Category Archives: iyashikei

Mushishi – A Story About Stories

I really believe that “genre” refers, first and foremost, to the feeling that a piece of fiction inspires in its audience.  Saint Augustine once commented on how interesting it is that an audience will stand and applaud at the end of a tragic play, even though they have tears in their eyes. This is what Aristotle famously called “catharsis,” an experience by which we cleanse our souls of negativity by proxy with works of fiction. 

Including Mushishi in the category of “iyashikei” is a little bit problematic.  Comedy elements are still present in shows like Aria, Hidamari Sketch or Non Non Biyori, though with diminished focus, and more to serve the light atmosphere than anything else.  Mushishi, on the other hand, contains no comedy whatsoever.  It may qualify as drama, but hardly tragedy, though it does have its share of tragic characters.  When it comes down to it, the main feeling evoked by Mushishi is a sort of silent, meditative seriousness, which feels more emotional than intellectual in nature, a feeling not at all foreign to the shows I just mentioned.

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Cool as a cucumber.

A quick comparison I’ll make here is to one of my favourite healing moments in Non Non Biyori.  Natsumi and Komari run away from home to their old hideout in order to hide from their mother, who is angry at Natsumi.  While there, they briefly reminisce about times that they relied on one another as children.  Then a feral cat steals some food from the two of them, and the girls chase after it, only to find the cat sharing its food with its kittens.  Natsumi stretches, looks up at the sky, and simply tells her sister that it’s late and that they should head home.

I think that feeling of sentimental contemplation you get watching a scene like that is the bread and butter of healing-type shows.  It’s more important to have that than it is to have jokes or tragic plot twists.  Mushishi finds its own way of creating that emotional state, and the way it gets there is more through a kind of fantastical sequence of “what ifs” that both create an atmosphere of wonderment and demand meditation on the choices and values of the characters.

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The ever-changing seasons inform an understanding of how long Ginko’s journey is.

The typical structure of an episode of Mushishi is that Ginko, the main character, wanders into a situation where strange supernatural phenomena are occurring.  With a little bit of investigation, he is able to identify the cause of the phenomenon, and prescribe a course of action for getting rid of the “Mushi,” the spirits causing the problems, in order to restore the natural order.  However, by the time Ginko arrives, his patients have often already incorporated the Mushi into their daily lives, or even found ways of making them useful.  Either that, or the cure itself comes at some kind of great cost, and the characters are asked to weigh the benefits of treatment against the changes it will create for them.  Afterwards, Ginko continues on his way, often taking a modest payment with him, and wanders in search of more people in need of his help.

In and of themselves, the episodes feel sort of like little parables with vague philosophical lessons.  And yet much of the time there’s no moral component to them, and it’s simply about choosing one bad thing over another bad thing.  Some people might see Mushishi as being negative or even pessimistic for this reason.

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The stories typically end with a few scenery shots and a brief epilogue.

Anyone who has watched Mushishi will know what I mean when I say that the emotional crescendo doesn’t come until the end credits, and it’s mostly atmospheric in its delivery.  Each episode (I think, anyways) has its own theme song, and that song plays continuously through the final sequence of events into the credits, signaling the end of the story.  The effect of this seamless connection between story and credits is to gently stir you out of your immersed state of mind and back to the realization that what you saw was just a story, after all.  It’s almost like the characters themselves were walking out onto the stage and taking a bow.

As for Ginko himself, there’s no character arc or continuity between himself and each episode.  At least one episode is a “prequel” episode showing an earlier point in his life, which makes the assumption of continuity between the episodes problematic.  They could very well be watched out of order without confounding Ginko’s character in any way.  But why is the story written like this?  Why not show Ginko growing and changing as he encounters these events?

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The characters Ginko meets are confronted with tough, life-altering choices.

I’ve thought a lot about this, because when I started watching Mushishi I was wondering when we were going to see some growth on the part of Ginko, and I was disappointed that it didn’t happen.  Even though there were a few episodes that deepened an understanding of his character and his history, Ginko is someone who is finished growing, a seasoned expert with a very singular attitude towards his work.  This is not to say he’s inflexible, as he’s sometimes shown changing his mind or being persuaded by others.  Sometimes characters ask him to stay with them or offer him a home, but he turns them down, explaining that he can never stay in a single place because he attracts Mushi.  And you can see that it pains him to do so, much of the time.

So this is the real secret of Mushishi, and the real reason that Ginko can never stay with the people he meets.  What you are watching as you observe Ginko is an outsider watching a story.  Aside from providing the cure to what’s going on, Ginko always tries to take a hands-off approach to his work, usually letting the characters decide for themselves whether they want his treatment.  Sometimes he’s forceful in his admonishments, but even so it rarely ever seems like he’s really in control of what’s going on.  When he does get emotionally involved, he seems almost like a person watching a movie and shouting at the characters on screen, and whether or not they listen to him is always a tossup.

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A recurring theme is Ginko placing the “cure” in the hands of others.

There are other subtle clues to this in Ginko’s character design.  Despite the fact that the historical period of Mushishi is clearly pre-20th century, Ginko’s clothes are all modern.  He has only one eye, and the blind glass one remains veiled behind a curtain of hair.  And while the origin of his empty eye socket is something explained in the story, I think it also symbolizes the fact that Ginko himself is only “half” of the viewer, that there’s another veiled observer with him.

Sounds a little tacky, doesn’t it? It might be if it were explicit, but it’s not.  It’s very understated and nicely hidden detail of the narrative.  When you watch an episode of Mushishi, Ginko watches with you.  And when you see him react to what’s going on, it’s like turning to a fellow observer and seeing how they are reacting to the same thing you’re viewing.  This is why Ginko absolutely cannot have anything at stake in the stories, can’t stay for long, can’t choose how the stories end.  And it’s also why you always watch Ginko with the feeling that he’s seen hundreds of “episodes” of Mushishi that may never be animated.

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Ginko frequently acts as a guide rather than a leader.

And this is why I brought up “catharsis” at first.  Stories have a therapeutic effect on the soul.  A person who is filled with many stories is a person who has had their soul cleansed over and over again.  So while you are watching things that are often tragic, in Mushishi what you’re really watching is an audience member, a person watching a sad story, and then moving on and leaving it behind.  People die, tears are shed, but Ginko remains detached in spite of all this, losing and gaining little more than the experience itself, as do you.

I think this twice-removed quality of Mushishi, in addition to its beautiful soundtrack and rural imagery,  is what makes it so calming.


Aria – Marathoning Isn’t Allowed

You can tell that you really love a series when you can’t recommend it to a person without also giving very specific instructions on how to watch it. The amount of advice I’ve gotten about the best way to watch Aria the Animation just goes to show how much the people who like it actually like it. And one of the most common threads in the things I’m told is something I often tell people myself when recommending healing shows: “Don’t marathon it.” “Watch one episode every night before bed.” “Watch an episode every week in a neutral to warm bath.” Or even, “If it takes you less than a year to watch the whole series, you’re watching it wrong.”

Aria (2)Well, I’m not one to argue with the power of context and environment to shape your enjoyment of an anime series, and there are a few shows I came very close to not liking because I was simply watching them wrong. So I’m doing my best to heed the advice of people who told me to pace myself while watching Aria.

I’m generally bad at pacing myself with things I really enjoy, which is a real problem for me and something I’m trying to improve. Now that I’m watching Aria, I can hardly believe that it worked as a manga, since the pacing is so deliberate and calm. Apparently the manga had large and highly detailed illustrations, which I guess would slow you down while you’re reading and imply that you should be taking in the scenery, but so much of the animation’s greatness comes from the blend of music, colour, and the prolonged speechless moments of observation.

Aria (9)Aria takes place in a futuristic utopian terraformed Mars, called “Aqua,” in the city of Neo-Venezia, which is a popular tourist destination heavily inspired by Venice.  The main cast are all gondoliers, called “Undines,” from different gondola companies. At least based on what I’ve seen so far, there’s no urgent real-life concerns of any kind that the characters need to grapple with, and while most of them are “apprentice” Undines there is no indication that they run the risk of failing as students. They spend their days practicing rowing, talking to tourists and to each other, caught up in a world where there’s nothing for them to worry about. Conflicts are completely trivial — such as “oh no, our cat fell into the water” — and their resolution is so leisurely that it really just serves to develop the characters and deepen their relationships rather than causing tension.

One of the jobs of the Undine is to make sure that their customers enjoy themselves on their gondola rides, so they inevitably make conversation and chit-chat as they travel through the canals and take in the scenery. Akari, the main character of the series and still an apprentice Undine herself, cannot accept money from clients and therefore only takes people out on impromptu or practice tours. At this point her passengers chat with her and often reveal something about themselves such as a problem they have been experiencing lately, a conflict with another person in their lives, or even unwittingly showing a certain character flaw. Through the “healing” power not only of the city’s atmosphere, but also of Akari’s personality, the characters exhibit a kind of growth towards the end of the episode. Of course, I’m just basing this description on the first four episodes, and with the addition of more characters the series may or may not deviate from this general outline.

Aria (14)The guided tours are also a great means of world-building, since as tours they are relevant to the characters riding the gondola as well as to the audience. You get the feeling of being a fellow passenger on the ride, eavesdropping on the intimate conversations between Akari and her passengers, and taking in the sights of Neo-Venezia while you learn about the characters.

So far, Akari herself is a fairly static character, though that doesn’t make her uninteresting. She’s an entertaining tour guide and her goal of becoming an Undine like Alicia, her mentor, is a nice, upbeat premise for the series. She’s in many ways a newcomer herself, having worked on Neo-Venezia for a year by the time we meet her, and she still often makes amusing mistakes or gets herself caught up in business unrelated to her job. But where she goes she seems to have that “magic touch” typical of protagonists of healing shows, such as Mushishi’s Ginko or Bartender’s Ryuu. But unlike them, she doesn’t manage this through skill or expertise, but through a kind of natural charm. Whenever she’s complimented on her skill, she seems genuinely surprised and flattered at the kind words.

Aria (18)As for the supporting cast, the other Undines, they seem already to have character arcs of their own that are in the making, with their own minor anxieties and interpersonal issues, which are just minor enough to stand out in the otherwise tranquil atmosphere of the show. One character, for example, struggles with being polite to people, but is really just shy even though she’s mistaken for being rude. The events of a certain episode grow her incrementally but still imply that she’s got a ways to go before the issue is totally fixed.

Aria (16)But this general lack of progress isn’t boring, it’s just the natural outcome of a show that values taking its time and breathing in the scenery the way Aria does. While these four episodes do end in a somewhat moralistic way, the morals are never a sharp “a-ha” moment, but more along the lines of a “maybe,” a starting point that they arrive at where you can still feel optimistic about a gradual, natural internal resolution. Aria punctuates its episodes mildly with the feeling that everything is going to be alright in the end.

As for me, I’m going to do my best to take my time with this show, even though I’m eager to see more of it and to see how accurate my description of the show ends up being, the extent to which things change, and whether any real drama is eventually introduced that breaks up the scenery. But I sincerely doubt that an anime with such a strong sense of identity will fall victim to anything like this. From the music, to the art, to the characters, to the long pauses, Aria knows exactly what it’s doing and it does it well.

And have I talked about the music yet?  Not really?  It’s so perfect.  It’s like there’s a little Italian man sitting in the boat playing a guitar.  Feels just like a vacation.

Barakamon – Where Nobody Knows Your Name

I realize that the term “healing” gets thrown around pretty liberally these days to describe slice-of-life shows, even where it doesn’t necessarily apply, and it should be pretty clear that I’m going to do that a lot myself as I add to this blog. But speaking very broadly, I think of it as referring to a feeling that you experience when you vicariously occupy the position of a character who has some psychological malady that is being remedied. This doesn’t even have to be a single character in a show, it can be any number of characters whose feelings you can relate to strongly enough to want them to come around.

Barakamon is the story of Handa Seishuu, a famous but temperamental calligrapher. After viciously assaulting an art critic who has something bad to say about his calligraphy, Handa’s father decides to send him to a remote island so that he can cool his head. At the outset, Handa doesn’t seem to understand why his father thought the island would be a good solution to his problem, nor does he even really seem to agree on what his problem actually is. Instead of thinking about what his father told him, all he can think of is the criticism that enraged him in the first place, so he sees his purpose on the island as improving his calligraphy rather than growing as a person.

For this reason, his first dose of healing kind of sneaks up on him. Early in the episode he’s having a conversation with a man who we find out later is Naru’s grandfather, and Handa remarks on how the ocean doesn’t look very pretty to him. The old man says that it’s probably not beautiful because the sky is too cloudy, but then again, he didn’t say whether or not he thought the ocean was pretty or not himself, just that his granddaughter really enjoys it. This conversation is reincorporated later during what’s probably the most memorable scene in the episode: Naru is climbing a bulwark and asks Handa to come with her because the sunset is really beautiful from up there, and Handa is reluctant to do so because of what her grandfather had said. Her response: “You won’t know unless you try for yourself.”

[HorribleSubs] Barakamon - 01 [720p].mkv_snapshot_15.59_[2014.08.16_18.48.47]By the time Handa does climb up and look off at the sunset with Naru, of course, a lot has already happened throughout the episode to soften his outlook on the village and its people. He initially demanded solitude, and spent all his energy trying to keep people out of his home so that he could concentrate on his work. After upsetting Naru and subsequently making amends with her, and spending the afternoon playing with her, he’s obviously managed to let his guard down enough that he can finally see things the way Naru sees them. From Naru, Handa is learning a healthy disrespect for the conventional wisdom of his elders, which ties directly into his worry that his style of calligraphy is too formulaic and traditional.

That’s really the beautiful thing about the first episode of Barakamon, and of the series in general. A famous, serious artist, crushed by the weight of his popularity, finding liberation in the company of people who are not only completely unfamiliar with who he is, but don’t even really understand or appreciate what it is that he does. And since he fails to get them to take him seriously, all he can do is learn to stop taking himself so seriously. At the end of the episode, the whole village comes to his house uninvited and helps him move in, and instead of trying to chase them off, he welcomes them. Of course, Handa’s journey isn’t complete, and subsequent episodes will continue to challenge him as aspects of his past come back to haunt him and he grapples with his identity.

[HorribleSubs] Barakamon - 03 [720p].mkv_snapshot_13.05_[2014.08.16_18.03.18]Something that distinguishes Barakamon is the fact that, in spite of its setting and its “healing” focus, the show doesn’t really pause to take its breath very often. Without having read the manga I can’t tell whether or not this an issue with the adaptation that isn’t present in the original. The scenery itself is more likely to take a backseat to the characters, and we don’t get any of the beautiful zoomed-out nature shots that you see in shows like Aria or Non Non Biyori. Huge chunks of every episode are spent indoors. You don’t really get the sense that Handa is being “healed” by the natural beauty of the island, so much as the relationships he forms there and the activities that the locals involve him in. When the show does take some time to pause, it’s more likely to show a panorama of the characters enjoying each other’s company than a big nature shot.

Anyhow, I’m really enjoying this show, the comedy is consistently funny and the character growth of Handa, and even of the people around him, is a constant joy. So far there hasn’t been a single disappointing episode, either, though there also hasn’t been one as strong as the first, in my opinion.

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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.