The anime industry has never been afraid to try something new. Anime history is full of experimental and boundary-pushing series that use new visual styles and animation techniques to tell unique stories. While some of these shows have flopped, some have revolutionized the medium, giving future creators more tools to use. The newly released Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure shows that more anime series should embrace stop-motion animation.
The sequel to 2019’s critically praised Rilakkuma and Kaoru, Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure sees overworked office woman Kaoru take her roommates to a dessert-themed theme park. However, Kaoru’s roommates are anything but usual. She lives with the lazy bear Rilakkuma, the tiny but mischievous cub Korilakkuma, and her hardworking pet bird Kiritori. While at the theme park, the group, especially Rilakkuma, ends up in many situations as they try to help friends old and new solve their problems. Both series are animated using stop-motion, and this really works in their favor. In fact, the shows would be nowhere near as good if they were traditionally animated.
One of the best things about Rilakkuma and Kaoru and Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure is how they blend the realistic and whimsical into one cohesive package. While Kaoru is an average office worker, Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma, and Kiiroitori are obviously not normal. Plus, scenes in Rilakkuma and Kaoru frequently jump between Kaoru’s day-to-day life and scenes from her imagination, using symbolism and metaphor to convey her complex emotions and anxieties.
In Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure, the amusement park is whimsical and fantastical. One that feels like it was plucked straight from a child’s imagination or memories. This gives the location a dream-like quality while allowing the writers to take some liberties with the environment to let the characters do things they couldn’t do in an actual theme park. While this could be jarring in other mediums, the physical nature of stop-motion makes it much easier to blend the real and imaginary together while remaining visually cohesive. So, the stylized, realistic elements still feel recognizable, while the improbable bits still feel fantastical. And there is no visual dissonance when they’re put side by side.
Another advantage of stop-motion animation is that it gives characters and environments a wonderful sense of texture. Which is hard to capture in traditional animation. One of the reasons Rilakkuma is so lovable is because he looks so soft and huggable. This is because the Rilakkuma model used to create the series is made from furry material. And, because the Rilakkuma model is an actual physical object, you can see his fur move and shift as he moves around and interacts with the world. Something that would be near impossible to capture with traditional animation. Without forcing an animator to spend months, if not years, carefully drawing individual hairs. And this fur movement further helps integrate the animal characters into the world, helping them not look out of place when put next to the human characters.
Stop-motion animation also helps give the characters a sense of weight. The animal characters in Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure feel real and weighty, possessing wonderfully expressive body language due to the physicality of stop-motion animation. Because they’re animated by moving physical models, each one moves in a way that fits their body. For instance, Rilakkuma takes longer, slower strides, while the smaller Korilakkuma has a quick pace due to their shorter legs, giving them an energetic and childish body language that perfectly fits the character. This allows the non-human characters to seamlessly blend into the world. It also means they have loads of personality, despite only communicating through grunts and squeaks.
It isn’t just the Rilakkuma franchise. Other anime series have shown that this isn’t a one-off success and that stop-motion can help elevate many stories and series. For instance, Pui Pui Molcar used stop-motion to create a whimsical world full of wonderfully cute and textured characters. Turning a simple concept into one of 2021’s most charming breakout anime hits.
Anime creators are constantly experimenting. Always creating new tools and finding new and creative ways to use the tools they already have. While stop-motion will never replace the traditional anime style, it is a tool that more animators should consider, especially if it fits their story. As Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure shows, it can be used to create some memorable characters and visuals that pop off the screen and stick in viewers’ minds long after the show has ended. And more anime series could find their stories elevated by this beautiful form of animation.
Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure is now streaming on Netflix