Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Polar Bear Cafe, Part 4

And now we're done with the main series. For the last time, we've seen Polar Bear devastate a conversation with his puns, Panda reflect contentedly on his cuteness, Penguin quaff his body-weight in caffe mochas, Miss Sasako deal patiently with all comers, Mr. Handa flounder helplessly in her presence, Mei Mei go bananas (go bamboo?) in his presence, Grizzly get awakened from hibernation, Llama get overlooked by all and sundry, Sloth aspire to a more accelerated way of life, the penguin-card sales penguins be Penguin Power Rangers, Rin Rin moon over pandas in general and Panda in particular, and so on and so forth. Hail and farewell, Shirokuma-san.

Polar Bear Cafe has been the largest project in the history of Orphan Fansubs, and it was done with one of the smallest teams: ninjacloud for timing, Calyrica for QC, and me for editing and typesetting. convexity, deltakei, and Moho Kareshi all contributed to translating the fifteen songs and innumerable signs. The original subtitles are from HorribleSubs, the encodes from Ruell-Next. The project took about six months, a pace of two episodes per week, or double the pace at which it originally aired.

This batch of episodes is not materially different from any of the prior sets, with episodes devoted to the major and minor characters, holidays, and just ordinary life. Perhaps these episodes go more for heart and less for sarcasm than previous ones, but that's just an impression. Polar Bear Cafe has always known how to be sincere; a fine early example is the B-part of episode 13, "Panda's Wish." And Panda is at the center of a lot of the appeals to the heart, including the two parts of episode 44, which are probably the most serious of the entire series. We get to see that Panda is a good kid, but first and last a kid. When real life impinges on his daily routine of laying about, lazing about, and eating bamboo, the results are pretty shattering.

Penguin continues to lead an erratic and questing life, veering off from rakugo into ventriloquism, much to the consternation of his fellow cafe regulars. Although Penguin is regularly the butt of jokes from Polar Bear and blissfully tactless remarks by Panda, he shows his devotion to his friends in "The Zoo in the Rain," and theirs is on display in "Cherry Blossom Viewing in Spring." Polar Bear remains an arch-troll, but he too has his moments of sincerity.

The secondary characters are not ignored either. Miss Sasako's and Llama's idle conversation about their hometown in "The Cafe in the Afternoon" leads into "Llama's Time Capsule" and an actual return to that town and its local wonders, such as the bakery and the park. Grizzly is woken up by Polar Bear numerous times before Grizzly's mother (who calls him "Gri-chan") shows up to get him out of bed permanently in "Grizzly's Reunion." Mr. Handa, having received obligation chocolates on Valentine's Day, goes through agonies of indecision about what to give Miss Sasako for White Day and receives the usual useless advice from the regulars. Sloth has one last attempt at life in the fast(er) lane in "Sloth's Journey," but only makes it to a local bathhouse instead of a distant hot springs. Few of the various threads in the series, such as Mr. Handa's inarticulate longing for Miss Sasako, are resolved, but at least Masaki finally finishes his apprenticeship with Mr. Tree Kangaroo and is invited to roast some coffee officially.

There are some amusing minor revelations. Almost all the characters, except Panda (who's too young), enjoy having a drink. Polar Bear is partial to scotch, Wolf and Grizzly to bourbon, Tiger to martinis, Otter to gimlets (gin-and-lime), Miss Sasako to White Russians (Kahlua-and-milk), and Crocodile to tequila. Grandpa Panda and Chinstrap Penguin like sake. Penguin, Full-Time Panda, and Llama all drink beer, although Penguin also likes Shandygaffs and just about anything else. Some of the characters behave like Japanese salarymen and drink too much after work. When they do, their behavior changes. Full-time Panda becomes maudlin, Llama becomes brave, Anteater eats anything, and Sloth talks at normal speed. This aspect of Japanese life, which would lead to endless finger-wagging in the US, is just accepted as normal.

On the other hand, we never do learn how Penguin gets onto a bar stool, or what's in the parts of the Cafe yard that are better left unvisited.

The music for this concluding segment doesn't seem to me as inventive as in preceding segments, but perhaps I'm saturated. The third OP, You & Me, is unbearably upbeat and collectivist. It seems to talk down to the audience, and the animation behind it is uninspired. The last three EDs run the gamut from mediocre to terrific:
  • ED10, Bamboo Rendezvous, is a relentless bouncy love note from Mei Mei to her Prince Han.
  • ED11, Pandaholic!!, is a relentless bouncy love note from Rin Rin to his Panda.
  • ED12, My Dear, is a soulful ballad in which Polar Bear expresses his affection for his cafe and its customers.
The last ED is by far the best of the three, although the live-action story behind Pandaholic!! is amusing, illustrating how Rin Rin's obsession with pandas undermines his relationships with human women. 

Speaking of Rin Rin, he's a problematic character for US audiences. His constant pursuit of Panda makes him seem like a dangerous stalker, particularly because Panda is clearly a child. However, perhaps we're reading too much into the show. Rin Rin just loves pandas. In episode 9's "Rin Rin Deeply Moved! Panda's House," he ends up playing hide-and-seek with Mei Mei, getting accidentally pounded into unconsciousness by Grandpa Panda, and getting gnawed and clawed by the infant panda twins. Panda Mama isn't perturbed in the least. Her only comment is, "Mr. Rin Rin is quite tough." And he helps Panda out of a predicament in "Panda Mama's Gardening," asking nothing in return other than to be of assistance.

When Polar Bear Cafe ended in the spring of 2013, the cast closed with the words "See you again!" Most of us fans interpreted that as a promise of future episodes or OVAs, perhaps after a break. But there's been nothing since, except for a few drama CDs and web radio broadcasts, and even those have ceased. The voice actors have all gone on to other shows. Will we ever get to visit Polar Bear's Cafe again? Each passing season makes it less likely. Perhaps these fifty episodes are all we'll get. If so, it's enough.

The project team has a bit more to do. There's a storyboard version of episode 26 to sub, corrections to a few episodes, and a final batch. Then the team can rest from its labors, kick back, and enjoy a fresh caffe mocha, without too much chocolate syrup. Until then, as Miss Sasako says, enjoy!

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