Continuing my intermittent series of recommendation posts, today we’ll put aside more intellectual topics and focus on entertainment, albeit with a bit of a serious side. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking a young fan to Otakon at the Baltimore Convention Center. Like Comic-Con in San Diego, Otakon features lots of people dressing up in unusual costumes (the technical term is “cosplay”); however unlike Comic-Con, which at this point is dominated by the promotion of high-profile Hollywood blockbusters, Otakon and its sister conventions (including CHS Otaku Fest, right here at Centennial High School in Ellicott City) focus on the less well-known parallel world of anime (Japanese animated movies and TV series) and manga (Japanese comics).1
American comics, and the movies adapted from them, focus primarily on superheroes.2 Japanese manga have a somewhat wider range of subjects, and so do the anime that they spawn. I’ve recently started watching more anime, and since I’m not a pre-teen or teenager my interests are not in the kid-oriented fantasy or science fiction anime that typically show up on American TV (“Pokemon”, “Dragonball Z”, “Sailor Moon”, and so on). Much of what I watch is oriented more for Japanese domestic consumption than for export; it can be quite interesting but not necessarily a great choice for those new to anime, especially if you’re also allergic to the typical anime style of art (most notably the “big eyes” look). I also wanted to recommend something other than the movies of Hiyao Miyazaki; Miyazaki has made some great movies (“My Neighbor Totoro”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Spirited Away”, and so on), but looking only at his work would be like watching only movies from Pixar: rewarding but unnecessarily limiting.
Hence my first recommendation: the current TV series Silver Spoon (in Japanese Gin no Saji, or 銀の匙 to be pendatic). Silver Spoon follows Yugo Hachiken, a junior high school student who for various reasons (more fully revealed over the course of the series) decides to drop out of the exam-driven Japanese academic rat race and leave his home in the city to enroll in Ōezo Agricultural High School, a boarding school with a farming “voc-tech” program far out in the countryside.
Young Yugo, or “Hachiken-kun”3 as everyone calls him, has a series of “fish out of water” adventures as he encounters the realities of farm work and life, in contrast to his classmates who’ve been born to it and consider it their destiny. Silver Spoon is not action-packed and plot-driven, but more of what’s referred to as a “slice of life” series—a surprisingly popular genre of anime, and one I very much enjoy.
I think Silver Spoon is worth recommending for lots of reasons, including the fact that it uses a relatively realistic style of animation, has a lot of humorous touches, and features good character development, not just of Hachiken-kun but of his classmates as well. But the primary attraction of the series is as a fascinating and thought-provoking window into the world of agriculture. Hiromu Arakawa, the author of the manga on which the anime is based, grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Hokkaido (the northernmost island of Japan, roughly equivalent to Ireland in size, population, and rural character), and thus knows whereof she writes and draws. The series is perhaps best characterized as an ongoing meditation on the sometimes harsh realities of how food ends up in our groceries and on our tables, and on the lives of those who deal with those realities every day.
I’ve written previously of the historical tensions between the residents of Columbia and the rural inhabitants of western Howard County. Few of us in suburbia are likely to uproot ourselves to live and work on a farm in western Howard; the closest we might get is a visit to the Howard County Fair in which we venture beyond the rides to the livestock sheds, or a trip with the kids to the petting zoo at Clark’s Elioak Farm. In some ways watching an animated TV series in a foreign setting and a foreign language might be a much better way to gain a deeper understanding of the lives and concerns of our fellow Howard Countians just a few miles to the west.
A final note on logistics: Thanks to the miracle of the Internet you can watch Silver Spoon for free on either Hulu or Crunchyroll (a streaming service dedicated to anime). The series is subtitled, not dubbed in English, but if you watch any foreign films at all you should be able to deal with that. Hulu Plus subscribers can watch the series ad-free in high definition, as can Crunchyroll Premium subscribers; premium subscribers can also watch episodes almost immediately after they air in Japan.
Since this is my first anime recommendation post (and hopefully not my last), I’ll kick things off with a special offer: I’ll provide a Crunchyroll guest pass to the first person to comment on this post, good for 48 hours of ad-free HD viewing of any show on the site, so that you can try out Silver Spoon for yourself. If you’re a binge watcher of TV you can see the entire first season of the series; the last episode just aired and is not yet available on the free streaming services.
Incidentally, the Japanese pronunciations of “anime” and “manga” are approximately “ah-nee-may” and “mahn-gah” respectively, with all syllables equally stressed. Americans of course are free to pronounce them any way they want, so you’ll also hear “a-ni-may” and “mayn-ga” with the stress on the first syllable.
There are American comics not about superheroes, for example the comic series on which the TV show The Walking Dead is based. There are also alternative comics or “art comics” (or “comix”), the comics equivalent of literary novels, arthouse films, and indie rock; the recently-concluded Small Press Expo (SPX) event held annually in North Bethesda is a great place to get introduced to them.
“-kun” is the Japanese honorific typically used for young men, compared to the more well-known “-san” used between adults of equal status. Watching lots of anime is a good way to pick up on these and other fine points of Japanese culture.