Last Friday, Netflix dropped yet another original series, “Rilakkuma and Kaoru” (2019). However, this one bears little resemblance some of the streaming service’s other original programs. The show, created by Japanese stationery company San-X, is a delightfully whimsical program centered around the company’s much beloved character Rilakkuma. The bear, who has long been featured on cutesy backpacks, stationery and appeared in stuffed animal form, finally made his TV debut.
The show’s premise is a somewhat strange one. At the center of the show is the well-meaning but incredibly awkward Kaoru, a human woman living in an apartment in Japan. Living alongside her is the giant, anthropomorphic bear Rilakkuma, a smaller, equally adorable bear named Korilakkuma and a chick named Kiirotori, who has a penchant for dusting.
This premise raises a few questions. Are the bears pets, roommate or friends? They can’t talk, but can communicate through, well, bear noises. Also, where did they come from? Are the bears dangerous and wild? One episode shows that bears in the show’s universe live at the zoo, so are these a different, more human-like type of bear? The show’s answers to all these questions are, essentially, “Don’t worry about it.”
The show also treks even further into the bizarre and occasionally even absurd. In the fifth episode, the ghost of a spiteful teenage girl with a hatred of bears appears in the apartment, and it’s just accepted. However, the fantastic animation style and inherent strangeness of the girl’s presence gives the show leeway for such plot lines, and they don’t shake the diegesis of the world in the slightest. Like the characters in the show when the ghost appeared, the audience just accepts it.
On the topic of the animation style, it’s worth mentioning that one of the strongest features of the show is its character design. Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, Kiirotori and all the other animals in the show’s universe, are, for lack of better explanation, shaped like friends. The two bear characters are shaped like teddy bears, evoking childhood nostalgia. Their plumpness gives them a childlike cuteness, and the felt-like material that the character figurines are crafted out of make the viewer feel like you can reach into the screen and hug their soft fur. The sets are equally impressive — the amount of effort put into small details, like the individual petals of cherry blossom trees, are astounding, especially when one takes into account that the stop-motion style requires an extreme degree of attention.
Narratively, the show doesn’t go for elaborate story arcs or shocking plot twists — the show is focused on more simple, feel-good content. Each episode is a 10-minute vignette about the daily trials and tribulations of managing a full-time job and satisfying the needs of two childlike bears and a chicken. Every episode, Kaoru goes through some sort of existential crisis, but the show negotiates the crises in simplistic ways. For example, Kaoru’s inability to pick between edamame and takoyaki is a thinly veiled metaphor for her feeling unable to make bigger choices in life, and her sense of aimlessness. Each episode ends with a written-out message summarizing the moral of the episode; the final shot of the aforementioned edamame-vs.-takoyaki episode is the sentence “THEY ARE ALL DELICIOUS,” inscribed in Japanese on a shaved ice stand.
While this may setup may be less action-packed or intricate than “Game of Thrones” (2011–) or “Black Mirror” (2011–), it has a unique worth in its pure wholesomeness. It is happiness and coziness boiled down into a show, and it’s almost impossible not to feel warm and fuzzy watching it. The shortness of the episodes (each clocks in between 11 and 14 minutes) makes the show a perfect study break for the upcoming finals season. When you need a breather from the mountain of papers and exams you have coming up, all you need to do is pull up Netflix and just sit back, relax and enjoy the cuteness.