I have recently begun to seriously explore the wonderful world of anime and manga. And one of my favorites so far has been Silver Spoon, which I am currently in the process of reading after having finished the anime (which, unfortunately, only covers about the first half to two-thirds of the manga).
The premise is that Hachiken Yugo is a first year high schooler in Hokkaido. Despite working himself half to death, he didn’t do very well on his final exams for middle school, much to the disappointment of his terrifying father. Seeking to get away from home, he chooses the one high school in the region that has a dormitory: Yezu Agricultural School. He figures this will be a perfect fit; he’ll be the only city boy among a bunch of farmers, and the school curriculums in math, science, and so on are tiny, while agricultural textbooks are just a lot of memorization. So, he’ll get away from his unbearable home life and ensure he gets top-grades at the same time!
The one thing he forgot to consider is that this is an agricultural school, and most of the work is practical. Meaning he suddenly finds himself having to get up at five AM to do farm chores on top of studying, while he also discovers that farm life is much, much more complicated and demanding than he ever expected.
Oh, and he discovers that one of his classmates, Mikage Aki, is really, really cute.
The result of all that is a truly charming, hilarious, and heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale of a boy growing to maturity in a completely alien environment. It reminds me in some ways of All Creatures Great and Small, the British show about the life and times of a young vet in Yorkshire, only Yugo starts out as a complete newcomer to farm life, even to the point of being surprised at how big the cows are dawhen he first arrives. We, the audience, get to experience all that growth and learning and the shattering of preconceptions along with him (the artist, Hiromu “Fullmetal Alchemist” Arakawa, grew up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, so the details of farm life have the ring of authenticity to them). Over the course of the story, he grows attached to one of the pigs (named ‘Pork Bowl’) and then has to deal with sending it to be slaughtered, he joins the equestrian club (mostly because Aki is in it) and learns how to deal with horses, spends the summer working on a dairy farm, makes home-made pizza (since he’s the only one at school who lives within delivery distance, he’s the only one who knows what it’s supposed to taste like), and organizes the school festival. During the course of all this, he not only learns about farm work, but becomes one of the most popular boys in school and something of a natural leader for his outsider perspective and willingness to do just about anything for anyone.
At the same time, though, he struggles with massive confidence issues (courtesy of his perfectionist father) and with trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He soon discovers that he’s quite literally the only person in his class who doesn’t have a plan for his life, and though most of his classmates’ plans involve simply taking over their family farms, he nevertheless is jealous of their apparent security. Though this, he eventually discovers, is much more uncertain than it first appears.
One of the first things that struck me about this series was how, well, nice everyone was. This is the first school story I can recall where there are no ‘bully’ characters: everyone in Yugo’s class is decent to him in their own way. It takes almost eighty chapters before one of them develops any kind of rivalry with him (and it doesn’t really hurt their friendship), and even longer for anything like a school bully to appear (from a rival school at a tournament, and he gets hilariously sent packing almost the moment he appears). Yugo’s father is the only really antagonistic character present, and he has very little screen time, though…well, more on him later.
But though they’re all decent people, there’s plenty of character and conflict to be had among them, and they all have flaws, but the flaws are presented as just a matter of being human. For instance, there’s the domineering, egg-shaped Tamako, who is extremely blunt and at one point announces to her parents that she loves money more than anything and is planning a takeover of their farm. In any western story, this would mark her as a villain; here it’s played entirely for laughs as just part of her eccentric charm (“We must crush her before she grows too powerful!” “You are welcome to try!”). Or there’s Tokiwa, the heir to the poultry farm, who is both the worst student in class (he’s thrilled when he gets a 10 out of 100 score on his math test because “I never got double-digits before!”) and has an unfortunate tendency to spread rumors based on very little information, resulting in Yugo being hauled before the dean twice on rumors of illicit sexual relations with his classmates (“I was talking about a pig!” “…You got a pig pregnant?”). Again, this is played entirely for comedy, as there was no malice in Tokiwa’s actions and the misunderstanding is cleared up as soon as Yugo is able to explain himself.
As the latter indicates, Silver Spoon is as, well, frank as I find a lot of Japanese fiction to be. It isn’t really crude, but they don’t shy away from either the reality of farm life (poops and live births abound, and we visit a slaughterhouse in one chapter) or of adolescence. There’s a bit where Yugo is told about how you can tell the age of a cow because the younger ones have smaller udders while he absentmindedly eyes Aki. Another bit has her asking him to help her find a bra: “it’s big and black…” Turns out it’s a cow bra (to prevent her from treading on her udder) But the interesting thing is that, to me at least, this sort of thing feels ‘cleaner’ than the sexual content found in most western stories, maybe because here they mostly play it for a joke, as an honest depiction of what teenagers are like, while in western fiction there’s often a degree of either self-importance (“look how daring I am!”) or crudity about it that makes it feel, well, more adolescent. I had a similar reaction to the sexual humor in Naruto: when Naruto is transported at the idea of spying on the girl’s side of the bath and then has nightmares of what Sakura would do to him if he did, it feels like the joke is about how teenagers think about sex, rather than being itself an excuse to talk about sex. It’s an interesting tonal phenomenon that I’d like to explore further (ugh, there’s no way to make that sentence proof against misunderstanding, is there?).
Another thing that has struck me about a lot of anime that I’ve seen; the characters often feel much more distinct and human than a lot of their western counterparts. They’re less likely to be built to a ‘type’ (the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, etc.) than to simply be constructed as individuals. Like Aki’s childhood friend, Ichiro, who plays baseball and often rubs Yugo wrong. He’s not a ‘jock,’ he’s a young man with very specific goals from a specific situation, and how that situation and those goals play out forms a crucial subplot.
Likewise, the story follows its own beats, and part of that is that things don’t work out according to a formula. The above mentioned subplot involves a game of baseball with the future of several beloved characters riding on it coming down to one final play…which they don’t make, leaving them to have to face up to failure and heartbreak and try to figure out where to go from there. Pork Bowl is indeed turned into pork despite Yugo’s attachment to him, because that’s what pigs are raised for. Bad things happen and you can’t always do anything about them is practically a theme of the story, though also that you might be able to do more about it than you think you can.
All this leads to one of the big moments of the series, where Yugo proves himself a hero, not by saving the day or averting disaster, but simply by insisting that he will always being there for someone, whatever happens and however much it hurts.
On a practical level, the fact that the story is willing to break the audience’s heart, to show things not working out even when they had to work out means that we’re hooked with every subsequent challenge and crisis, because we know there’s no guarantee that it will have a happy ending. Yugo’s team might lose the equestrian tournament. Yugo might not get the loan to start his business. Aki might not pass her college entrance exam. Nothing is guaranteed, however badly you want it, which means you just how to read on and to find out what happens. Much like life.
By the way, the romance here is fantastic. Like everything else, it feels very honest and very sweet, as Yugo and Aki develop an easy-going, familiar attachment while he struggles with a massive crush on her that is complicated by his confidence issues. She soon realizes that she likes him as well, but is a little clueless about romance and is dubious that someone like him – a comparatively well off, educated, and intelligent city boy – would seriously be interested in a book-dumb girl from a debt-ridden family farm. This leads to a lot of delightful moments, where he way overthinks things and she misses the point entirely (such as when her roommates have to explicitly spell out the fact that him asking her to go somewhere, just the two of them, was him asking her on a date. This after her acceptance resulted in his feelings being shown in one of the most over-the-top and hilarious splash-pages you will ever see). But also the way he steps up and tries to look out for her, to encourage her, to be there for her lets us appreciate that they do really make a wonderful couple (among other things, he teasingly tries to get her to not worry about the thick rural accent she self-consciously tries to hide).
The most pressing obstacle is her hilariously overprotective father, who scares Yugo almost as much as his own father (at one point he imagines them having a kaiju battle). The very first time they meet, he takes one look at Yugo and shouts, “I DO NOT APPROVE!” (this long before Yugo has even worked up the nerve to ask Aki out). Yet, he’s shown to be otherwise a very good, if grim, man, generous with his stock and listening honestly to his daughter when she tries to talk to him about her life.
Yugo’s own father is somewhat of a different matter; a brutally demanding, imposing figure with extreme perfectionist tendencies, who expects his sons to excel and is not shy about expressing his anger (in a cold, dismissive fashion) when they don’t. We get a sense of the kind of life Yugo had when he’s staying with Aki’s family over the summer and accidentally gets lost in the bear infested woods. When he finally calls them from another farm, his only thought is that they’ll be furious with him for missing out on work; the idea that they were more worried about his safety never entered his head. At one point Yugo compares his father’s attitude to a farmer’s toward livestock; deliver results, or you are worthless. More amusingly, when Yugo’s father visits the school, the students immediately assume he’s a Yakuza and begin using his picture as a warding charm.
Yet, even Yugo’s father isn’t simply a caricature. He’s a very unpleasant figure, but he shows flashes of humanity, as when, upon receiving Yugo’s business proposal in the mail, he immediately sits down to go over it rather than simply rejecting it out of hand (he does reject it, but he gives it his full attention first). Or when he tries to avoid seeing his son after watching him compete in an equestrian tournament, knowing that he would only ruin the moment for him. Likewise his mother, though rather weak, is shown to be honestly concerned for her son and hurt that he never calls or writes them while at school: something Yugo’s classmates criticize him for.
In summary, the characters are played as human, with all that implies. They’re sometimes over-the-top and eccentric, but they have real emotions and reactions.
Another favorite character is the school principal; a tiny, cartoonish little man who seems to appear all over school, and yet who nevertheless proves a font of real wisdom and sage advice, as well as an effective teacher. His speech to the graduating first years, regarding the titular silver spoon, is a beautiful piece of work, dealing with the meaning of both agriculture and learning. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of genuine wisdom to be had throughout; about looking reality in the face, but not giving up on your dreams, about accepting that there are things you will never perfectly understand, but you should always try to understand, about hardship and maturity and dedication. It’s also a fascinating look into where our food comes from, and the hard, grinding, often heartbreaking work that goes into it (the insight into cheese-making is just one example). Characters discuss questions of efficiency versus animal welfare, but they don’t come up with pat answers; only saying, “these are the things we have to work with” and inviting both each other and the audience to decide for themselves. Actually, that’s another bit of wisdom it offers; don’t be afraid not to have answers, as long as you’re still trying to understand.
This sort of mature thinking, rich characterization, honesty, and intelligent plotting, blended with humor and charm, is something to study and treasure. It’s just a wonderful piece of work, and I’m not even done with it (actually, I don’t know if the manga is finished). This is the kind of writing that I’d like to aspire to, and I highly recommend it.