#1 Adorable animals
In the world of Polar Bear Café, animals and humans live alongside each other as equals. Not in some hippie way where we respect nature and all that guff; animals just act like people do in this anime. They live in cities, drive cars, go to work, and some of them happen to run cafes.
Rather than anthropomorphize its animal characters, Polar Bear Café strives for realistic looks. To the point that series author Aloha Higa was so upset with the initial, biological inaccuracies in the anime that she put the entire manga on hiatus in protest. This look pays off tremendously. It’s so much cuter to watch actual penguins, bears, raccoons, and everything else navigate modern society. As opposed to some weird human-animal hybrid characters.
Polar Bear Café has a cuteness factor that few other anime can rival. I found myself lighting up whenever characters like the penguin babies, red squirrels, or lesser panda showed up in a story. Or in the chapters that flashback to when Polar Bear himself was still a cub, though he is plenty adorable in his adult form as well. If you have a fondness for wild animals, then this is straight up a must-watch anime.
#2 Comfort food slice-of-life
Polar Bear Café is a sketch-based series, where each episode has 2 or 3 storylines each. Friends both human and animal alike get together, share their stories over cups of coffee, and go on all kinds of trips together. New characters are introduced, storylines develop, but it never strays too far from the café setting.
At 50 episodes, it may seem like a daunting anime to start on. Rather than binge it, however, I ended up slowly consuming Polar Bear Café over the course of about two months. It’s such a reliable and comfy series that it became my go-to anime to turn on whenever I had time. I watched it while working out, whenever I had to wait for anything, or I’d have it on during otherwise lonely dinners.
It’s an anime that I was always in the mood for. It’s so wholesome and lighthearted, so purely fun, that I almost regret having seen it all now.
#3 Reliable running gags
A lot of the humor in Polar Bear Café builds on a stockpile of running gags that accrue over time. These are based on the characters’ personalities, all of which are very silly and lovable.
Polar Bear is a unrelenting prankster. His formal look and respectful facade obfuscate just how much he loves to mess with people. Usually by making constant puns, though he always endeavors to find other ways to be deliberately obnoxious. Penguin is usually a straight man to Polar Bear’s antics, but one who is on a very high horse indeed. He loves to rant about unimportant stories and his selfish nature frequently gets him into enormous troubles. None of which he ever learns anything from.
Finally, there is Panda. A spoiled, somewhat idiotic child, whose hobbies are limited to lazing around and eating bamboo. He is prone to falling asleep if not perpetually entertained and he is very averse to working. He too has a bit of a selfish streak, which leads to great banter whenever he and Penguin get into arguments.
The cast is further rounded out by a wealth of supporting characters, all with great gags of their own. The Sloth and Turtle are both incredibly laid back and slow, much to the frustration of anyone forced to interact with them. The Lesser Panda has a horrible inferiority complex, especially when it pertains to the regular Panda who they view as more deserving of a spotlight. On the flipside, Mr. Llama is stoically aware of being less popular than the alpaca. Instead of accepting this, he constantly tries to brainstorm new ways to increase his own popularity.
Sometimes these quirky personalities are used for quick jokes, at other times they are the topics of entire episodes. For example, Sloth frequently appears to annoy others with his slowness, but there is also an entire episode dedicated to him wanting to get somewhere through his own effort. No matter how much time it’ll take or how much easier it could be to depend on others. Not every episode is like that—many are general themes like going fishing or seasonal episodes—but those that do are often some of the funniest in the entire series.
This cast of animal characters is further tied together by its one human protagonist: café employee Sasako-san. She is a very everyday girl, but one who completes a lot of the other characters. In turn allowing their unique personalities to shine much stronger.
Sasako is the straight man to Polar Bear’s goofy humor, but also sometimes chooses to participate in weird jokes herself. She is kind and caring towards the more wily, immature characters, while also being witty enough to trip up anyone who’d take advantage of her good nature. Most importantly, she is resilient enough to take on the daily weirdness of the café with a straight face and a smile. Whilst occasionally stunning everyone with a surprise twist of her own.
Her cute design and the excellent performance by Aya Endou contribute to how likeable she is as well. I love these kind of “realistic” character designs that stand out in their uniqueness, without relying on obvious gimmicks.
Many of the series’ best moments and funniest jokes stem from Sasako. She is also central in some of the series’ longest storylines. For example, the one-sided crush that the zookeeper Mr. Handa has on her. He is too awkward to confess it and keeps trying to do subtle things to get closer to Sasako. As a result, she keeps interpreting his gestures as casual friendliness. Much to the dismay and occasional hilarity of everyone else, who are all too aware of his crush.
#5 Long-awaited pay-offs
Though a lot of Polar Bear Café consists of standalone sketches, the series does have continuity to it that develops over time. When characters get their big episodes, what they experience and learn often sticks. This is most notable in the romance department. Characters get together or get turned down, and those romances (or rejections) become permanent staples of the series from then on.
Being a slice-of-life series, though, a lot of developments are very slow and steady. You may not even notice them, until about the last dozen episodes where Polar Bear Café delivers on a lot of it. Not every arc is resolved, owing to the manga being ongoing to this very day. However, we do get big send-offs to a lot of subplots that had been brewing in the background.
My favorite examples of these are the episodes in which Panda looks beyond his self-obsessed bubble. He is a lazy, selfish kid. Someone who usually doesn’t mind making trouble for others, but who isn’t blind to emotions. There is an amazing episode where his antics go too far and he ends up hurting someone he cares about. An issue that inspires him to go above and beyond to set things right. In this example and other episodes like it, it’s fascinating to watch him struggle with processing these emotions. He so rarely expresses care for others, so it feels significant when something moves him to action.
I won’t spoil where other storylines go, but I was definitely left surprised with how many got a satisfying conclusion.
More like this…
Kemono Kingdom: Story starring realistic animal characters.
Aggretsuko: Animal characters living like people do.
Is The Order a Rabbit?: Anime centered around a café setting.