Kotaro Lives Alone

Shin Karino is a struggling mangaka who lives alone in a non-descript apartment block consisting of single-room apartments. One day he answers a knock at his door to find a diminutive four-year-old boy standing in front of him. In an oddly formal, antiquated manner, the boy introduces himself as Kotaro Satō and tells Shin that he is the new neighbour who’s moved into the apartment next door. Shin assumes the boy is a polite if slightly odd child who has moved in with one or both of his parents. However, a short while later, the boy appears once more at Shin’s door, asking where the bath in each apartment is located; as Shin explains that the apartments don’t have baths and the residents bathe at the neighbourhood bathhouse, he also realises that the boy lives on his own. Thus it is that Shin and his neighbours – small-time yakuza Isamu and hostess Mizuki – are drawn into Kotaro’s world, each taking turns to escort Kotaro to and from his pre-school, help him with chores like shopping, and hold dinners on special occasions like Kotaro’s birthday. As they get to know Kotaro and learn about his background and history, so they also come to confront their own personal demons; but just as it seems as though a family-like unit is forming around the unconventional group, their unity is challenged by the ghosts of Kotaro’s past and the realisation that none of them will be able to be his guardian angel forever…

Based on the critically and commercially successful manga by Mami Tsumura, “Kotaro Lives Alone” was produced by animation studio Liden Films and premiered on the Netflix streaming service in March 2022. Conventionally animated with cartoonish elements, especially in the character designs, “Kotaro” requires (especially Western) audiences to get past the absurd premise that a four-year-old child could live alone and look after themselves; but in doing so, it confronts those same audiences with the reality of various social phenomena that have gained increasing publicity in Japan in recent years. These include the neglect that children often experience as a consequence of the “salaryman” work culture in Japan; the isolated circumstances in which children and teens often find themselves because of their parents’ punishing work schedules; the hidden abuse that hides behind the façade of the “typical family” image; and the cultural expectations that children be able to run errands and “pull their weight” from an early age. “Kotaro” approaches these issues through an effective blend of comedic interaction between the characters (especially Shin and Kotaro) and genuinely moving moments of disclosure by all members of the ensemble cast. This helps leaven the mood and pacing of the show, but also makes the moments of revelation all the more impactful when they do occur. Both challenging and entertaining, “Kotaro Lives Alone” occupies the same confronting space as “Higehiro: After Being Rejected I Shaved and Took In a Teenage Runaway”, and executes its narrative task with both skill and charm.

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.