“What if my whole body turned pink? It would shout ‘I’m here, look at me!’ Then you couldn’t miss me. Then, maybe, I’d be more . . . just a little bit more.”
Kaoru, the heroine of Netflix’s stop-motion animated series Rilakkuma and Kaoru, is a kind of character rarely seen on television. She’s single, introverted, and she doesn’t love her office job at Samejima Trading Corporation in Japan. She feels herself drifting away from her group of college friends, who are all moving on with their lives. They aren’t easily replaced by her coworkers, who have boyfriends to go out with, parties to attend, and engagement rings to show off. “She’s so serious, which is great for work I guess,” is the dismissive description of herself that Kaoru overhears in the ladies’ room. She listens with dismay as her colleagues discuss why they won’t be inviting her to join them on a group date.
Kaoru isn’t totally alone though: she has three unusual roommates that break up the otherwise realistic portrayal. Rilakkuma is a large, lazy bear (with a zipper on his back), Korilakkuma is a smaller bear, and Kiiroitori is an industrious yellow bird who loves to clean the apartment they share. The animals aren’t silly, they’re cute in the manner of Hello Kitty. They don’t talk, exactly, but the human characters can understand their squeaks and growls. It’s the kind of show that kids would enjoy, but grown-ups would freely choose to watch on their own.
Comedy and charity
Some of the episodes in this slice-of-life series emphasize comedy and play with cheesy sitcom scenarios. In one, Kaoru and Rilakkuma are both having trouble fitting in their clothes, so Kaoru orders exercise equipment online. The delivery man turns out to be handsome, and she can’t resist buying more workout gear, one package at a time, so that her crush will keep showing up at her door. She doesn’t use the stuff—it just piles up in the apartment, until one day her credit card bill arrives. Kaoru and the animals must give up eating treats to save money, and wind up meeting their original goal of slimming down, after all.
Then, Kaoru learns her holiday bonus is going to be cut, and she begins fretting about finances. The animals all get jobs to help out. Rilakkuma finds employment at a bakery but can’t stop tasting the pastries. “Hey, bear! No eating!” shouts his boss. He then tries his paw at construction work but isn’t strong enough. “Move it or lose it, bear!” says the foreman. Finally, he gets a job in a small restaurant kitchen, but he’s too big and gets in the way of other workers. “Why you gotta take up so much space? Useless bear,” the chef grumbles. Rilakkuma’s eyes fill with tears.
At home, when the other animals present their paychecks, he climbs into a pot. “What! You’re making bear stew?” Kaoru says, with a loving laugh. Giving him a hug, she reassures Rilakkuma she doesn’t need him to sacrifice himself. A title card at the end of the episode drives the message home: “It’s enough to do what you can in return.”
Watching this, I felt like that message was tailor-made for me at this point in my life, when it is so hard to need so much help, whether with childcare or finding side hustles. As a woman, I’m more comfortable being the “giver” of assistance, rather than the “taker,” and I feel guilty when I can only repay kindness from my friends with a “thank you.” But if that’s the best I can do, that’s enough! My heart, offered to others, is enough.
For early bloomers, for late bloomers: you’re right on time
Kaoru’s true character is shown when she and the animals are joined during a scary thunderstorm by a lonely little boy who lives in their apartment building. Together, they encounter an angry teenage girl who has become a ghost after dying in a bus accident. The episode is genuinely frightening but also incredibly poignant, as Kaoru softly talks to the ghost until she forgives her boyfriend for moving on to a new relationship soon after her death. It’s clear that Kaoru isn’t just the “lonely hot mess” label that her extroverted world would give her: for all her internal struggles, she has incredible emotional intelligence and true friendship to offer those she encounters.
One of the series’ major themes is that nothing stays the same, and that’s made dramatically clear in the end when Kaoru and her friends must move because their apartment building is scheduled for demolition in the spring. The scene of their former lives is literally getting blown up. But Kaoru is prepared for the challenge and ready to move on.
It’s a fitting end to an emotional arc that began in the first episode when Kaoru attempted to host her college friends for their annual cherry blossom party. No one shows up, leaving Kaoru to lament her “party for people who have been left behind.” Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, and Kiiroitori don’t let her mope at home; they drag her outside to enjoy the cherry trees. Sitting on the banks of a river as the flowers glow in the moonlight, Kaoru wonders aloud what it is that makes the blossoms so beautiful. Perhaps it’s because they’re so pink, she says. “Or maybe it’s because they only bloom one week out of the year. The rest of the time they’re just normal trees with nothing that makes them stand out. Whatever it is, they’re something special.” That observation applies to Kaoru herself, and to so many of us. The show’s loving attention to telling the story of one quiet life reveals that there’s a unique, gentle beauty at the heart of even the most “unremarkable” woman.
As the title card for one episode says, “Every flower blooms in its own period.”