Movies about single guys who become suddenly burdened with the responsibilities of parenthood, whether from Hollywood (“Three Men and a Baby”) or Japan (the underrated “Yukai Rapusodi [Accidental Kidnapper]“), follow a pattern set in stone: After rising to various patience- and character-testing occasions, the new caregiver not only bonds with his charge, but becomes something of a fatherly role model. It would be a major violation of movie law for the hero to quietly give up the kid and breathe a sigh of relief.
So it mostly is with “Usagi Doroppu” (“Bunny Drop”) by Sabu (born Hiroyuki Tanaka), the lanky actor-turned-director known for frenetic films, beginning with 1996′s “Dangan Ranna (Non-Stop),” in which the harassed hero runs the equivalent of a marathon. Based on a popular comic by Yumi Unita, “Bunny Drop” departs slightly from formula in that the 30-year-old salaryman hero, Daikichi (Kenichi Matsuyama), actually volunteers to raise 6-year-old Rin (Mana Ashida), the love child of his recently deceased grandfather.
The opening scenes, in which Daikichi makes his momentous decision and begins his adventure in fatherhood, set the story into motion with maximum velocity and minimum wasted motion. Cutting back and forth between the grandfather’s funeral, at which cold-hearted relatives talk about Rin as if she were an inconvenience, and Daikichi’s bumbles and stumbles in his new life with her (including mad dashes to get her to the day-care center on time), Sabu deftly treads (or rather sprints along) the middle line between the dramatic and comic, while making us understand why a free-as-a-bird single guy would choose to take on a kid who is essentially a stranger.
Daikichi, we see, has the will, love and energy to make this work — at least initially. But the daily grind, from the long, exhausting hours at work to the occasional nail-biting medical emergency, takes it toll. A tart-tongued, if sympathetic, single mom (Karina) whose son Koki befriends Rin at the day-care center becomes a support — and potential romantic interest. Even Daikichi’s initially skeptical mom (Jun Fubuki), dad (Baijaku Nakamura) and ball-of-fire younger sister (Mirei Kiritani) take the adorable Rin to their hearts.
But instead of reaching out to a willing female, as expected by iron-clad social convention, Daikichi decides to exit his all-consuming career path and transfer to a less-demanding job in his company’s warehouse — that is, he opts for the “mommy track.” So far, so PC, but where, I began to wonder about an hour in, is the drama? It finally arrives in the form of a search for Koki and Rin after they go missing at the day-care center. Everyone dashes about frantically, while tear-jerking cliches proliferate shamelessly. This sort of third-act sag has long been Sabu’s biggest problem as a director: He’s like a born sprinter who keeps entering 10,000-meter races and wondering why he fades in the stretch.
Matsuyama, who resembles Johnny Depp in his talent, strangeness and mainstream ambition (as indicated by his casting as the lead in next year’s NHK taiga dorama [yearlong maxidrama]), works well with pint-sized costar Ashida. Instead of an earnest ersatz dad, he is more like a caring, playful big brother — and she responds with unforced giggles and affectionate gazes. Meanwhile, Ashida seamlessly accomplishes her evolution from forlorn waif to perky if unusually perceptive kid, while effortlessly charming everyone.
But the lack of friction between the characters — Rin and Daikichi don’t have an enemy in the world and get along swimmingly from the start — make for a curiously uninvolving experience. It’s as if the”The Kid,” Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent template for “Bunny Drop,” were to climax with not a heartrending struggle between The Tramp and the orphanage goons carting The Kid away, but rather a sweet-tempered exchange of apologies for an unfortunate misunderstanding. Sorry for not staying to the happy ending, guys, but I’ve got to run.