is the genre whose scions are the most difficult to evaluate collectively as good or bad. Even a person with no interests in, say, action stuff can at least appreciate the aspect of something just being spectacular, but with comedy there is practically no middle ground – it’s a hit or miss.  To be frank, Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou was almost entirely a miss for me, though that doesn’t automatically make the show bad or mean that anyone won’t enjoy it. It just wasn’t for me, even if the first episode looked as promising as almost any anime, but the momentum didn’t last that long. Anyway, let’s dig a little deeper and find out why exactly it didn’t work that well.

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     If Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou was a child, its parents would definitely be Nichijou and Gintama. The basic premise of the show is very simple – you just can’t be more simple than some people (in this case – high-schoolers) doing some random and occasionally funny stuff. Sounds very similar to Nichijou, and not only because of the name, doesn’t it? I have a suspicion that, as Nichijou manga started few years earlier, Yasunobu Yamauchi, the author of Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou manga, may have been more or less influenced by it. Anyway, the similarities stop short pretty quick as Nichijou is an anime with girls in the center, its tone is far less sinister and finally it has more typical slice of life moments and doesn’t rely too much on the humor. Speaking about the humor, that’s where the Gintama part comes in. After all, it’s not that strange as both shows share the same studio, director and some of the voice actors among other similarities. As I’m not one of the biggest Gintama fans (it’s just not a particularly funny show, though it certainly has some hilarious moments), it’s quite obvious why Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou proved a little too hard to stomach for me. Well, a healthy dose of toilet and underwear type of humor can be funny enough but there it looked a bit overdone, overused and more silly than funny. Moreover, the show felt overstretched more times than not since all the setting up of a joke took serious chunks of time and when the final moment of retribution would finally come, it just won’t pay off accordingly. It’s like hearing of an enormous and vast beach nearby and after arriving there it turns out to be just a sandbox, and not a particularly spectacular one. Of course, the anime had some very well made sketches (probably the best ones were those of the Literary Girl) but most of the time a poker face was very easy to retain for me. Also, Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou strongly promoted the feeling of comradery, the bro-code, when a person would do a silliest thing in the world no matter what if it only would help his friend. As one of the overarcing themes of the show, this one was executed really well and even if in some instances pretty flat jokes were used, I still can and must appreciate what was achieved.

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     Sadly, characters aren’t the most interesting part of the show, either. At least the series itself is fully aware of that as at one point it even claims that you don’t have to learn the names of the characters – it’s not important. Well, that can be taken as a meta-joke but I’d prefer to become at least a bit attached to people whose daily lives are shown and of whom I’m supposed to laugh at and to be invested in. The three main guys are distinguishable probably only by their hair color and their voices. Maybe it was meant to have many self-insert characters, but either way it didn’t work that well. Speaking about the supporting characters, there’s a bunch of other pretty much faceless guys that barely can be described in one sentence. And that bunch is not small – there’s even a case of introducing some new people only so that they can be mistook for the main guys. It’s not a bad feature by itself as Baccano! did pretty well with an exceptionally huge cast, but for it to pay off you need those characters to be characters and use them, not just tell one or two jokes and return them to oblivion. Another serious drawback was the depiction of females. I understand it can be argued that as the show lets us see the world as those particular high-school boys see it and it’s just a matter of perception, but I must disagree. I fail to remember any female character in the show that wasn’t shown to be aggressive (in past or present), more or less dumb or just incompetent. Probably there were some, but it seems that those girls just didn’t have enough screen time to show their true characters. Yes, it definitely looked refreshing during some early episodes when you can relax from usual moe types and damsels in distress, but later on it just dragged the show down. Every girl that has more screen time than five minutes was shown as unstable, often prone to fighting and being, well, very unsympathetic. I agree that some characters of this sort could be ok, but if each and every girl is like this… I’m sorry, I’d better watch something else, with more variety.

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     Speaking about the artstyle, it wasn’t anything notorious. Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou tried to put all the weight on the comedic side of the show, so there were no, say, planet destroying screams like there were in Nichijou. Soft colors matched slice-of-life-ish atmosphere, and scenes near the river, that were meant to be a parody of romantic stuff, even looked beautiful. As far as character designs go, I’m not so positive. Well, they were exceptional enough so that you can easily distinguish the show from probably any other anime. Yet, as large a cast as it had, Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou just didn’t manage to make the characters stand out in their own world. Many a time I kept wondering if a glimpsed person has been there for the whole time or just showed up and will never be seen again. Still, the problem was way deeper with girl characters. Almost every guy seemed to have countless sisters portrayed without showing their eyes and, as I already mentioned, had almost exact personalities. That also applied to many other females of the show. The constant portraying of people without eyes probably is a bit too much. Yes, they look very non-human (which clearly female characters are supposed to be like), but what of it if it carries no emotional weight? One or two eyeless characters should have been more than enough, not almost all of them.

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     As music for Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou was created by Audio Highs, the same person to work with Gintama, we can add another common point between the two of them. Even if there was hardly any song that I would listen constantly outside of the show (OP and ED included), the soundtrack did what it should have. The same laid back aura of Gintama was welcome here as well, so I think soundtrack was probably one of the stronger parts of the series. By the way, J. Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D was used and was used effectively enough.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Danshi Koukousei to Yukai na Nakama'

     After all, everything I can say about Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou is that you should try it yourself to see if it’s for you. Practically, it’s Gintama in high school without its serious arcs and flamboyant setting. The characters were harder to become acquainted with than first episodes of Shirobako, but the development part didn’t even start. The show has its own more sinister than usual slice of life comedy anime niche and looks to be quite respected within the community, but I don’t harbor very warm feelings towards it. Well, it just proves that barely any comedy can be for everyone.

     I believe, this anime

1

Could’ve been worse

     Even if this show isn’t for me, it can easily be for you. Yes, it’s not perfect but it has its own charm that can definitely appeal for many people.