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A Beast of Burden

Yesterday evening, me and my family had an unexpected visitor. Well, several to be precise: a herd of cows had broken through from a neighbouring field and taken up residence on our land. I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by countryside and animals my entire life, but even seeing a herd of cows up close is still something a of a novelty. Not that the cows saw it that way. Up close, a cow is a smelly, standoffish creature, a lumbering bag of bones and skin indifferent to anything but the nearest patch of grass.

Which, ultimately, is something we try to forget. For all our love and adoration, animals are not us, and see the world in a radically different way to their human masters. A TV show I’ve recently been watching only reinforces the notion, and lead me to consider how (and why) we humanise animals in fiction.

Shirokuma Cafe (literally translating as Polar Bear’s Cafe) is the kind of surreal, offbeat show that Japan is famous for. A slice-of-life anime based on the manga of the same name, it revolves around the patrons of a cafe in a Japanese city. The twist is that the cafe is actually owned and managed by a polar bear, and visited by animals from the local zoo: a lazy panda, an uptight penguin, a hyperactive mandrill, and a slow-witted llama alongside the human patrons.

The characters of Polar Bear’s Cafe, for the most part, face no great trials or struggles. They go to the beach. They attend blind dates and sing karaoke. They learn how to roast coffee beans. It sounds rather cute and cuddly, and to an extent it is, though the fact a penguin gets drunk in the second episode suggests it’s not strictly for children.

The star of Polar Bear’s Cafe is undoubtedly the young panda bear who discovers the cafe one day. But while he’s a protagonist, he’s not exactly a hero. Panda is a panda through and through: he’s happy to spend his days lazing around, eating bamboo, and having everyone do hard work on his behalf: a two-day working week is a genuine imposition. He’s a kind of Japanese Paddington: though he means well and takes an interest, it’s probably best to keep him at arm’s length in most situations.

Polar Bear’s Cafe stands out for its frequent wordplay (which makes dubbing basically impossible) and the fact that the animals in the show act like… well, animals. Which seems an obvious point, all things considered. But it’s interesting to see how this impacts character when other works use it to more symbolic effect. When the animals have to weed a yard, the only solution Llama has is to eat the weeds. Anteater believes ants are a ideal complement to parfaits. Even Polar Bear can’t quite trust himself around seals at the zoo. And Panda insists all eateries should carry bamboo, irrespective of the human interest… or lack thereof.

Rather than animal appearances acting as a shorthand for human qualities, Polar Bear’s Cafe hosts animals acting exactly as we expect, creating a disconnect between the animals and the humans they interact with. Which isn’t a bad thing, by any means. After all, it’s what most of the show’s comedy revolves around. But it also leads to some interesting problems with characterisation… because Panda is a talking animal taken to its logical conclusion, and the result is a self-centred asshole. He’s a creature who rarely if ever stops to consider the implications of his actions, his life revolving around maximising food intake and relaxation whilst minimising… well, everything else, really.

Panda is instinct and routine personified, and this doesn’t make him likeable. But by accident or design Polar Bear’s Cafe reminds us that animals aren’t typically concerned with making our lives any easier, or looking past their own satisfaction. Change doesn’t really feel like the point of Polar Bear’s Cafe or something any of the animal characters are capable of. They react to their surroundings, but it’s rare they are changed by what they experience, or abandon want in favour of need. As animals, they are two-dimensional characters, and the perfect expression of an animal’s mindset: desire, without any higher insight, ambition or understanding of other people’s viewpoints. If Panda likes bamboo, it logically follows that everyone else must as well.

Admittedly, the animals aren’t entirely selfish or animalistic: their efforts to get zookeeper Mr Handa a girlfriend are certainly amusing and well-meaning. But it’s also kind of hard to overlook their advice is almost universally unhelpful at the same time.

In that light, it’s not hard to see why we humanise animals. The robin- recently voted our national bird- is also violent and territorial, attacking other animals that enter its patch. Male hippos make themselves attractive to females by spreading the aroma of their excrement. Dolphins are rapists. Komodo dragons eat their young, given the opportunity. Taken to its logical conclusion, anthropomorphism in most cases is a narrative trainwreck.

So, naturally, most other stories walk something of a tightrope. They balance the person and the animal to create protagonists we actually care about- or at least don’t totally repel us upon first contact. Wes Anderson’s take on Fantastic Mr Fox is the story of a fox unable to move past his bestial tendencies. But it’s also the story of a father who loves his family and- eventually- wants to do right by them. Watership Down takes a group of rabbits and gives them not just language, but culture and mythology- a reason for to us care about them as both people and animals. Other stories- like TV show BoJack Horseman- heavily play down animal qualities in favour of better exploring topics like depression.  It’s not hard to see why it endures as a storytelling device, or why it’s employed in the way that it is. Good stories are about people, and animals need so much of themselves concealing to bring them up to that standard.

So as I labour to actually create my own story, Polar Bear’s Cafe reinforces that humanising animals- be they real or mythical- is invariably a balancing act. We need to sympathise with our protagonists, or care what happens to them, and trying to achieve that with a creature that’s so often a villain or an enigma is proving to be an interesting challenge. If you want to see Polar Bear’s Cafe for yourself (which I heartily recommend) you can see all 50 episodes on Crunchyroll.


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