Netflix’s Rilakkuma and Kaoru is one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever seen. Adorable, fun, surprisingly touching… but WEIRD.
For those not in the know, Rilakkuma is a Japanese stationery character. Like Pusheen in the west, he is an adorable, lazy animal who is famous for being cute and appearing on various pieces of merchandise, rather than having any media of his own. But now he has a stop-motion animation of his very own!
To be clear, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is not a show for little kids. It has a rating of 12 in the UK, and a warning for “brief moderate horror,” which should probably have stood out to me as a bit weird before I started watching, considering it’s a show about a lazy cartoon bear.
But, of course, it isn’t really about Rilakkuma at all. It’s about his friend/housemate/owner(???), Kaoru. Kaoru is a young woman living in Tokyo and struggling with the potential loneliness and purposelessness of adulthood. She is stuck in a job where she is underpaid and under-appreciated, and feels like she has left behind by her friends, who are getting married, having kids, and having fabulous careers. They don’t really have time for Kaoru any more, and she feels like a failure compared to them. She struggles with feelings of worthlessness and depression.
Each episode has Kaoru facing a different, relatable problem. Her best friends have all moved on with their lives, and none of them showed up for their annual cherry blossom picnic. She feels crippled by her inability to make decisions, or hurt that her coworkers think she is diligent but boring. She wants a pet, but she’s warned that she’s already old and single, and it’s not too far now until she becomes a lame crazy cat lady.
Of course, Kaoru isn’t actually boring, considering who she lives with — two bears called Rilakkuma and Korilakkuma, and a little yellow bird called Kiiroitori. Where did they come from? Who knows. Even the flashback episode showing how she met them just has them showing up in her apartment one day and basically refusing to leave. Rilakkuma is lazy and LOVES food, especially dango, a Japanese festival snack. Korilakkuma is more of an adventurer, and Kiiroitori is a clean freak who hoards pennies. While Kaoru faces existential struggles, her companions have their own related mini-adventures, whether it’s failing at making pancakes or going into space.
And everyone just accepts the animals as normal. In one episode, when Kaoru is struggling with money, the animals all go out to get part-time jobs, and apparently have zero problems whatsoever getting hired. Kiiroitori becomes a cleaner. Korilakkuma gets a job at a cat cafe (as a cat, obviously, even though she’s a bear). Rilakkuma attempts to work in a kitchen, and when he fails miserably, he comes home, sits inside a pot and suggests the only way he can contribute to the household is for them to cook and eat him instead.
Yup. This show is weird.
And although he appears adorable, the weirdest, most terrifying thing is Rilakkuma himself. The character of Rilakkuma has always had a zip in his back, but I never thought much about it, until the third episode of this show, when Rilakkuma takes off his bearsuit while hidden by the duvet and puts it in the laundry. Apparently, Rilakkuma has many identical suits that he wears, all folded up in the closet in a way that would make Marie Kondo proud. Which means that EITHER Rilakkuma can shed his skins like a snake to wash them in the laundry instead of having baths, becoming a nightmarish Sphinx-cat like creature in between, OR there is something else living inside that bear suit. A horrifying monster. An alien. Just some random weirdo who broke into Kaoru’s house one day and refused to leave. It is the stuff of nightmares.
I watched the show in Japanese, but I would recommend the dub rather than subtitles for watching it in English. It’s the perfect show to watch if you speak some Japanese and want to practice, beyond those moments of “wait, did I misunderstand that, or is this show just that weird?” (spoiler: it’s just that weird), but when I put on the English subtitles to watch with a friend, I found them pretty clunkily translated. I’ve heard the dub is better.
If you want a show that is adorable, relaxing, relatable and just plain different from pretty much anything else, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a great one to watch. It’s 13 ten-minute episodes, and it’s totally worth a try.