Polar Bear Café (Shirokuma Café): A charming, puntastic show filled with memorable moments – 9/10
PLOT: Polar Bear Café is about the daily lives of a bunch of animals who frequent a café run by the titular Polar Bear, including a panda, a penguin, a llama and a sloth (among many others). There are a few random humans thrown in there too – the perma-smiling Sasako, the bumbling zookeeper Handa and the panda obsessed florist Rin-Rin, but the cast is mainly animals. Animals that no one bats an eye at when when they’re casually wandering about town buying groceries, or working in a bakery or running a bar – they’re fully integrated into society. And yet there is a fully functional zoo where a number of the characters actually work! You kind of take this strange setting for granted after a few episodes – it just works.
Polar Bear Café is a show I couldn’t watch without a smile on my face (trust me I desperately tried when watching the later half of the series on my own in public, being caught grinning and giggling like an idiot when there’s pastel renditions of wild animals emitting showers of sparkles and hearts on my screen is not fun); the show just thrums with feel-good vibes. It’s also consistently hilarious, and displays excellent use of puns, parodies, basic comedic timing and the usual tsukkomi/boke routines. The series uses all the run-of-the-mill s’life situations (festivals, onsen, road-trips, all the holidays you can think of) but simply having the characters be animals puts an interesting spin on things, as they have a unique outlook on things. I don’t usually get on well with s’life shows, but I adored Polar Bear Café – it just balances the mundane with wit so well.
The characters are probably what kept me coming back to the show so much – the central quartet of Polar Bear, Penguin, Panda and Sasako just have superb chemistry and play off each other brilliantly. The side characters are also wonderful and all get their own episodes to shine – my favourites have to be Polar Bear’s long suffering childhood friend and bar owner Grizzly and poor overlooked but utterly charming Llama.Polar Bear Café also has “The Feels” in spades – it just gets under your skin and forces a reaction out of you with alarming frequency. After 50 episodes these characters feel like old friends and I was desperately sad to see the series end, I do hope we get more at some stage.
ANIMATION: The animation is by Studio Pierrot and is very simple but serviceable. The animals are well drawn and surprisingly expressive given many of them lack the usual facial features humans rely on to determine emotion (just where are Penguin & Panda’s eyes anyway??). The over all look of the show is quite soft and pastel, and there is creative use of sparkles, bubbles, hearts, flowers and sweatdrops to punctuate gags or emotion. On the flipside the humans in general are actually terrifying in their inexpressiveness – Sasako in particular has completely dead eyes that are rather unnerving. The show also experiments with unusual visuals in its many EDs – stop-motion, live action, shadow-puppets and paper cut-outs all get a turn, and it is clear that the staff had a lot of fun making this series.
MUSIC & VOICE ACTING: The cast of Polar Bear Café has to be one of the most star-studded I’ve ever encountered. Everyone seems to be a noteworthy name – the central quartet consists of Jun Fukuyama, Takahiro Sakurai, Hiroshi Kamiya and Aya Endo – but the extended cast reads like a who’s who of popular seiyuu! They all seemed to have lots of fun working on this series as well, as the chemistry is brilliant and the acting is really excellent on the whole. A few actors even voice a number of different side characters giving them completely different voices and displaying their range well.
Another thing of note is that there are a lot of different EDs for this series and each of them is an image song, sung in character by the seiyuu – resulting in some truly wonderful songs. I particularly loved Panda’s ‘Bamboo Scramble’ by Jun Fukuyama and Llama’s ‘Llama Mambo’ by Daisuke Ono, but all the song are special in their own way. Even the OPs are pretty damn good, but I’ll always like the first OP best.
Overall I just have to reiterate who utterly charming this show is – it’s a wonderful show to watch if you need cheering up (just avoid watching episode 44 for that purpose – it’s a proper tearjerker). When I first picked up the series last Spring I never would have imagined it turning out to be this good – always a joy when that happens. So yes Polar Bear Café is a show I’d highly recommend picking up – it deserves much more love!