June 04, 2015

Unexpected fatherhood

The "single dad" is a television drama and sitcom character that defines its own genre. Jim O'Kane has a whole website devoted to the subject, and has identified "a hundred sixty occasions of single dads on American television, spanning the years 1952 to the present."

There are plenty of single moms as well (Gilmore Girls, Buffy, Blue Bloods, Bones, Star Trek: TNG, to name a few). The difference is, a single mom is expected to already grasp the basics of child rearing. This pushes the vector of the drama in a different direction.

By contrast, simply presuming his beginnings in a "traditional" family with "traditional" gender roles presents the single dad with a built-in learning curve (regardless of his competence in every other aspect of his life). We're more willing to buy the "dumb dad" premise.

The movie Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) leverages this motif to the hilt.

One exception that springs to mind is Dr. Camille Saroyan in Bones (although it's only an occasional side story). Her adopted daughter was the orphaned child of an ex-boyfriend. So in her case, the "dumb mom" premise works too (despite her being a brilliant doctor).

Or because she's a brilliant doctor. It's not just about the irony, but the higher probability of overthinking ordinary problems and coming up with unconventional (and thus more entertaining) solutions.

This particular narrative structure has seen a recent upsurge in Japanese melodramas. There are plenty of "traditional" single moms and dads on Japanese television too. For example, the Satome and Tendo families in Ranma ½ (though the Tendo sisters rule the roost).

But I'm thinking more along the lines of the Bones model: a young urban professional who ends up with a child he didn't know about and/or may not be related to.

Here are four examples. The first two can be described as "unexpected adoptions," the second two as "unexpected relations."

Yotsuba&! [sic] is a manga series by Kiyohiko Azuma, now in its twelfth year. Mr. Koiwai adopted Yotsuba abroad (the details are scant). The stories focus around her daily adventures in Japan. Think of Yotsuba as a kindred spirit of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.

An English translation of the manga is available from Yen Press.

Marumo's Rules is a 2011 Fuji TV series. Mamoru Takagi adopts the twin children of his best friend when he suddenly dies of cancer. The plot description in Wikipedia sums up the whole genre:

Together with the help of his landlord and the landlord's daughter, Mamoru [nicknamed "Marumo"] manages to take care of the twins. They face many challenges, with Marumo struggling to balance his time between his work and parental responsibilities.

A cute narrative device is that when Marumo discusses his problems with the family dog, the dog talks back.

(No English versions available.)

My Girl is a manga series by Sahara Mizu, made into a TV Asahi series in 2009 starring Masaki Aiba of the mega-boy band Arashi. (That's not a diss: frankly, the members of Arashi are better actors than they are singers, and they're not terrible singers.)

Attending the funeral of his ex-girlfriend (who'd been living abroad), Masamune Kazama discovers that not only did she have a child, but she had his child, who now really is his child. What follows is a how-to/day-in-the-life melodrama that defines the next series too.

(No English versions available.)

Bunny Drop is a manga series by Yumi Unita, an anime series by Production I.G, and a 2011 feature film.

Daikichi's grandfather had a child with his live-in maid. Daikichi only finds this out at his grandfather's funeral. "If the old man was still alive," he grumbles, "I'd give him a high five." He points out to his mother, "That'd make her your sister." She retorts, "And your aunt."

Nobody wants to take responsibility for Rin, the five-year-old girl. Finally (if only out of disgust with the rest of them) Daikichi takes her home. He soon decides to make the arrangement permanent.

Bunny Drop is a sweet, unadorned drama that avoids most of the stereotypical melodramatic devices. Like My Girl, it succeeds by making a virtue of ordinariness and by featuring protagonists who are believably decent human beings striving to do the right thing.

However clueless Daikichi may be at first, he doesn't stay dumb, and grows quite insightful into the strange, topsy-turvy life Rin has led, while cheerfully saying goodbye to his "me-time" and his climb up the corporate ladder.

The anime (based on the first three volumes of the manga; English translation available from Yen Press) is drawn in a pencil-on-watercolor style that gives it a subdued picture book quality. I found it quite pleasant and entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

The English-subtitled anime is available on Crunchyroll.

The Japanese government actually has a "Minister of State for Measures for the Declining Birthrate." If government agencies were ever that creative, I could imagine them commissioning television series like these to encourage young men to take up the reins of fatherhood.

Unfortunately, regardless of the good intentions in the regard, it doesn't seem to be working (in Japan or every other country with the same problem).

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