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‘Kotaro Lives Alone’: When home runs away from us

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Based on the manga “Kotaro wa Hitorigurashi”, the Japanese drama “Kotaro Lives Alone”, which is streaming on Netflix, tells the story of a five-year-old boy who moves into an apartment complex. His next-door neighbor, a struggling manga creator named Shin Karino (played by Japanese idol and actor You Yokoyama, who is a member of the boy band Kanjani Eight), is shocked because the apartment building doesn’t allow children. Not only that, but also it turns out that the boy, whose name is Kotaro Sato (Eito Kawahara), is living alone.

“Kotaro Lives Alone” is a well-written and heartwarming drama that rewards patience. The first episode introduces us to a strange but polite little boy who talks formally and addresses his neighbors as “Lord” and “Lady” while wearing a plastic katana. Some people might find the pace too leisurely and complain that “nothing is happening”, but I appreciate how well-written “Kotaro Lives Alone” is and how it takes the time to build the characters and slowly reveal their backstories.

Kotaro and his world

Based on the manga "Kotaro wa Hitorigurashi", the Japanese drama "Kotaro Lives Alone", which is streaming on Netflix, tells the story of a five-year-old boy who moves into an apartment complex. Image credit: Netflix
Image credit: Netflix

The arrival of Kotaro completely changes the world of the different tenants at the apartment complex. Prior to this, they didn’t even know who their next-door neighbors were, let alone interacted with each other. Karino, in particular, is shown in the first episode as a slacker whose room is a pigsty, and is even dumped by his girlfriend, who arrives at his apartment to find him soundly asleep while she was waiting for him for their date.

While talented enough to win a contest for manga creators, Karino seems too lazy and unmotivated to take advantage of that initial success, and keeps struggling to finish a new manga and meet the deadline set by his publisher. At first he is just curious to find out why this five-year-old boy is living alone and where his parents are. Kotaro is the first neighbor to interact with him, because the boy knocks on each door to give them a gift since he has just moved in.

Gradually, Kotaro changes Karino, though the manga creator doesn’t want admit it to himself or to Kotaro. He starts tidying his room and throwing out the trash when Kotaro innocently asks him why garbage is all over the place. While Kotaro insists on being independent, Karino worries about what might happen to the little boy while he is walking alone, so he finds himself accompanying Kotaro to the bath house and to school. From a self-centered and irresponsible person who was living as if he were a kid or a teenager, Karino begins acting like an adult.

Character-driven show

The wonderful thing about “Kotaro Lives Alone” is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the lessons you don’t even realize this drama and its characters are teaching you.

As we get to know the characters and their backstories, the mystery surrounding Kotaro also slowly unravels. We find out why he speaks in that curiously formal manner. Why he lives alone and how he is able to pay the rent. What his father did. And, while Kotaro himself doesn’t seem to know, the truth about his mother.

Just as the characters start out as strangers, so too do they seem alien to us until we find out more about them. And realize that it’s true that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge others, because we don’t really know their story.

The quirky characters drive this show — and the wonderful performances by the actors truly bring them to life. Mizuki Akitomo (Maika Yamamoto) is the kindhearted neighbor who works at a hostess bar and really becomes close to Kotaro. She’s a great cook, and makes delicious bento lunches that Kotaro takes to school.

Isimu Tamaru (Katsuhisa Namase) is the first-floor neighbor who wears a garish suit and whom we first meet shouting at someone on his mobile phone. Karino seems intimidated by him because Tamaru is always irritable. I thought he was a creep, before learning the truth about Tamaru.

‘Welcome home’

The show’s theme song performed by Kanjani Eight, whose member You Yokoyama plays Shin Karino. Thanks to @8_4_0ff for the heads up on Twitter.

Then we have the awkward lawyer Ayano Kobayashi, played by Kanako Momota, who is the leader of the female idol group Momoiro Clover Z. Her group has provided the theme music for different anime TV series, including “Sailor Moon”, “Dragon Ball”, and “Pokémon”, as well as the theme song for the two-part “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Eternal” movie. At first she thinks regularly visiting Kotaro to give him his allowance is beneath her since she is a lawyer, but when she learns the truth she vows to never let Kotaro down.

We also meet Keisuke Hanawa (Daigo Nishihata), the new teacher at Kotaro’s kindergarten. He is shy and unsure if he has the skills to be a good teacher. We learn the reason for his lack of self-confidence, and why he worries so much about Kotaro and his other students.

Interestingly enough, “Kotaro Lives Alone” will have a spin-off drama starring Hanawa, which will also feature appearances by the original cast.

Like many Japanese dramas or anime, “Kotaro Lives Alone” is the kind of show where “nothing happens” as we follow characters in their daily lives. Only to be surprised by moments that make us laugh and cry. I literally laughed out loud during some scenes, and felt my heart break in others.

“Kotaro Lives Alone” reminds us that even if children are trying to act like adults, those of us who are the real adults have the responsibility to step up and take care of them. And it’s also a reminder that we should learn to more compassionate toward others — and also to ourselves.

“They say first impressions are important,” Kotaro tells himself in the first episode, as he prepares to meet his neighbors.

So too is giving people a chance, because first impressions might be wrong.

At the end of the day, we all want to find our home.