June 23, 2016

A slice of Japanese life

The "slice-of-life" genre (manga and anime) intersects, but should not be confused with, "slice-of-realistic-life." Bunny Drop gives us a slice of life, but it's not quite "slice-of-life." Rather, it's better described as a family melodrama (quite a good one, in fact).

To put it in Studio Ghibli terms, Only Yesterday is slice-of-realistic-life (another good one). Whisper of the Heart is slice-of-life.

Of course, genre categories always get blurry at the edges. Hanasaku Iroha qualifies as a standard melodrama, replete with character development, a plot, and an ending. But its setting and emphasis on day-to-day life at a rural inn also tips it toward slice-of-life.

More importantly, a slice-of-life story doesn't weigh down the audience with heavy attitudes or a ponderous plot (at least not for long) and goes easy on the "meaning of it all." The tone is upbeat, the characters optimistic. If there are issues, people get over them.

In short, "stuff happens, mostly pleasant." A healthy serving of moe makes it easy on the eyes too. A touch of magical realism and nostalgia calms the nerves, even in the future. Aria and Yokohama Shopping Trip are two classic slice-of-life science fiction series.

As Wikipedia describes Yokohama Shopping Trip,

Whole chapters are devoted to brewing coffee, taking photographs, or repairing a model aircraft engine, sometimes with only a few lines of dialogue. [This emphasis on] the small wonders of everyday life makes the reader aware of their passing. In evoking a nostalgia for this loss, [the author] is following the Japanese aesthetic tradition of mono no aware.

In fact, the stories can be so plotless and meandering as to create a slight remove from reality. But not too far removed from reality, even when fantasy elements dominate the narrative.

Tamako Market is narrated by a talking bird. Kamichu! starts with Yurie getting turned into a Shinto goddess. Gingitsune is about a shrine maiden who can talk to her shrine's fox god. Flying Witch features, well, a flying witch (who, as it turns out, doesn't fly very much).

Geography can also achieve that "slight remove." Flying Witch, Non Non Biyori, and Hanasaku Iroha are based in rural or exurbia Japan, while Kamichu! takes place in a fishing village near Kure on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and Barakamon on a small island off the coast of Kyushu.

To the ninety-plus percent of Japan's urban population, these are magical settings that, as with NHK's perennial historical dramas, conjure up feelings of nostalgia for a bygone age that isn't quite yet gone for good in modern Japan.

(Here and here are side-by-side comparisons of the settings in Flying Witch and their real-life counterparts. Somebody at the studio did a lot of location scouting, probably also using the enormously useful Google Street View.)

Though there's nothing wrong with the cities and the suburbs. Consider the ever-popular K-On and Tamako Market (both recognizably made by the same production crew) and Strawberry Marshmallow.

The slice-of-life comedy typically has one live wire to play the boke (funny man) to the rest of the tsukkomi (straight man) and lead our little gang into one (minor) crisis after another. Our boke needn't be a comedienne or ha-ha funny. Quirky will do. It usually does.

Such as Yui, who joins a band when she can't play an instrument (K-On). Or Miu, a bundle of unconstrained kid id (Strawberry Marshmallow). Dera Mochimazzi, the talking bird in Tamako Market, is basically Bob Hope in the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby.

But in all these cases, "real life" (or a close approximation thereof) eventually asserts itself, though with a focus on finding delight in the run-of-the-mill and beauty in the commonplace.

Related links

Aria (NF CR)
Barakamon (Fun)
Flying Witch (CR HD)
Gingitsune (HD CR)
Hanasaku Iroha (CR Tubi)
Kamichu! (NF)
K-On (HD)
Kiyo in Kyoto (CR NHK)
Non Non Biyori (CR HD)
Strawberry Marshmallow (HD)
Tamako Market (HD)

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
6/24/2016 12:51 PM   
My favorite slice-of-life manga is What Did You Eat Yesterday? in which the "problem" of the local supermarket going out of business comprises an entire vignette. A vacation to Kyoto becomes a longer vignette but is so comparatively unusual that romantic Bingley-like Kenji is convinced that practical Darcy-like Shiro is only taking him on vacation because Shiro is dying. (The vacation sequence contains a cute panel in which Shiro asks a Japanese-American woman to take his and Kenji's picture. "Okay," she responds. "Say cheese!" to which Shiro and Kenji respond with blank expressions.)

Vacations aside, the vignettes focus more typically on a friend's refrigerator going dead; another friend's daughter complaining about being pregnant and telling Shiro she wants a "diaper cake" (yeah, I had to look it up too); Kenji persuading Shiro to visit a "Western" cafe. Occasionally, something bothersome, sad, or unnerving occurs, such as when Kenji has to take his estranged father's remains back to his family in Saitama (the event turns into a family reunion) or when Shiro's parents have to go to the hospital for age-related ailments or when Shiro gets pulled into helping out with a criminal case (he's a lawyer) despite his immense reluctance.

But there is precious little angst (thankfully), not because Shiro and Kenji's lives are ideal but because they are relatively ordinary. And that's okay! Getting up and going to work and buying food and visiting a friend and complaining about one's health is what most of us go through most of the time. And because What Did You Eat Yesterday? focuses on food (about four to five recipes per volume), whenever something a little upsetting does occur, well, that's what cooking and eating a good meal is for: to reset a person and that person's companion for the next day.