Over the weekend, with a bit of hesitation and a lot of curiosity, I started reading Usagi Drop. People had warned me against the manga when I first finished the anime adaptation. I was thoroughly impressed by the short twelve-episode series. So the hints of a very controversial, and perhaps even hated, manga ending come as a surprise.
Yet a few chapters into the latter half of the manga (after the ten-year time skip), the direction of Usagi Drop has already become increasingly clear. The previously impossible ending becomes not only possible, but something that could even be authentic. Indeed, I quickly realize that (spoiler alert) Daikichi and Nitani (Kouki’s mother) would have never worked out, and nor would have Rin and Kouki.
The disappointments many feel of the much maligned ending likely stem from two related things: Daikichi and Nitani do not become a couple, and instead Rin and Daikichi do. I find neither point controversial nor unexpected once I have immersed myself into the life of high school Rin.
True, throughout most of the series, Daikichi and Nitani seem absolutely perfect for each other in every way. Both are single parents raising a child of the same age. Their children are best friends. The two struggle through parenting and other hardships together; they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And there is real chemistry between the two. Yes, they would make the perfect couple.
But, this is Usagi Drop, a manga that is not so much about the heartwarming aspects of life as it is about the harsh realities. And though the manga tries to play everything small—a story involving a mere few characters with common life crises—it cuts hard.
This approach is evident very early on in the series. Take for example, one of my favorite arcs from the anime: Haruko runs away from home with Reina because of pressures from her in-laws and other marital problems. The resolution of the arc is semi-happy at best. Haruko returns home after having found her inner strength, but her initial issues with the family are never addressed. (Years later, Haruko would divorce her husband.)
Life is all about compromises, and Usagi Drop is kind enough to show us that. This is no blind romantic comedy, in which everything works out and two people who, from all other’s perspectives, should be together live happily ever after. No, sometimes, or rather most times, things do not work out the way the romantics hope they would. Daikichi and Nitani could never be together because of their insecurities. And their children are the convenient excuses the two use to compromise their fears about reaching out. That Usagi Drop does not give us the lovey-dovey fantasy is beautiful in its stark yet realistic cynicism.
The same attitude toward relationships is applied to most other characters. Usagi Drop’s portrayal of romance is just slightly short of the kind of true love that popular media sells. Instead, what we see are a series of infatuations and insecure, wavering interests.
The most glaring example would be the budding “love” between Reina and Kouki’s friend:
This item is certainly not lasting long.
Again, despite the slightly bitter approach to relationships, the emotions are depicted so authentically. The dating games—and what really is “love” but a series of exhausting games—are realistically decorated with all the right feelings: uncertainty, vanity, dissatisfaction.
Further, Daikichi and Nitani are too scared to go after their desires. Reina is unsure that Takeuchi is the best choice, because, let us admit, most people are shallow. Kouki puts himself in the friend zone and eventually loses Rin’s interest. The vanilla, expected pairings are all doomed to fail.
In this context, we can rationalize the “incestuous” ending. Jaded about relationships due to her fall-out with Kouki, and having never been too intimate with other men before—Kouki’s charms can be pretty possessive—Rin turns her emotions to the only other man in her life for her rebound. The feelings may have started out as a mere subconscious joke that would then turn into a conscious possibility. The more Rin entertains this possibility, the more real it becomes. Moreover, the more doubt she has about this forbidden love, the more she desires it. It is simply human nature to want what we cannot have. That Daikichi, in the last few chapters, makes Rin wait until graduation—essentially playing hard-to-get—only solidifies Rin’s resolve.
Interestingly, we never get a strong sense of whether Daikichi feels about Rin in that way as well. We see him consider the possibility and worry about the consequences; yet we do not see him exhibit the signs of someone in love—at least, not to the same extent as he has shown when he is with Nitani. Perhaps somewhat ironically, that Daikichi is much more ready to let go of this new romance may just help glue the relationship together. Rin will have to continue to chase him, and thus, continue to be interested. I suppose in this way, Usagi Drop does build quite a happy, optimistic ending, despite the incestuous vibes.
The “incest,” while integral to much of the criticisms of the ending, is not exactly the emphasis of Usagi Drop’s ending. The social consequences are easily resolved by a convenient plot twist—Rin and Daikichi are not blood-related.  What Usagi Drop instead wants to fully explore are the various subtle nuances that the characters feel about relationships and love: the insecurities, infatuations, muddled ideas, and gray areas. Incest is only one of the many plot devices to showcase the rather authentic portrayal of how we approach love. And, there are few manga that do so lovelier and more painfully than Usagi Drop. 
- Personally, I found the extra step Usagi Drop takes to address the blood-related issue a bit unnecessary. The manga could have worked even if Rin is Daikichi’s aunt. But that is a discussion for another time perhaps. (Besides, my thoughts on incest are quite liberal.)
- This post reads quite bitter. Maybe even more bitter than Usagi Drop.