TL;DR – sometimes nothing is more perceptive than the words of a child.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Kotarou wa Hitori gurashi (translates to ‘Kotaro lives alone’) is a story about a four year old boy named Kotarou Sato who moves in next door to Shin Karino, a manga artist. Why Kotarou lives alone? Where are his parents? Where is his source of income? These questions float around your head when you watch the first episode.
Stories about children who take on adult responsibilities are always a source for good stories. The child character is usually contrasted with an adult character who is struggling with their own life. What makes this story mechanic engaging is the adult character feels responsible for the child and in the process ends up ‘growing’ themselves from their interactions.
Shin Karino fits this role perfectly. He’s a struggling manga artist, his apartment is a pig sty, he can’t be bothered committing to a relationship, he rarely washes himself and he wastes his days watching TV soaps.
For a child, Kotarou seems more capable and responsible than Shin, but there are still many things that Kotarou views through a child lens. For example, Kotarou is responsible enough to know that he needs to take a bath and goes to a bathhouse with all the necessary toiletries and a change of clothes. When Shin sees this, he feels obligated to tag along to make sure Kotarou stays safe. And when they get down to the job of washing themselves, Kotarou still manages to get shampoo in his eyes and Shin lends him a helping hand. In other words, there are still limits of being an adult in a child’s body. In addition, beneath the surface is the fragile and sensitive feelings of a four year old even if Kotarou presents himself differently.
As the series progresses and answers are given to the initial questions regarding why he lives alone, what happened to his parents and where his source of income comes from, you still need to suspend your belief when it comes to his interactions with fellow kids and adults alike. For example, no landlord would permit a four year old to rent out an apartment, and he goes shopping for food at grocery stores and all the adults don’t think it is strange he is not accompanied with an adult parent and/or guardian.
Kotarou is definitely charming. He uses a formal and polite feudal speech taken from his favourite cartoon called Tonosaman, and all the adults go ga-ga over him. Even when he doesn’t talk, it’s hard not to adore him when he walks around with his red and white floppy newsboy cap. He’s like a little Japanese Mario brother without the moustache. He also seeks acceptance by his fellow kindergartners who always wonder why he is by himself and not with his parents, and he comes up with inventive and creative ways to achieve that acceptance. For example, in one episode he sees other kids have bentos (i.e. lunchboxes) made by their mothers where the rice balls are made into different types of animals, so he goes to the effort of creating an image of Tonosaman out of rice in his own bento, which impresses his friends.
His ability to reach the heart of the problems that his fellow adult neighbours experience and spouting wisdom that causes them to re-think how they are living their lives is balanced by the challenges that every young child experiences. No matter how much he sets boundaries (for example, he won’t let adults hug him or pat him on the head unless given permission to do so), he still suffers from things like ‘monsters in the dark’ at night and struggles to go to sleep because he is living alone in an apartment.
By the same token, the adults that are in his life, Shin (the manga artist), Isamu Tamaru (a guy who dresses like a gangster but is actually a decent, doting father-type) and Mitsuki Akitomo (works at night as a female hostess to businessmen), to name a few, all help Kotarou learn and grow while learning about themselves.
There are plenty of laugh out loud moments mixed with poignant sadness. The darkness in Kotarou’s life (a darkness that no four year old should ever have to experience at such a tender age) gives this series an all too real feel. But this is offset by the light he exudes and the love he gives and receives from those around him.
One note on the animation itself, there is a weird art decision to use vertical black bars for irises in Kotarou’s eyes. Likewise, these vertical bars are used at times in Shin’s eyes. No other character has eyes like this in the series and it has a weird effect. It makes them look almost alien at times. In the initial episodes, the pair are mistaken to be father and son, which can be contributed in part by the fact they have the same type eyes. I’m not sure whether it is meant to be symbolic, but it is certainly an interesting art choice.
For lovers of slice-of-life, Kotarou wa Hitori gurashi meshes all the right elements to tell a touching and moving story that will have you engaged for the full ten episodes.
9 out of 10