Friday, August 28, 2015

Polar Bear Cafe, Part 3

With this batch of twelve Polar Bear Cafe episodes, we pass the halfway mark and start heading for home. The third quarter brings a number of subtle changes and a clear rise in the general level of absurdity.

First, there's a new OP, Rough & Laugh, and it marks the emergence, both literally and figuratively, of Miss Sasako into greater prominence. She's the central figure of the new OP, with her daily bicycle ride through town to get to her job at the cafe providing an opportunity to observe many of the other characters in their "natural" habitats - Rin Rin chasing Panda, Panda running away, Anteater trying to intimidate, Baby Emperor Penguin and Baby King Penguin playing choo-choo train, Grizzly riding his hog, Panda Mama obsessing over Yama Arashi, Mei Mei obsessing over Prince Han(da), and so on. At the end, Miss Sasako joins the lead trio as part of the caffe mocha art - quite a promotion from the first half of the show - and in a wide shot of the cafe that reflects the changes from summer to winter as the shows progress. Miss Sasako also (eventually) gets her own paper cutout in the previews, instead of being just a disembodied voice.

Miss Sasako gets more air time in the episodes too, and she's allowed to show the feistier side of her personality, instead of being a background yamato nadeshiko. In particular, she becomes more of a foil for Penguin and a frequent deflater of his endless quest for ego-reinforcement. This exchange from episode 36 is pretty typical:
Mr. Penguin (flapping his wings): When I flap like this, or when I flap like this... Which is cuter?
Miss Sasako: Could I treat this as a take-home quiz?
Even Polar Bear is driven to remark, "You've started butting into conversations, Miss Sasako," before tempering this seeming rebuke by adding, "You've grown quite a bit this past year."

Was Miss Sasako's role expanded because the series lacked role models for girls? Panda Mama and Ms. King Penguin are stay-at-home moms - and are played by men in any case. Did the series work better with the four cafe regulars bantering, instead of just three? Whatever the reason, it's nice to see.

The new opening song itself marks a change from the hard driving rhythms of Boku no Invitation to the gentle whimsy of a children's genki song. Personally, I think it's a letdown. The first OP made no concessions to the unreality of the premise. The second OP admits it's a "colorful parallel" world and a bit of a miracle. It includes the usual exhortations to Japanese children to be part of the collective and not stand out ("let's form a great big ring"). All I can say in its defense is that the animation behind it is wonderful, and that the third OP is even more saccharine.

On the other hand, the three new ending songs continue to entertain:
  • ED7: Panda Mama sings Kimama ni Panda Mama, a self-deprecating ode to her ordinary life as an ordinary housewife.
  • ED8: Llama struts his stuff in Llama-san no Llama Mambo, a catchy dance number that belies his placid exterior as a herbivore.
  • ED9: Sloth soothes in Largo, a peaceful, not to say lethargic, ballad about life in the slow lane.
Largo plays over a live-action clip of adorable Japanese children dressed up in costumes as Panda, Polar Bear, Penguin, and Sloth.

The episodes combine absurdity, snark, and sincerity in a nicely balanced blend. For absurdity, it's hard to top "Panda's New Part-Time Job," in which he rises from an internship at a car dealership to CEO of his own company through no fault or effort of his own. Another laugh-out-loud episode is "The Cafe Yard," in which Polar Bear discloses that the cafe property includes, among other things, a vegetable garden and an herb garden staffed by kangaroos and a prairie dog, respectively; an artisan cheese factory run by lemurs, who make genuine buffalo mozzarella from genuine water buffaloes; a basketball court, a driving range, and a fishing pond; and areas best left unvisited for safety.

Then there's "Sales Penguin's Sales," in which the desperate penguin-card sales penguins convince Mr. Handa to let them put on a Penguin action hero show, Penguinger. This drains visitors from the Panda Corner, so Panda and his friends collaborate on the "Panda Corner Project," a live-action "family drama" that features the entire Panda family, Polar Bear as their long-lost brother (sister) Stojkovich, and Penguin as a new baby in the family.

"Panda Corner Project" also contains one of the few cases where I changed the original subtitles for more than minor editing nits. Stojkovich/Polar Bear has returned home to resume the family business as a Heoi Bikuni - a maid in Heian period homes whose job was to take the blame if a woman of the family farted. The original translation was "flatus patsy," which was a bit too obscure. I've gone with "flatulence fall-guy," because it's clearer, and it fits in better with Mei Mei's retort, "It's not a job for a guy." Of course, Stojkovich is actually a girl, but let's not sweat the small stuff.

Mr. Penguin's love life continues to lurch from bad to worse. The seven Miss Penko's force a showdown in "Mr. Penguin's Dilemma," which ends in the worst possible way (for him). But Mr. Penguin never learns, and in "Mr. Penguin's New Love," he's off mooning over another pretty girl penguin, even if this means quaffing endless caffe mocha's made with too much chocolate syrup at a different cafe. Mr Penguin's obsession with "traditional comedic storytelling" (rakugo) emerges at the end of episode 32 and proves to be a running gag for the rest of the series. His "slightly idiotic tales" bore all the other regulars to tears. Polar Bear never tires of cutting him off in mid-flow, or Panda of writing off the whole idea as unbearably dull. It's not until Christmas Eve, when he tries his hand in front of the mellowed denizens of Grizzly's Bar, that he succeeds in completing a story. Fortunately, perhaps, we don't have to sit through it.

Continuing the theme of hopeless love, Mr. Handa's unexpressed longing for Miss Sasako continues to make no progress in "Mr. Handa's Present," although at least they do discover a mutual interest in potatoes. Polar Bear's endless trolling of Grizzly is on full display in a series of skits about Grizzly's attempt to hibernate for the winter, and Polar Bear's non-stop efforts to disturb him and get him to come out and play. Finally, this set of episodes cuts across a number of holidays, including Halloween, Christmas, and New Years, and each gets its due. New Years Eve start out with just the core characters, until one by one everyone else, except the seven Miss Penkos, comes by to celebrate with what is, in fact, their family and to take an end of year bow.

Enjoy another dozen visits with Polar Bear and the gang!


  1. Glad to see that you folks are nearly done with Shirokuma, so good luck on the rest!

    Also, since you are focusing on shorter series for now, would it be possible to do the following?
    Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh OVAs (Anime Midstream won't be picking it up)
    Twinbee Paradise (Random Masters fell off the face of the Earth before getting any further)
    Sengoku Bushou Retsuden Bakufuu Douji Hissatsuman (no subs)
    both Choubakumatsu Shounen Seiki Takamaru series (no subs)

    1. Unless you can supply a translator, the answer is no, to all of them.