A third look at Usagi Drop

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Rush hour!

The Usagi Drop film, with Matsuyama Ken’ichi and Ashida Mana as the mismatched pair building a life together, was released in 2011 amidst the spotlight associated with the ending of the manga series. Even though it’s taken me a couple of years to finally sit down an watch this film, I’m taking it as a blessing in disguise, for it allows me to once again reflect on the themes that Unita Yumi seems to have been concerned with. Most viewers — myself included — celebrated the anime for its heartwarming story about how Kawachi Daikichi, a young man on the rise in his company, learned how to be a father even through the sacrifices he had to make, and the film can certainly be read in exactly the same way.

However, in the time that I’ve since had to think about the controversial ending of the manga, I’ve started seeing far more complex ideas and messages in this story. And these are also reflected in the film: even though the movie gives Daikichi male peers who dote on their young children, as errinundra observed, he isn’t learning how to be a father, but rather how to be a single, working mother. In fact, Daikichi isn’t just learning how to be a single mother, he’s learning about the constrained choices that confront women in Japanese society.

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Hair, bedwetting, sickness…relying on the kindness of others…
That’s all part of it.

This can be seen in some of the key scenes that are retained from the manga, or added to the film. One that stands out is when Daikichi’s father relates what happened to his mother when she fell pregnant with him and his sister. Even though it was really difficult for women to return to work after taking even a short period of maternity leave, Daikichi’s mother worked hard and succeeded the first time. However, the second time round, she worked too hard and suffered a breakdown. By the time she had recovered, her place at work had disappeared, and she was forced to become a housewife, which was a kind of hell since she’d been so passionate about her career.

Another character through whom these tough choices becomes really evident is that of Rin’s real mother. During her pregnancy, Masako had chosen to detach herself from Rin because her work as a mangaka would make it very difficult for her to raise a child alone. Hence, Rin never saw her as a mother, and they never meet during the course of the film. However, when Daikichi sends Masako a photo of Rin from the Parents’ Day, a lot is conveyed by the long pause as she stares at the screen, the slightly hesitant way in which she picks up her pen again, and in the quiet weeping that we then hear. Following on from the earlier scene where she begs Daikichi to let Rin use his surname, it shows just how much she does care for her daughter, despite the choices she had to make.

These are but two of the characters whose stories touch on this theme. Although it doesn’t resonate much with what we find out about Nitani-san, the mother of Rin’s friend Kouki, it rings true again in Gotou-san, a woman at Daikichi’s company whose request for a demotion he comes to understand when he makes the same choice.

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The choices that women must make

That said, I wonder if the lens that Unita Yumi has presented is a little too narrow. A few months ago, The Economist released an article that looked into how Norway, despite having some of the most progressive policies for women in the world, is still dominated by men at the executive level. The findings of social scientists that have examined this problem are interesting:

First, Nordic women may suffer lower earnings later in their careers because generous maternity leave encourages them to take long breaks to raise children earlier on, when male competitors are gaining valuable experience. Second, women trying to climb the career ladder seem to find it harder to afford domestic help than their American equivalents, because those generous social policies have to be paid for with high taxes. And, when chores cannot be offloaded to domestic staff, working women still get lumbered with the time-inflexible household tasks, such as picking up children from school, whereas men do “their” chores at the weekend. Public-sector employers are more inclined to provide female staff with child-friendly hours, ample family leave and so on; and they have a larger proportion of women bosses than private firms. But the wage structure in such workplaces is much more compressed than in the predominantly male-led private sector.

The conclusion that The Economist arrives at is that “policies that reduce the gender gap for the mass of workers may be increasing it at the upper levels of management.” However, the implications of the above paragraph must also be considered. Point 1: the women who succeed in climbing the career ladder often have domestic help. Point 2: where domestic help cannot be obtained, someone has to sacrifice, and that usually falls to the working mother as opposed to the working father (except where the man allows his wife to be the high-flyer). Basically, it’s incredibly difficult in the modern world to have both parents with incredibly successful careers whilst successfully raising a family. It’s possible in certain industries, such as film and academia, but for those who want to climb up most corporate or even public service ladders, the necessity to be putting in long hours at the office is still a major barrier to this kind of dream.

Unfortunately, I doubt this reality will change anytime soon, not as long as people need to physically interact with those they work with. To me, the root of the gender difference is arguably due to the dominance of patriarchic values in many societies, which means that it is often the woman that is saddled with raising the children whilst the man brings home the dough. Should a couple decide that the man will take on the responsibility of picking up the children from school etc, then it is likely that his career won’t progress as far as it would otherwise have.

Alternatively, if a couple hires domestic help, then will they eventually regret how much they miss of their children’s early years? Or perhaps they’ll just choose not to have children in the first place. In other words, whilst it is important to be aware of the institutionalised structures that constrain the choices of women in many societies, I think that it’s important to recognise that it’s not the only major factor at play. If we take another step back to look at the bigger picture, “you can’t have it all” is a reality, and not just for women, but for men as well.

However, as Kathy Caprino points out in this brilliant article at Forbes, there are better ways to frame this message. Rather than “you can’t have it all,” a more positive and empowering way to think is to know what matters to you, whether it’s career, family or the people around you in general. This way, you can still strive towards where you want to be, in your career and as a parent, child, friend etc, but when push comes to shove, you will probably make a decision that you will not regret, no matter where you end up. I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that there will be no regrets, but in terms of having fulfilment, you first have to decide what you really want out of your life.

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And once again, another day begins.

In sum, Usagi Drop says a lot about the societies that we live in. On one level, it is a heartwarming story about how Daikichi and Rin come together to form a mutually healing, two-person family. On another level, it is a tale that looks at the harsh realities that confront women – especially single mothers – in patriarchic and rigid societies such as Japan. But on yet another level, it also asks us to consider what we value in our lives, and whether our choices reflect that. Daikichi and Rin’s choices reflect their values. Do yours?

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Ashida Mana, by the way, was pretty amazing:
The first image is of her watching Daikichi walk away from her for the very first time.
The second is the moment that she realises that he is back to pick her up.

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

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