When twenty-something Daikichi (Kenichi Matsuyama) returns home for his grandfather's funeral he grows curious about a forlorn six-year-old girl named Rin (Mana Ashida) lingering outside. He is shocked to learn Rin is the illegitimate child his grandfather sired with an unknown woman. Seen as the family embarrassment, Rin is treated like an outcast with her fate unknown. No-one wants to take responsibility for her. Disgusted with his relatives Daikichi impulsively volunteers to raise Rin by himself. Of course life as a single parent proves far harder than the young singleton could have possibly imagined.
SABU, the alias adopted by actor turned director Hiroyuki Tanaka, is among the most gifted and versatile filmmakers active in Japan for the past two decades. The quirky, kinetic, quasi-cyberpunk style established in his satirical comedy-thrillers Dangan Runner (1996), Postman Blues (1997) and Morning (2009) has been much imitated, both within and outside of Japanese cinema. Most notably in Tom Twyker's internationally acclaimed, idiosyncratic Run Lola Run (1998). Through the years SABU dabbled in horror (Miss ZOMBIE (2013)), sci-fi (A1012K (2002)), fantasy-comedy (Chasuke's Journey (2015) and literary adaptation (The Crab Cannery Ship (2003)). He even made vehicles for J-pop boy band V6. Yet curiously he has yet to amass the kind of cult following that rose around Shinya Tsukamoto, Takashi Miike and Tetsuya Nakashima. Indeed outside the Asian film festival circuit it seems few even know his name. Which is a shame as SABU's work is arguably more humane than most of his contemporaries.
Based on the popular manga of the same name by writer-artist Yumi Unita, Bunny Drop was a more mainstream effort from SABU and arrived concurrently with an anime show that was also embraced by fans. As an actor Tanaka is best known for portraying tough-looking gangsters on screen but his own movies showcase his more sensitive side. In that vein Bunny Drop functions for him much as Kikujiro (1998) did for that other icon of hard-boiled Japanese crime film: Takeshi Kitano, which also dealt with an irresponsible man saddled with a lonely and vulnerable child. The set-up satirizes the rigid social structure that still endures in Japan, upholding old prejudices and conservative ideals. Glowering at poor, unloved little Rin, the older family members are so preoccupied with what is 'proper' they lose sight of what is right. Even Daikichi's surly young cousin (Mirei Kiritani), a kindergarten teacher who amusingly can't stand kids, seems uninterested in helping. While everyone else sees Rin as a public embarrassment to be swept discreetly under the rug, Daikichi sees a human being. However he quickly learns there is more to parenting than being a nice guy.
What follows is a fairly conventional but still heartfelt and tender love story featuring an amazing, naturalistic performance from child actress Mana Ashida. Little wonder she went on to become a multi-award winning actress and J-pop star in her homeland and played a small role in Hollywood blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013). While Bunny Drop is not dissimilar to many singleton-saddled-with-children fables peddled by the mainstream both treatment and plot happily never slide into the saccharine mush pit occupied by, say, Three Men and a Baby (1987). SABU tackles the material in a quirkier style, adopting a lyrical flashback riddled story-structure punctuated with comedic fantasy sequences. Like Daikichi's tango dance number with a model from a magazine set to a German pop song! The director also indulges his fondness for manic chase sequences. Here an exhausting scene where Daikichi races back and forth from Rin's nursery to his workplace.
Interestingly, Rin's estranged mother remains an ambiguous figure glimpsed suffering largely in the background, among several oblique plot strands that might have been pruned to suit the brisk, seventy-four minute run-time. Switching from broad comedy to sharp social observations, Bunny Drop on the surface deals with the difficulties involved in parenting but weaves a subtly, affecting thread of how children cope with loss. Comparable to Jacques Doillon's poignant drama Ponette (1996) scenes where Rin asks Daikichi about death or breaks down in tears by a grave site are nuanced and heartbreakingly real. Easily the most engaging aspect of the film is the enduring love that slowly blossoms between Daikichi and Rin which, much like the chemistry between the leads, never once feels contrived.