“Sasako-san – doko no aru daro?”
Look out Handa-san – looks like you have some competition.
Shirokuma is another one of those shows that’s so easy to watch and enjoy that you don’t have to think too hard – it’s great at providing the simple pleasures. But this one does go deeper, and if you care to follow it you’ll find some deceptively offbeat and even subversive humor at times, along with some genuine warmth that can only come with a real attachment to the characters. Make no mistake, despite the gimmick this is a character-driven comedy in the same way Working! and even Shinryaku Ika Musume were, and perhaps gets the balance between tart and sweet down as perfectly as any comedy since Ika Musume.
Who would have believed that a series could make a genuinely moving episode about a woman’s relationship with a sloth? Yet Shirokuma manages to do just that, largely due to the fact that Namakemono-kun is a rather sweet and hapless figure. And the fact that he’s willing to spend 12 hours commuting 30 yards to work at the café just so he can buy Sasako-san dinner to repay her for the way she helps him out is really almost heartbreaking, in a way. Of course this being Shirokuma Café Namakemono-kun (“He really should just stop getting the paper”) is full of surprises – not just a degree but a Ph. D (thesis: sitting in trees) and the ability to grow algae on his body. Shirokuma-san’s reason for hiring him – “It could be fun” – is perfectly in character, but he never mocks Sloth-kun for his obvious deficiencies as an employee, and it’s Sasako-san who reminds him of the truth, that it was he that caused her to get a job at the café in the first place.
Next up is a Handa-centric sketch, though it’s really more about Sasako-san than anything and features the return of for my money the cutest character in a show full of them, Red Panda-kun. There are some fine individual moments here – a couple of “What the heck"?” from Penguin-san, for example when Sasako-san answers Shirokuma-san’s questionnaire (“The interests of young female humans”) by saying her hobby is “touching pillbugs”. Handa-san is such s schlub – he dreams of a new vacuum for Christmas – but at least he and Sasako bond over the miraculous nature of potatoes. We’re also treated to a “Ladies Outing” courtesy of Red Panda-kun’s brilliant plan to figure out what Sasako-san wants for Christmas, the highlight of which is Mama Red Squirrel saying that "No matter how wonderful a guy may be, his tail has to look amazing - especially how he swings it."
Absurdity, warmth and great characters – that’s a recipe for comedy success, if ever I heard one. It’s no wonder Shirokuma Café has crept deep into my consciousness after 35 weeks, despite looking like a pleasant trifle at first. These two chapters were full of the elements that make the series work - like a table full of lady zoo animals all played by men sitting around talking about how men don’t understand women, and genuinely lovable characters who somehow find a way to make each other’s lives more pleasant. This is a seriously good show that doesn’t get nearly enough credit.