Anime has long since included or even focused solely on casts of anthropomorphic animals, from Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko back in 1994 to the much more recent Aggretsuko, BNA: Brand New Animal and Odd Taxi. One of the latest anthropomorphic offerings is Beastars; an extremely popular animal anime that first aired in 2019 and now has two seasons to its name, with an announcement in July this year of a third season.
However, one older anime series based on a josei manga has easily stood the test of time. Airing from 2012-2013 with a total of 50 episodes, Polar Bear Café (Shirokuma Café) still manages to be one of the very best anthropomorphic anime of all time.
At first glance, Polar Bear Café may come across as a rather pointless show. It might also do the same at a second and even third glance. Viewers wouldn’t be wrong -- the series has no particular moral of the story to impart, and neither does it seek to hint at any deeper meaning behind the barrage of puns and general situational comedy. Its core cast -- a lazy panda, an entertaining polar bear and a penguin desperate for a job as a comedian -- speak and act just as people do, dealing with everyday happenings like organizing parties, getting a driver’s license and wooing members of the opposite sex.
In fact, despite there being only a few human side characters -- who interact with their animal counterparts as if there’s nothing strange about waitressing at a café run by a polar bear or arguing with a panda about putting in more effort at their part-time zoo job -- Polar Bear Café is very much a pure slice-of-life anime. Not much of significance ever really occurs; the animals simply go about their day-to-day lives, with little in the way of drama but plenty in the way of gentle slapstick comedy, something like a less cynical animal version of Seinfeld.
Indeed, most of the appeal of the series lies in its specific brand of hilarious yet completely straight-faced comedy. This isn’t the type of anime that’s designed to have viewers rolling around the floor laughing hysterically (although Polar Bear’s numerous cosplay moments, including dressing up as a schoolgirl, a belly dancer and Audrey Hepburn may come close to doing so). Neither does it display the kind of ribald or risqué humor that can sometimes be synonyms with the term ‘slapstick.’ Instead, audiences can expect comfortably unhurried banter, groan-worthy puns, and punchlines that take their sweet time to land but do so with all the charm one could possibly ask for.
Needless to say, it doesn’t hurt that much of what occurs in Polar Bear Café is pretty funny in and of itself, without any need for further embellishment. Panda is an undeniably cute but self-centered man-child who still lives with his mother. Penguin is a much sharper character who nonetheless spends nearly all his time sitting around drinking mochaccinos and obsessing over a lady penguin who works at the nearby bakery. The much wiser Polar Bear is also a shameless troll who drops puns every three seconds, and whose café is frequented by the likes of a fierce but secretly soft-hearted grizzly bear who runs a neighborhood bar, an easygoing llama who dreams of becoming a star and a sloth who could give Zootopia’s Flash a run for his money.
Plot-wise, there’s little more to say of Polar Bear Café; while the story, such as it is, couldn’t get any simpler, this is the beauty of the series. Its deadpan jokes don’t serve to mask any deeper point or meaning, making it an ideal anime for viewers in the mood for something primarily very light-hearted but also entirely inoffensive. While a few of the jokes occasionally outstay their welcome or fall a little flat, the show is a breath of fresh air for those who’ve become tired of titles that take themselves overly seriously or deliver too much in the way of fanservice or shock-value action.
Audiences who fall in love with the easy-viewing episodic nature of the series will likely also appreciate the art style, which suits the overall tone of Polar Bear Café down to the ground. Consistent but never flashy, it features plenty of solid block coloring and soothing hues, while the animation is equally as relaxed. Most of the time, the show looks and sounds like an extremely high-quality children’s title, belying its absurdist sketch humor; it’s appealing but decidedly uncomplicated, while the three openings and no less than 12 ending credit sequences add a lot to the proceedings under their own steam.
In the end, while Polar Bear Café may not be able to hold a candle to an anime like Beastars in terms of its psychological drama or complex character dynamics, it does prove that an anime doesn’t need to be dark, serious or intricate in order to be good. For this reason, among many others, it deserves to be recognized as an all-time anthropomorphic classic.
Polar Bear Café is available to stream on Crunchyroll.