Despite any misty-eyed reminiscences to the contrary, being a kid isn't always easy - then again, neither is being a hard-working, single thirty-something man making his way through the daily grind of life just to get by. So, what happens when you throw a slightly troubled young child named Rin and said thirty-something man together under the same roof? Welcome to the world of Usagi Drop.
To extrapolate on this scenario, Usagi Drop introduces us to its protagonist Daikichi Kawachi as he prepares to go to the funeral of his grandfather on his mother's side - a sad but ordinary event for a guy of a certain age, but one rendered slightly intriguing by the presence of a sullen, silent girl wandering around the house seemingly without explanation. The reason for the girl in question being treated as a proverbial elephant in the room is that she is supposedly the illegitimate child of Daikichi's grandfather, leaving her shorn of her father while her mother is nowhere in sight.
Given such a socially awkward situation at an already fraught time, it perhaps isn't surprising that nobody wants to even tackle the question of Rin's future, let alone accept responsibility for caring for the youngster. In the face of such apathy and attempts to wash their hands of the issue, Daikichi's temper finally boils over as he decides that he will be the one to care for Rin until something more appropriate can be arranged. So it goes that Daikichi suddenly finds himself as a makeshift father, with no experience of how to cope with this arrangement and little in the way of support to help him along the way.
Although this episode of initial scene-setting might sound far-fetched from any number of angles, it really is played beautifully in Usagi Drop's opening instalment - the balance of comedy with emotional drama and tension is virtually perfect, and there's a genuine sense of poignant sadness surrounding the death of Daikichi's grandfather and how it relates to Rin's demeanour and situation. Come the end of the episode, you can't help but find yourself rooting for Daikichi and cheering on his stand against his family's apathy, while Rin's well-behaved, quiet curiosity and sadness leaves you equally well placed to cheer her on given your inability to simply reach into the screen and give the poor kid a hug.
The show's clever blend of elements thankfully continues, spilling over into these subsequent early episodes as Rin and Daikichi both clumsily go about growing into their new arrangement in a mixture of expertly played humour and considered introspection on various aspects of the scenario we're faced with. While aspects of the telling social commentary we encounter along the way are uniquely Japanese, you don't even have to be a parent to understand the difficulties Daikichi has with juggling his work-life balance, or how her father's passing affects Rin's outlook on life.
If some of this sounds a little "heavy" for your tastes, I really can't stress enough how deft and light Usagi Drop's touch is - it never throws its opinions, talking points or emotional moments in your face, instead letting the entire experience wash over you, treating you as enough of an intelligent grown-up to understand what you're seeing unfold before you. This serves to accentuate the various aspects of the series and its story - you feel sad or touched by moments because you genuinely care about the characters (even at this early stage), not because you've been told to in the animated equivalent of big, flashing neon lights.
The main reason for this emotional investment in Usagi Drop's two main characters is that they work so well both together and as individuals. Daikichi is a realistic embodiment of the quiet but considerate thirty-something "worker bee", while Rin exhibits all of the curiosity, insecurities and awkward lines of questioning. Put the two together and you have an unlikely combination that presses all the right buttons to create a hugely entertaining series to watch, even for someone (like myself) unfamiliar with the manga from which it is derived.
Although its animation quality is a little "scruffy" (admittedly in homage to its source material), there's little else we can really criticise about Usagi Drop from its opening three episodes - it's heart-warming, touching, funny and downright wonderful. In short, it's achieved everything we hoped from it thus far, and we can only hope that it continues in the same glorious vein to create one of the best anime series we've seen from Fuji Television's noitaminA programming block in a little while.
You can currently watch Usagi Drop in streaming form via Anime on Demand.