It's very good. I like it a lot. It's sweet, romantic and endearing... if you can take the disturbing stuff at the end. (Some might use a stronger word than "mildly".) Nothing illegal happens, mind you. Personally I think it's a happy ending and the right one for the characters, but I'm having to look past some of the published dialogue choices in saying that. Things get emphasised that have made some readers unhappy.
I'd still recommend it, though. I was charmed. I'd read Yumi Unita's next work. Just don't be surprised by the ending.
I'll be going into serious spoiler territory, by the way. I think it's unavoidable. (Apart from anything else, that's the thing everyone knows about Usagi Drop.) It would be ridiculous to try to discuss this manga while ignoring the elephant in the room. However I'll give warning before giving any specifics and until then I'll try to stay spoiler-free for as long as possible.
The initial premise is the same as in the anime and live-action movie. Daikichi chooses to take in the six-year-old daughter of his late grandfather, since everyone else in the family is too shocked, selfish and/or elderly to show any interest in the job. (No one knew that this girl existed. She's reached her sixth birthday with almost no human interaction beyond one septuagenarian. Don't blame Grandad, though. The mother's a bit... odd.) At the start of the series, both Daikichi and his six-year-old aunt (Rin) are pretty dysfunctional. Daikichi's an ugly loner who's terrible with women and doesn't seem to have any life beyond working far too many hours at a high-pressure sales job, while Rin's like a six-year-old grandmother. She hardly speaks to anyone at the funeral. One girl thinks she's a mute. Then, if you do manage to get a conversation going with her, you'll find that what she says and thinks is often sixty years out of date.
They change each other. Daikichi worries non-stop, is over-protective and downsizes to a menial job that doesn't demand overtime. Rin blossoms into a confident little chatterbox. This half of the story is adorable and it's easy to see why it got adapted twice.
However that's just the first four volumes. Vol.5 jumps on ten years to show us a willowy, beautiful Rin in high school. Weirdly, though, in some ways she's hardly changed at all. She's still Rin. Every so often you'll almost catch your breath at a panel where her six-year-old self is almost jumping out of the picture. She's got taller. That's about it. She's always been older than her years. She's always been intelligent, self-possessed and probably more sensible than Daikichi.
What's more, the time-hopping doesn't end there. The manga slides around a three-year period, starting in Rin's first year of middle school. It's a non-linear narrative. We see effects before causes. We see Rin's attitudes to certain things and people, then later what happened to make her like that.
Spoilers ahoy Spoilers imminent. Stop reading if you don't want to know any more.
Sixteen-year-old Rin stops reminding you of her six-year-old self, of course. It's romance. Having to have romantic arguments and fight off men is startling new territory as far as we're concerned. We haven't seen this before. Obviously a girl in high school will be having new feelings, as will the boys who like her. The most important of the latter is Kouki, who's been her closest friend for ten years. He's an idiot, but there was a time when she was pretty serious about him. Unfortunately things happened.
If you know where the story's coming, you can watch things building up. The clues. The indications. It's loud and clear in vol.7, even if Rin herself hasn't realised. Then, in vol.8, the penny drops. We see her calculating the degrees of separation between her and Daikichi in terms of blood relationships. That's not an unconscious level any more.
Yes, she's realised. She wants Daikichi. This was always going to get a reaction from some readers, especially when she eventually gets, um, her happy ending. (There's a last-minute twist that they're not blood relations after all, as is a tradition in more socially acceptable versions of these stories. Don't worry, it fits. It doesn't feel shoehorned.)
I don't think the problem's Rin. She's making 110% of the running, with Daikichi in no way encouraging the idea, but even so I can't see anything she did wrong except perhaps being a little incautious in what she said in front of Kouki. She works out that it's impossible. She all but martyrs herself, in fact. She can guess Daikichi's response and so she'd been planning never to tell him. She'd been going to say nothing and try to make her feelings go away. It's painful to see her telling herself that she's happy enough with the way things are now, planning out a life of daughterly celibacy. (Look at how she melts with other people's babies, for instance. The woman's a born mother.)
Of course you'd dismiss all that with a normal sixteen-year-old. She's a teenager. They grow out of these things... but this is Rin. If it were Kouki or Reina, obviously they'd have a fresh notion in their heads every five minutes. Rin, though, has always been mature, organised and serious-minded. If she thinks that's how she'll always be (and she does), then she's probably right.
No, the problem's Daikichi, or more precisely the dialogue he's given at the crucial juncture. He himself is a nice guy. A bit over-protective and pretty hopeless in some ways, but he painfully turns himself into a top-notch not-really-dad. He's effectively a fantasy figure, albeit a flawed and plausible one. (This is a women's manga, written by a woman. It would be a hundred times creepier if it weren't.) His sex drive doesn't feel very male, so for instance in vol.3 ch.15 his reaction to a vapid but gorgeous woman trying to get snuggly with him is to show less than no interest because he's too busy analysing her character flaws. Mind you, he is consistently hopeless with women. The story of him and Nitani-san is a little tragedy of two people who never managed to grab hold of what was in front of them. You could say something not dissimilar about Rin and Kouki, incidentally, except that that's better described as Kouki having a self-destruct switch.
That finale, though, makes Daikichi jump through some disquieting hoops. Yumi Unita has written an excellent manga, but whatever she had in mind in vol.9 didn't come out right. (That's where the story ends. Vol.10 is a bonus volume of one-off stories set at different points in the series.) Rin I can accept. Daikichi though can't shut up about how, "This entire time, these ten years, I've raised you as a daughter, you know... Putting my life into it." Only three pages before saying "yes", he says "I only see you as a daughter." Two pages after "yes", he says, "Wherever you end up trying to land, you are always my child." Yumi Unita then underlines this with a big flashback picture of Rin at grandad's funeral, just to make sure we've got the point.
Ewwwww. Iyayayayaya, no. This has nothing to do with blood relationships or incest. That doesn't apply and Rin never imagined Daikichi as a father anyway. He was always just "Daikichi". When he offered to adopt her legally all those years ago, she declined. It's also absolutely not predatory. Rin's practically had to half-kill Daikichi to drag this out of him. No, what's creepy is all that talk about only seeing Rin as a daughter, throughout a scene that's, um, not parental.
I'm sure the intention was for this just to come across as warm and protective. No other interpretation fits the the work as a whole... unless, thinking about it, perhaps it's a deliberate tactic on Daikichi's part to try to drive off Rin for her own good? (Alas, she's bulletproof. Her response to "I only see you as a daughter" is particularly impressive.) After all, Daikichi deliberately withheld the fact that they're not blood related, while that "yes" I mentioned comes with strings attached. He insists on a cooling-off period. Two years. Nothing until she's graduated and they won't lay a finger on each other until then. Daikichi also advises her to dump him and run off with any other boy who catches her eye in the meantime.
You know, I think this interpretation works. Goodness me. It still doesn't stop the scene feeling creepy, though.
Let's talk about other things! The art's simple to the point of crudity, with people in profile occasionally looking like chimpanzees or deep sea fish. Personally I like it. I like that simplicity. I like how evocative and expressive the work feels, despite having so few lines. The cast come alive. The art's too primitive to draw anyone as genuinely beautiful... and yet, sometimes, Rin is anyway. (As well as being both tall and ridiculously slender. Almost everyone's thin, but she's extraordinary.)
It's also worth mentioning vol.10, which among other things fills some important gaps in the earlier non-linear storyline. We see how Kouki got his scar and how he first got together with Akari. There's a huge Masako chapter. Half of this volume is set in the old days, with six-year-old Rin, but I wouldn't advise reading it out of order. Two chapters have epilogues that link with vol.7 ch.38, one of which includes a massive spoiler.
I really enjoyed this. It's lovely. I'm fond of everyone and it's always pleasant to spend time with Rin and Daikichi. The manga was also a candidate for a 2011 Eisner Award, in the Best U.S. Edition of International Material-Asia category. However its ending has problems that many people have seen as a combination of regrettable, ill-judged and/or fatal. To make you want to dissolve your brain in acid, try imagining that ending with Yotsuba &!.