Non Non Biyori – A Light Comedy on a Dark Topic

It might seem odd of me to imply that there’s anything dark about a show as light-hearted and upbeat as Non Non Biyori, so at the outset of this review I want to talk a little bit about the show’s setting and its cultural context.  NNB is a story about four girls living in a rural Japanese farming village, where they are four of the only five students to attend their local school. The school itself is large, but is somewhat run-down, with buckets in the hallways to catch water from the leaky roof, and weak spots in the floorboards where you might even fall through if you aren’t careful. Most of the classrooms are unused, except for Room 8-1, which has the grades of each of the students scrawled on the signboard as an afterthought. And while mixed classrooms are commonplace in any rural community, the implication here is that the school was at some point much more populated than it now is. Indeed, these five students may even be the last ones to ever attend the school.

The signboard for the girls’ class, with their own amendments.

While it’s not directly addressed by any of the characters in the series, this seems to be a reference to the sad reality that is Japan’s demographic crisis.  People in Japan just aren’t having kids anymore, and these days the phenomenon of rapidly shrinking rural communities is very real.  For that reason there is something undeniably sad about watching these four girls, even with all the adventures and laughter that they share with one another, living in such a lonely and evacuated setting.  Viewing the subject matter of rural diaspora through the perspective of a group of young children who don’t even understand its implications is powerful, to say the least.

An empty swingset.  Lonesome imagery like this is commonplace in the series.

Now, in spite of all this, it is undeniable that Non Non Biyori is an extremely sweet, positive, and cheerful series that can be enjoyed every bit as much without paying any mind to its dark subtext.  A recent instance of the “iyashikei” (literally “healing”) genre, the goal of the show is not so much to set-up and punch-out a laugh a minute, nor is it to subject its characters to dramatic situations.  Its main objective is simply to create a tranquil and soothing atmosphere that has a relaxing effect on the viewer.   Healing, as a genre, has all but completely vanished from mainstream Western media, though it has a rich history in art and literature in the form of the “pastoral” genre.  Nowadays, however, it seems almost unique to anime.

This historical tradition is evoked in NNB through its focus on landscape imagery.  The first two minutes of the series contain no dialogue whatsoever, and are simply a series of images overlaid with a piano melody and an occasionally offbeat recorder accompaniment.  The girl playing the recorder, it is revealed, is Miyauchi Renge, who is shown walking alone on a country road, mostly from a distance, caught up in her own little world.  While it’s not stated outright, later events in the series imply that the song she is playing may be something she invented herself.

Renge walking along the country road while playing her recorder.

Arguably the show’s focus, Renge is the youngest in her friend group, four years younger than the youngest of the other girls, who range in age from 10 to 14.  While she is not excluded from group activities, even sometimes interjecting herself into the activities of others, a recurring theme in the show is Renge’s solitude.  She often wanders off to play by herself, interacts with nature and animals, and is shown to be extremely creative, drawing well, coming up with nicknames for her friends and for animals, and inventing songs with nonsensical and humourously grim lyrics.  Overall, there’s something very bittersweet about Renge’s general isolation from her peer group.  She loves people, but she is in many ways peerless.  She expresses displeasure at her own artistic pursuits and at her friends’ failure to grasp their true meaning.  She dwells overlong on things people remark in passing and thinks deeply about them, reframing them into big picture questions that are often wasted on inattentive listeners who fail to acknowledge how heavy these things weigh on Renge’s mind.  Her introspective nature is underlined by her deadpan delivery and constant serious expression.  And yet, in spite of the fact that she literally never smiles or laughs in the series, you never get the impression that she is unhappy, because she is simply innocent and curious.  In my limited experience watching anime, I think Renge ranks among the most realistic child characters that I’ve seen.  The show gives you the impression that she is based on a real person, or that the author has a lot of experience with kids.

Renge picking berries from a bush.

Ichijou Hotaru is the next girl in order of age.  A recent comer to the village, she creates the obligatory “country folk and city folk” contrast that helps the viewer understand just how different life in the country is.  The other girls show her around and introduce her to things that she’s never seen or done before, and while she’s not at all jaded or cynical in her outlook on country life, the moments where has her first experiences visibly shape her outlook in ways that are easy to relate to.  She’s the most obvious candidate for self-inserting from an immersion point of view, as “transfer students” in anime tend to be.  Watching Hotaru’s eyes fill with wonder at sights unseen is one of the real joys of the show.  Unlike the other girls, Hotaru has a clear understanding of just how remote and sparse the village is, so her lessons in the niceties of rural life come nearer to the feelings that many of the show’s viewers experience.

Hotaru sees something she’s never seen before.

Rounding out the cast is the two sisters, Natsumi and Komari, who are the source of most of the comedy in the show.  Natsumi is sort of a kind-hearted rascal with a penchant for getting herself into trouble, and her older sister Komari is a late bloomer who is frustrated with her stunted growth, and is sadly the butt of many of the jokes in the series.  Occasionally the show puts its focus on the sisters and their relationship, showing how in spite of their frequent disagreements they still have a mutual understanding and the ways in which they look out for and depend on one another become the central subject matter of a few episodes.  Watching the girls argue and inevitably make up not only gives a lot of comic relief, but also creates a lot of warm sentimental moments as well.

Natsumi (left) and Komari return to a secret hideout from their younger years.

Overall, the real strength of the show, outside of the highly immersive atmosphere created by the excellent art and music, is the unique friendship of the four girls from different age groups and backgrounds, the new experiences that they show one another, the good times and the bad that they share.  Furthermore, the fact that none of the four girls seems like a simple character trope.  All of them feel so real, with their own worries, preferences, desires and motives.  There’s a real sense of solidarity between them, notwithstanding the fact that their friendship is mostly the result of them being the only four girls in the village.

Another really excellent thing about this show is the way that the history of the characters is explored throughout the series.  You learn about their backstories, their relationships with the adults in the village, and even the origin of a few minor details that you thought were insignificant.  By the end of it, you will feel a real investment in the lives of the characters, even the ones that you thought were minor.

Renge invites herself to an adults-only mountain hike.

Overall, I can’t recommend this show highly enough.  It is an instant favourite of mine and it opened up a whole new genre to me that I hadn’t really acknowledged before seeing it.  If you get a chance to watch the OVA, it is highly recommended because it’s one of the strongest episodes of the series, particularly with its focus on Renge.  You don’t need to view it as “comedy in the midst of tragedy” the way I do, but I think it’s at least enhanced the flavor of the show for me.  Kind of like salting your watermelon, know what I mean?

Give this show a try, if you’re the least bit interested.  The first episode is an excellent indicator of what the whole series is like, so you’ll be able to tell right away whether it’s your cup of tea.  Pace yourself, though.  I don’t think this show would marathon well.  Save it for times when you are in need of a smile.

Non Non Biyori has a season two coming as well, and I have no doubt that it will be every bit as good as the first.


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