Updated: May 10, 2021
I didn't know how much I needed a show like Rilakkuma & Kaoru until a big, fluffy brown bear named Rilakkuma popped up on my Netflix recommendations. I decided that I would watch the show simply because of Rilakkuma and his little friends Korilakkuma, a small white bear, and Kiiroitori, a tiny yellow chick's adorable interactions with Kaoru, the Japanese office worker they live with. Contrary to its whimsical visual style, however, Rilakkuma & Kaoru is not just a lighthearted stop-motion animation. At its heart is a tale of a young woman struggling to find her place in society, and how she finds a family in her animal companions, who not only support her loyally as she deals with loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, but celebrate with her in times of joy.
Although Rilakkuma & Kaoru's 13 episodes are all less than 15 minutes, they take place over the span of a year in Japan, with the show beginning during cherry blossom season in the spring and ending with delicate pink petals blowing in the breeze. The show illustrates the changing of the seasons beautifully, meticulously adjusting lighting and background scenery to simulate the passage of time. While watching Rilakkuma & Kaoru, I almost forgot that I was watching stop-motion and that everything I was seeing were actually miniature models, because so much effort was put into making everything look realistic. The Japanese are truly the masters at making miniatures, as the pancakes that Kiirotori make look like they would melt deliciously in your mouth, and Kaoru's room is filled with tiny furniture and decor items that likely each took lots of skilled labor and time to make. Rilakkuma and Co. themselves are miniatures, and the fact that they're made of a felt-like material make them that much more adorable and so lifelike that they seem like they could reside in your house too.
A video detailing how the animation was made and the sheer amount of dedication it took.
Similar to Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, Rilakkuma and the others don't speak, but instead communicate through a series of adorable sounds, head tilts, and confused blinking. Even so, Kaoru and the animals understand each other perfectly, emphasizing their deep, emotional connection. When Kaoru is struggling to make ends meet, for example, and expresses her despair, the animals agree on their own to take on part-time jobs (yes, in this world animals can work freely among humans XD), and Rilakkuma even steps inside a pot, offering to be cooked for dinner. For Kaoru, who feels an increasing sense of loneliness as her friends become preoccupied with their jobs and getting married while she can't even find a boyfriend, Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, and Kiiroitori warm up her home in the same way a pet dog or cat would.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a unique gem in that it feels grounded and incredibly realistic despite its humorous, fantastical premise of adorable animals living with a girl with a whole host of first world problems. While you may find yourself marveling at the utter cuteness of the characters and the adventures they have together, there is an undertone of nostalgia that many of us can relate to as young adults, wishing for simpler, happier times and missing the people from our past. The show is even more enjoyable if you have an ample understanding of Japanese culture and cuisine, as you'll find yourself admiring the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms and wanting to eat takoyaki and edamame with the characters at the hanabi, or annual summer fireworks festival. With short and sweet episodes, each with a unique adventure and takeaway life lesson, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is the perfect show to binge watch in one sitting, or revisit briefly anytime you need a reminder to enjoy living in the moment.
From Tumblr users mar-maidz and eggsaladstain: Each episode has a meaningful ending quote.
P.S. Netflix, Rilakkuma & Kaoru MUST. BE. RENEWED. I have been watching the same 13 episodes over and over for the past two months, and a Season Two would put me over the moon, thanks!