I’m a big fan of many genres of anime, though I have in the past been characterized as someone who liked robots, or perhaps gratuitous violence. But one thing that rarely makes the cut for me is something chilled-out, relaxing, perhaps iyashikei. It’s not that I don’t care for that kind of stuff, it’s just that there isn’t a lot out there that’s really great. I find Aria to be that thing, and after discovering it, it got tough for me to find anything else that did it for me as well as that quirky little show. Aside from being mellow and largely without over-arching story, there’s a vibe to Aria that’s hard to deny. It’s contemplative, sure, but it’s also infectiously good-natured. Akari’s wonder at the beauty of the world is pretty catching, and it puts me in a great mood every time.
But… but it’s so slow! But nothing happens! There aren’t a lot of laughs, there’s no action, no fanservice, and its budget-minded visuals aren’t exactly eye-catching. Sure. But there’s that vibe, that unspoken something that just sets you right.
This season, a contender has finally come along. Sure, the denizens of Polar Bear’s cafe are sometimes loud, obnoxiously pun-driven, lazy, or in the case of Aardvark, downright combative. But episode two featured one of the finest moments I’ve seen in a while, a little scene of quiet brilliance. Of course I’m referring Sloth returning to the picnic spot, only to find everyone gone (off to take the drunken Penguin home).
I say it’s brilliant because it transforms a mild joke (“hehe Sloth is slow”) into a genuinely sad little moment where you feel sorry for the poor guy, and then twists around yet again with the appearance of Polar Bear carrying the six-pack. I’d bearly (oh sorry) realized that the scene had transformed from comic to maudlin before I was let down easy by the Brolar Bear. I watched the episode with a normal, and even to her, confused about sweat drops and the like that we take for granted (my wife and I trying to explain the sweat drop was more difficult than I expected), it was an affecting scene.
Polar Bear’s Cafe is a bit like Cheers (Penguin is somewhere between Norm and Cliff, right?) — everyone knows your name, you feel welcome, and that’s mostly due to its punning polar proprietor. His soft-spoken ability to show up at the right time and fix your day is exactly why he’s one of my favorite parts of the season.