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July debuts in Rilakkuma and Kaoru with an explosion of color, as cut-paper illustrations extol all of Kaoru’s summertime fantasies. Stop motion is such a laborious mode of animation that its aesthetic boundaries are even less fully explored than hand-drawn animation; in scenes like this parade of dreams, we are presented with new horizons of mixed media animation. Felt and clay characters stand atop layered cut-paper compositions, with thick pieces of painted wood or cardboard creating an illusion of depth, as if we’re watching an animated pop-up book. In Kaoru’s dreams, hunks prostrate themselves before her, offering both whirlwind romances and tasty snacks.

Sadly, even in Kaoru’s fantasies she cannot decide between the guy offering takoyaki or the guy offering edamame. Kaoru’s indecision is a familiar and melancholy feeling; I can certainly relate to how these days, even my dreams are ornamented by my attendant set of anxieties, my unconscious mind still unable to lift the mantle of self-awareness and insecurity that haunts my waking hours. Dreams and nightmares are sort of the same that way, compared to the simplicity of childhood desire. As children, both our hopes and fears are direct: we want that new toy, we fear that scary monster. The simplicity of these motives fosters simple dreams and nightmares, but as an adult, there is always an element of self-observation coloring our motives, as well as a perpetual awareness of how each active choice implies some number of lost opportunities.

“Takoyaki versus edamame” is the mind rehearsing and revising the countless daily choices we make that permanently bar passage to some other route through life, a loss that we only gain awareness of as we age. There’s a bitter irony in so many of our life’s most foundational choices being made before we have the wealth of experience necessary to truly understand what these choices are worth, and what we sacrifice for each of them. But perhaps that is necessary, too – perhaps it is only the careless freedom of adolescence that gives us the and confidence to make these choices, unburdened by the sense of loss that makes even “takoyaki versus edamame” such a difficult question.

This sequence’s conclusion is an equally familiar, equally somber feeling: Kaoru waking up in bed, being briefly disappointed with herself for failing to make a choice, and then looking around to acknowledge what she actually has chosen in reality. Waking is the final, often tragic punchline to that question of “takoyaki or edamame” – you debate in your mind and savor the possibilities, and then suddenly you are awake, and instantly confronted by the results of whatever choices you have made in your life. It’s no wonder that falling asleep and waking up can be two of the most emotionally fraught moments of the day; without any active task consuming your energy, these are the moments when you are confronted with that cold-water splash of what you’ve truly made of your life.

But there’s no time for regrets – the sun has risen and it’s a beautiful day, with cicadas chirping in the breeze. The establishing shots of Kaoru’s apartment serve as a warm reaffirmation of this show’s lovely aesthetic, presenting a vision of domestic comfort that swiftly dispels the blues of waking into your own skin. For a brief moment, Kaoru can exult in the pleasures attendant with the choices she’s made: this bustling neighborhood, that well-cultivated garden, and the overall satisfaction of being master of her own domain. Then, her mother calls.

The ensuing conversation frames indecision’s menace through a universal debate: the perpetual struggle of attempting to maintain some autonomy from your parents in your adult life, while still being supportive and a part of their lives as well. Kaoru’s brother and parents are currently running the family’s cherry farm, and her mother wishes for her to come back and help as well. Her mom claims they’ll pay her better than what she’s earning at her current office job, but what does it really mean to be paid by an internal loop of your family’s own money? By maintaining this job and this apartment, Kaoru maintains a sense of personal autonomy as well, knowing that she is making her own choices and following her own path. Is it cowardice to return to the family, or simply filial diligence? When Kaoru’s mom says “you aren’t getting any younger,” is that a quiet acknowledgment that her daughter has failed as an independent, and thus must return to the familial nest? Even when your parents are attempting to protect you, the care with which they treat you can feel like an expression of shame.

Kaoru rallies back with “I have my own responsibilities, and can’t leave just like that.” Kaoru is attempting to assert the significance of her life outside of the home – if her job responsibilities are essential, then she has truly carved a new place for herself, and her independence is not simply a flight of fancy. Her mother refuses to believe this is true, saying that her responsibilities “are probably as tiny as an ant’s.” And the stinger comes at the end of the conversation, when her mother asks “you used to love cherries when you were little, didn’t you?” The implication is clear: Kaoru’s mother still sees Kaoru as an oversized child, throwing a tantrum because she doesn’t want to go home yet.

In Kaoru’s mind, cherries and her own “ant-like” career are contrasted on a shaking scale. We tend to experience these moments of crisis and decision paralysis when we’ve been challenged like this – Kaoru was perfectly fine with her job, or at least not currently worried about it, before her mother’s call, but now she must contend with the possibility that her job truly is meaningless. Frankly, this dynamic often tends to load my own scales towards the independent side; over the years, no one has come close to my parents in their ability to provoke uncertainty about my choices, and living with that uncertainty on a daily basis would be more than I could bear.

But as with the hunks and their variable snack selections, Kaoru’s career worries are ultimately set to the wayside as she turns herself to other duties, and preps for an upcoming summer festival. Kaoru and her companions’ journey to the event is conveyed through more of this production’s lovely mid-distance shots, wherein felt terrariums of scenery bustle with movement and glow with light behind the shuffling characters. Though Rilakkuma and Kaoru often centers the alienation of modern living, the layouts and aesthetic tools used to convey that sense of isolation also naturally push back against it, envisioning the world as cozy and familiar. The tension between those two instincts feels like the show in miniature: life is full of disappointments, but it’s also beautiful and brimming with possibility.

Presented by all the manifold possibilities of the summer festival, Rilakkuma decides he wants dango, and thus stomps right over to request it. Kaoru’s other companions are similarly decisive, picking snacks with ease and gaily dancing with the gathered attendees. Their easy certainty only underlines the conviction that Kaoru has lost; whatever the “reality” of Rilakkuma may be (like Calvin & Hobbes, it just doesn’t seem that important to pin down), he most directly serves as an expression of Kaoru’s inner child, able to embrace whatever is in front of him for whatever it is presently offering him. In their childlike simplicity, they lack the insecurity and knowledge of loss attendant with age, while Kaoru can only envy their certainty from the sidelines.

Self-consciousness can be an awkward burden, and if you’re already not prone to confidence and certainty regarding your decisions, it can often feel totally overwhelming. It’s a cruel fact that frequently, the more you analyze the choices presented to you, the less happy you’ll be with whatever you choose. This is because happiness often does not stem from the actual results of your choices – it emerges from the confidence with which you make them, a confidence of seeing your desires validated in real time. When you are young, you have few choices and few desires; when you age, you find yourself surrounded by infinite possible choices, the very diversity of the things you can choose to pursue making the achievement of happiness by your choices feel all the more impossible.

And so Kaoru does what I often do when faced with this decision paralysis, and subsequent shame over being the kind of person who’s always beset by decision paralysis: she gets a beer. Sitting by the riverside and idly dreaming, she finds herself again beset by fantasy hunks, and once more fails to decide between takoyaki and edamame. But when she opens her eyes, she sees one of each in her hands: her friends have bought both snacks, and are happy to share them with her. As Rilakkuma and Kaoru’s aesthetic consistently attests, for all of our anxieties, disappointments, and fears of failure, we should remember that the world around us is a generous place, and that moments shared with friends are valuable and worth cherishing, even if they don’t necessarily embody the “best possible sequence of choices” that could have led you through life. After all, your sequence of choices led you to this moment, correct? And isn’t this moment special? 

As Kaoru laments her indecisiveness, the fireworks begin, lighting up the sky. Rilakkuma steps over, taking both the takoyaki and edamame, and happily munching on both. Kaoru hesitantly asks “is it okay if I don’t choose,” to which he immediately nods. We need not deny ourselves the good things in life because we are worried about missing out, and we need not assume every single choice is going to consign us to some terrible, inescapable fate. Our choices stand alone, their full consequences are often beyond our comprehension, and the daily business of life continues either way. Indecision is ultimately its own choice, and one with the fewest interesting consequences. 

And as it turns out, trying both offers Kaoru a key revelation: they’re both delicious. There was no wrong choice after all, just the choice she made and the confidence with which she made it. In the end, just as the anxiety of choice is of our own self-conscious making, so is the lament of disappointment afterwards; if we are open to what comes, many choices can be “correct.” This revelation is reframed on a much greater scale when Kaoru returns to work, and is surprised to learn that “your beautiful handwriting is well-acknowledged within this company.” Though it only takes a little doubt to make us second-guess our choices, it similarly takes just a little faith and encouragement to right our ship again. So go. Eat. Try. Maybe the edamame won’t be to your liking, and maybe some path won’t be the right one for you. That’s alright – we may not be getting younger, but we’re getting older pretty slowly too. There’s always tomorrow’s choices ahead of us.

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