Kotaro Lives Alone had a lot going against it at the outset, which is maybe why I had such a hard time going back to it after giving it a shot during the season’s Preview Guide. Stories about unbelievably smart and independent children are hard to pull off no matter what medium you’re working in, and it didn’t help that Kotaro‘s stiff animation and “unique” character designs are decidedly not my thing, aesthetically speaking.
I have to say, though, that I’m really glad that I went back and gave Kotaro Lives Alone another shot, because it turned out to be a surprisingly well-written and affecting dramedy that speaks to some important social issues. A lesser show would probably treat the gimmick of Kotaro living alone as just that—a convenient excuse for sitcom shenanigans. My biggest worry going into the show was that the series would treat its title character’s living situation as a font for broad comedy, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Throughout the series’ ten episodes, we learn exactly why this oddly adorable tyke is living by himself, and his plight is nothing to laugh at.
That’s actually the running theme for almost the entire cast of Kotaro Lives Alone. Outside of a select few characters, pretty much every man, woman, and child in this show is going through some heavy stuff. Without spoiling any of the particulars, this anime deals with child abuse, neglect, PTSD, systemic poverty, and more. It’s never so dour as to forget the jokes and heartwarming moments to pick up the audience’s spirits, but still. The show is so concerned with exposing the telltale signs of a child suffering from mistreatment that I have to wonder if author Mami Tsumura has a background in social work or early education.
Granted, none of these serious talking points would matter if the series didn’t have the stories and characters to back them up, and thankfully Kotaro is well-crafted enough to avoid feeling like a cheesy after-school special (most of the time). Shin and Kotaro’s relationship is the most well-developed of the series, and watching the struggling artist slowly come to embrace his role as Kotaro’s guardian is a highlight. I even grew to love the weird yakuza type, Isamu, for how he used his cliché tough-guy methods to protect the sweet boy with the plastic sword who lives a floor above him. The English dub also goes a long way toward selling this sweet story. I was especially impressed with how many solid kid actors that the dub used for a lot of the side characters at Kotaro’s kindergarten. Cherameigh Leigh also acquits herself very well as the titular Kotaro, balancing his intelligence with his vulnerability.
The script isn’t perfect, though. Despite Shin and Kotaro getting a satisfying arc, not everyone in the ensemble is as well-written. The female characters seem to consistently get short shrift, strangely enough. Mizuki is a hostess dealing with an abusive boyfriend whose storyline is unceremoniously shuffled around and forgotten half the time, and Kotaro’s Lawyer, Ayano, consistently gets the weakest and most off-putting sketches of the series.
Also, like I mentioned earlier, this is not an anime that is going to win any awards for its visuals. Thankfully, the show had enough heart and charm to remain very watchable, and LIDEN FILMS is admittedly working with a source material that would be hard to make look traditionally “pretty”, but looks do matter in the medium of animation. The music is also nothing to write home about, as both the dramatic and more light-hearted compositions feel like they could have been ripped straight out of any generic comedy or drama series from the last ten years.
For a less considered show, these flaws might have added up to a lot more of a problem for Kotaro Lives Alone. Despite my quibbles with its production values and occasional writing slip-ups, though, I think that this is one of those anime that ends up being more than the sum of its parts. It manages to address some of the most common signs of suffering and neglect that go so tragically overlooked in society, and it does so without ever becoming a dire slog. If you’re the kind of viewer who doesn’t mind the occasional cry-fest in the middle of your cute sitcoms, then you’ll probably be glad to spend some time with Kotaro and the gang.