Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anime/Manga Genres: Iyashikei

Iyashikei is Japanese for healing, which describes this extremely niche sub-genre very well. Iyashikei series are meant to be as soothing and calming as possible, taking place in worlds with very little conflict,with cute and likeable characters just going about their carefree mostly drama-free lives. 

The most important aspect of an iyashikei series is atmosphere; it is not meant to be watched, but experienced. For this reason, the technical side of this genre is outstanding. Backgrounds are filled with lush vegetation and aging buildings, the screen crammed with beautiful little details, from the solitary blades of grass sticking out of water so clear you can count the rocks on the bottom to the cracks in the walls of  an ancient city forgotten by time. Check out St Mark's Square in Aria, taking place in Neo-Venice (on Mars of all places):

Or how about the scenery in Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth, taking place in Paris, France here:
Freaking look at that architecture!

Not every series goes for the hyper realistic art style. Many series go for a more warm, watercolor look, giving the art a very human touch, such as Usagi Drop.

It also gives the appearance that the character exist inside the world of a painting, making the escapist nature of these types of series more apparent. This genre exists solely as escapism. It exists to leave the audience with an feeling of inner peace and a smile, and a sense of awe at a vision of true beauty. I think the unique experience of watching an iyashikei series is best described as a sigh of contentment, filling you with a sweet serenity as you contemplate the many beautiful things that exist in our world. Some may describe it as cotton candy for your soul, light and fluffy without much content, but I prefer to think of it as a hot shower on a cold day, or a cup of hot chocolate while you watch the snow flutter slowly from the sky. It's pure, condensed bliss.

In keeping with the "life is beautiful" theme that this genre has, the characters are mostly all charming, entertaining and loveable. Before I learned the name of this genre, I called it the "I'll do my best today" genre, due to the sheer number of times you hear this phrase in these types of series. In Aria for example, possibly the most popular of this genre, Akari's greatest desire is to become a Prima, the highest ranking of undines, or gondolier tour-guide, but she doesn't compete with the other girls to become the best, but slowly moves through the ranks, happy to enjoy the simple things in life and befriend the other undines.  This genre is full of these characters; girls with a goal that they intend to reach, and do so without competing, cat fighting or even getting jealous of other girls with the same goals and dreams. They may be somewhat Mary Sue characters, but they’re the kind that you wish you knew in real life, someone who can brighten up your day, will always be there to comfort you if you're unhappy and always manages to say the right thing at the right time.

It's also touching to see these characters and how they learn more about each other and become extremely close, all without getting so offended that they punch each other through walls and ceilings. Usagi Drop is a great example of this heart-warming character connection, as you see Rin and Daikichi's first meeting, how Rin initially becomes attached to him, and how they continually learn more about each other and take care of each other, both helping the other grow as a person. It's just a wonderful experience to watch them grow, and you hope that they will always be a happy family.

To those outside its niche audience, it can be a bewildering genre. The slow pacing and lack of any conflict is certainly off-putting to those unfamiliar, and many find it impossible to enjoy something where nothing really ever happens. It's a type of series that is very unique to Japan, and I believe that there are several reasons for this. One reason is that an appreciation of simple aesthetics and natural beauty is very deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. This is shown in the simple yet eloquent designs on traditional Japanese pottery, dishes and lacquerware, the simple and lovely linework in traditional paintings, even the subtle presentation of food in a restaurant echos this idea of simple beauty. Appreciation of nature is an important trait of Japanese culture, as the blooming of the cherry blossoms is an important event always looked forward to and celebrated with big parties, as people watch the blossoms fall from the branches and reflect on how short and insignificant the lives of those blossoms were, and yet so beautiful and awe-inspiring. For people with this idea as a big part of their culture, watching a series so drenched in this appreciation of simple beauty after a long and stressful day is a very comfortable experience, reminding them that no matter how hard and stressful life is, the world still is a beautiful place, and the simple pleasures are always there to comfort.

Another reason the iyashikei genre might exist is another very Japanese idea, the idea that it's about the journey, not the end. In American fiction, it's often about the resolution, and a bad ending could ruin the entire experience. Having an ending spoiled is even worse, as though there's no longer any point in seeing it now that you know what happens. In Japan however it's different. It's okay for a series to have little or no resolution, or a particularly awful ending, because in the end, it's how they get there that counts, and when it's all over, you can look back and contemplate the fun you've had watching and learning about these characters lives. Due to this interest in the journey rather than a resolution, it's okay for many to have a series with very little conflict because you're not all that interested in the resolution of the conflict in the first place.

Although the genre is basically rooted in Japanese ideas, and as a result many Westerners looking for conflict and resolution in their entertainment will be put off by these ideas, I would still recommend the genre as a whole to anyone. Watching an anime designed to heal your soul is a wonderful and delightful experience that I think everyone should be able to experience at least once, if only to remind them that the world truly is a lovely place, with wonderful kind people living in it, and little miracles always ready to be found.

Recommended and standout titles of the genre: Aria, Yotsuba, Chii's Sweet Home, Usagi Drop, Only Yesterday, My Neighbor Totoro, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 5cm per Second, Haibane Renmei, Kiki's Delivery Service, Whisper of the Hear, Hanasaku Iroha

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