A Disappointing Ending

I finished Cowboy Bebop this weekend, and, I have to say, I was really disappointed by the ending. I won’t say what happens, except that’s it’s ambiguous and the writer has explicitly said that he wants people to make their own minds about it.

Well, I can do that. In fact, I might end up writing a fan-fic about it, because I felt so unsatisfied (though dang, this would be an intimidating tale to try my hand at). But that’s not really the point.

A story is a real, concrete thing. What is contained in the story is the sum total of its existence (with the arguable exception of supplemental material by the creator: e.g. Jane Austen’s letters detailing what happened to the characters in her books). I can write my own addition to it, but that will never be a real part of the story. At best, it’ll be a ‘might have been’, or a satisfying piece of work in its own right that can be imagined to connect to the original. But the ending we get is the end of the real story of Cowboy Bebop.

And, well, I didn’t like how it ended. It’s not so much the ambiguity as the fact that it just felt incomplete. What I thought were the most interesting and engrossing story threads were left largely unresolved and most of the cast doesn’t even take part in the climax. After all these characters had been through together, and after all I’d been through with them, I wanted something more. I wanted them to have some kind of closure, to bring their stories through to the end, or at least to feel that the progress I’d been watching them make had reached a point of completion. In a word, it didn’t feel to me like the story was over; it felt like it needed another chapter, or even a whole other season to really bring things home.

Granted, it’s deliberately meant to be an unconventional show, but again, that’s beside the point. Conventional or not, the question is whether it’s satisfying, emotionally fitting, aesthetically pleasing, and so on. Whether a story beat works or not is a completely separate question from how conventional or expected it is (I could give a well-known example of a writer who makes this mistake all the time, but it would be a travesty to even mention him in the same breath as Bebop).

It rankles even more because I loved just about everything about the show except the ending. Knowing now what it all leads to is going take some of the joy out of the experience. I just really don’t want to leave these characters there.

Quick Thoughts on ‘Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt So I’ll Max Out My Defense’

Since I mentioned Bofuri in the Friday Flotsam before last, I realized that I was due to give it a rundown. And since I’ve just come off of a re-watch over the past weekend (it’s very short: only twelve episodes in the first season), now seems the time.

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Maple and her Guild

Teenaged Kaede has never really played video games before, much less a state-of-the-art virtual-reality MMORPG like New World Online. But her best friend, Risa, is an enthusiastic gamer and insists on her buying it so that they can play together. Risa gets herself grounded just after they buy the game, but she urges Kaede to get a head start, resulting in her breaking into the game free of guidance. She picks the name ‘Maple’ for herself (simply the English translation of her own name) and, not quite understanding how games work and is anxious not to get hurt, she puts all her starting skill points into ‘vitality’ (defense) and selects the Great Shielder class. This results in her being slow as molasses, with feather-light attacks and a minuscule amount of health and magic, but also effectively invulnerable to normal damage.

As it turns out, the developers never thought of someone doing that (one of the running gags of the series is that New World Online is a pretty poorly designed game that is easy to exploit). Through a combination of her extreme durability and out-of-the-box thinking, Maple ends up stumbling her way into several more feats that raise her defense even higher. Then more. And more. By the time Risa (who takes the name Sally) is able to join the game, Maple’s become powerful enough to defeat hoards of other players in the first in-game event and has developed a growing fanbase on account of her unpredictable play style and cute, friendly personality.

From there it’s mostly just Maple and Sally exploring the game, fighting bosses, solving challenges, and making friends. All the while, Maple finds ever more ways to break the game and the developers (seen periodically as plushy avatars) scramble to keep up with her growing power set.

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Maple (top) and Sally. One way she gets around having 0 agility.

And, really, that’s it. It’s just two cute girls playing a video game, one of whom repeatedly stumbles into exploits and secrets that make her ever more unstoppable. The stakes are extremely low: everyone knows it’s a game and treats it as such, no one’s really mean or unpleasant outside of employing ruthless tactics during PvP events. There’s no villain to fight, no great problem to solve, nothing but a chance to have fun and make friends.

Personally, I’m okay with that. Sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy the premise of a show without any real drama or heavy action. Besides which, the light-hearted and consequence-free tone presents a hilarious contrast with the downright savage tactics Maple and the others sometimes employ. The story never loses sight of the fact that these are just kids playing a game, which means that there’s no contradiction whatever between Maple magically paralyzing hoards of people before drowning them all in poison and being an adorably sweet girl who doesn’t have a malicious or vindictive bone in her body. It also leads to a lot of amusing gags, like how Mii, a skilled player who role-plays as a charismatic war-leader will sometimes break character and start crying like the immature teenager she really is when things go wrong.

(Most episodes also end with a shot of the game message boards as players – including Maple’s self-professed fan club, ‘The Guardians of Fort Maple’ – discuss Maple’s latest insanity. These require some rapid use of the pause button to read the subtitles – the show is dubbed, but the text is still all Japanese – but are usually well worth it: “I’m so glad I died early so I can watch this!”)

I have a great fondness for absurdly overpowered characters – when they’re done well. Maple is a solid example of how to make a character like that and have her still be fun to watch. Mostly this has to do with the aforementioned sweetness. She’s just a flat-out nice person, as well as being really cute, which means both that it’s really funny to watch her laying waste to whole armies and that we’re entirely in favor of her having the power to overcome any obstacles set in her way.

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“Guys, Maple’s an angel.”
“Yeah, we know.”
“Maple-chan is our angel and always will be!”
“Let me try again. I mean she has a new skill that lets her actually turn into an angel.”

There’s also the fact that, janky mechanics and often ridiculous luck not withstanding, Maple’s success isn’t just accidental. She’s shown to be actually very intelligent and she excels at thinking of creative ways to use and combine her powers so as to make the most of them. Like, at one point she gets a magic turtle pet and the opportunity to select two new abilities. She selects two seemingly mundane powers that, when combined, allow her to ride on the turtle’s back as it flies through the sky, thus compensating for her abysmal walking speed. She then demonstrates the ability to create poisonous rain by wiping out a herd of in-game cattle.

(Oh, the name of Maple’s turtle? Syrup.)

And, despite Maple’s overwhelming power, the show nevertheless does manage to actually challenge her at several points. Like when she and Sally go up against a giant bird boss equipped with attacks that bypass defensive stats (and which, we later learn, was actually designed to be unbeatable) and just barely manage to win. Or at the end of the first season when she ends up fighting Payne – a veteran player many times her level and considered the best in the game – after she’s already used up most of her skills and with her teammates on the line.

(On the other hand, a giant kraken boss designed to be similarly invulnerable gets defeated in a hilariously anticlimactic, but perfectly logical fashion).

Sally, for her part, is a more conventional player than Maple (she opts for a speedy ‘Swashbuckler’ class with zero defense in deliberate contrast to Maple, and by the end of the series is nearly as feared by the other players as Maple is). She’s more aggressive and extroverted than the reserved Maple, presenting a pleasant contrast, especially since their easy-going interactions makes their friendship very charming. Sally’s also much more competitive and eager to engage in PvP, but she’s still a perfectly nice person, even if her raids on other players often end up taking on the tone of a horror movie. Which, again, is part of the fun.

Though I also like how, for all Sally’s skill and tough sportsgirl persona, she’s still reduced to a quivering wreck whenever there’s a ghost-themed level.

There’s also the fact that, though the gameplay of New World Online is an amusingly broken mess, the world has some pretty impressive locations. Most of it is fairly generic Medieval fantasy stuff, but there are some nicely fantastic landscapes and one or two hidden areas of striking, almost painterly beauty (like a secret sunset area full of sunflowers that’s perpetually kept at sunset hour). The monsters are likewise entertainingly creative.

Apart from Maple and Sally, I can’t say any of the other characters are especially memorable, but they’re pleasant enough company. Mii has some amusing dimensions, as note. Payne also turns out to be surprisingly likable in his easy-going behavior and good sportsmanship outside of the PvP battles. I also rather liked Marcus, one of Mii’s teammates: a ‘trapper’ class who is perpetually morose and dismissive of his own contributions to the team.

That’s kind of the sum total of the show; it isn’t brilliant or moving or gripping or anything, it’s just fun. Light, pleasant entertainment about good-natured characters playing a game together.

Honestly, I feel like some writers – myself included – sometimes forget that this sort of thing is even an option. Not every story needs real stakes, not every story needs tension or depth. Sometimes it’s enough to just take an amusing premise and try to do as many fun things with it as you can. I’m definitely looking forward to the second season.

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Bring it on!

Friday Flotsam: There’s Really No Through-Line for This One

1. As I understand the matter, modern corporations are descendants of the religious orders. The idea is that property does not belong to any particular member, but rather to the imaginary ‘corporate’ self. In the religious orders, this was to allow for a vow of poverty: yes, the abbey had a lot of property, but none of the brothers owned any of it, only the order as a kind of imaginary person (not that that stopped some of the monks any more than it stops some of today’s executives). In modern corporations, this is a liability shield: if the company loses money or goes into debt, none of the actual workers or executives are personally liable for that money. This incentivizes growth and speculation, among other benefits.

I’m not sure whether this idea of the ‘corporate self’ in economic transactions was ever employed before the Christian era or outside of it (be interesting to get info on that from an actual economic historian), but at least as far as the west is concerned, that seems to me to be the lineage.

(Modern banking even has its origins with the Templars: rather than carting sacks of gold all the way to the Holy Land, pilgrims would deposit the amount with their local Templar house, who would then provide them a bill of lending which, once they got to the Holy Land, they would present to the Templar house there to draw out that same amount of gold. But note that this is itself dependent on the ‘corporate self’, as the idea is that a house in England having gold is the same as the house in Jerusalem having the gold. The Order has the gold, and so it can hold it and give it out for the pilgrim at either end of the journey).

2. Anyway, a modern corporation operates on the same principle: it is the company that owns the property, it is the company that you serve, not any particular executive, and it is the company that provides the service.

This, I think, is precisely why the corporate experience is so miserable. You’re following a pattern that was created for the sake of subordinating the self to the Divine, and instead you’re subordinating the self to something thoroughly material and even mercenary. Of course it’s a dreary, soul-sucking experience. When someone says “I gave my heart and my soul to this company!” I just feel a great sense of pity for him.

On top of it all, we also don’t have nearly the same job security that the lay brothers (serfs) did. At least, as far as I can tell, they never got turned off their land in order to raise the stock price a few percent.

“Sorry Francis the Miller’s Son, but I’m afraid we’re gonna have to let you go….”

3. By the way, this is what I consider probably the stupidest point of Marxism, especially contemporary Marxists: “Corporations have too much power. The solution is to give absolute power to one corporation. That’ll fix everything!”

4. As both politics and the entertainment industry amply demonstrate, the advantage of having a majority population of amoral monsters is that any time someone ceases to be useful, it’s really easy to destroy him by hypocritically exposing one or two of his crimes and lamenting about how terrible it all is.

Another advantage is that it’s good practice for the members’ post-mortal experience.

5. I’ve started watching Cowboy Bebop. You know, a corgi in zero gravity is one of those things you don’t realize you needed to see until you’ve seen it. I now think that the entire space program will have been wasted if we fail to send at least one corgi to the ISS and just let it float around for a bit, trying to walk on air with its stubby little legs and getting nowhere….

“There are three things I hate: kids, animals, and women with attitude. So tell me, why do we have all three on the ship?!
“And we didn’t even get the bounty….”
(Few shows summarize themselves so well in a single exchange, at least so far as I’ve gone).

6. I’ve also begun reading Ivanhoe for the first time. Sir Walter Scott’s style of storytelling definitely takes some getting used to for a modern reader, as he will preface nearly every scene or even every part of a scene with long, precise descriptions of the setting, dress, and historical context of just about everything and every person he mentions. They’re good descriptions, but they do drag on and tend to bring the story to a screeching halt.

His depiction of the period is definitely mixed in terms of historical accuracy (he didn’t have very many good sources to work off of at the time), but in any case he’s clearly doing the best he can and one can see that a good deal of our concept of the Middle Ages proceeds from or at least through Sir Walter (the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood especially draws a lot from this novel).

In any case, barriers to entry aside, it’s a good story and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Besides which, of course, Sir Walter is an English writer of the old school and his style is as far in advance of the bulk of modern authors as the medieval mail-clad knight was in advance of his barbarian war-chief forbearer. Keep in mind that Sir Walter was a favorite of St. John Henry Newman, who developed his own style off of his, so that should tell you something.

7. And diverting into the completely frivolous and slightly obscure: one ‘Versus’ matchup or ‘Death Battle’ I’d like to see would be Saitama vs. Maple, One Punch Man vs. Bofuri, Unstoppable Force against Immovable Object. Of course you’d have to cheat a bit to get him into the game world with powers intact somehow, but it’d be worth it.

Honestly, I think I’d peg Saitama to win easy. Maple’s ridiculously powerful, but she isn’t invincible. Sooner or later, I figure he’d wear her down, 5-digit vitality or not. Though if I were writing it for my own amusement I’d probably try to find a way to give it to Maple nonetheless, because that would be funnier (of course I’d play fair: no random new abilities that she got just that morning and happen to be exactly what she needs. Canon skills only).

And the best part is that it’d all be inside a video game, so no one really gets hurt! I can just picture her inviting Saitama over to party at her guild house afterwards, and he’d be happy to do it because someone finally gave him a good fight….

Thoughts on ‘One Punch Man’

One of the most common complaints about Superman is that he’s boring because he’s too powerful. I don’t buy into this at all; I think that, if you know what you’re doing, you can make Supes’s power level into the very thing that makes him compelling.

One Punch Man is an illustration of that principle.

Meet Saitama; an ordinary salaryman who decides to take up heroism as a hobby, since he loves nothing better than to challenge himself. Somehow or other, he ends up becoming so insanely powerful that he can defeat any foe with only one punch, meaning that, by the time we meet him, hero work has becoming boring and frustrating for him; like a video game where he’s stuck on god-mode with infinite ammo. He ends up more or less going through his days in a stupor, trying to muster the energy to keep himself going while dreaming about facing an opponent who can actually give him a decent fight.

One day he crosses paths with an earnest young hero named Genos, a cyborg seeking vengeance on whoever destroyed his village and whom Saitama more or less stumbles into taking on as an apprentice. Together they enter the official hero organization and begin moving up the ranks and tackling bigger and bigger threats, though to his frustration, none of them prove the slightest obstacle to Saitama (it gets to the point where the camera cuts away when Saitama faces the monster of the week, since we all know what’s going to happen).

The central joke of the series, of course, is that Saitama is really just too darn powerful, which results in a lot of gleefully over-the-top results when the monsters explode into gory chunks when he hits them. The show also finds various creative ways to show off his insane strength, as when he carves a hole in a mountain just with the wind off of one of his punches (though a particularly funny gag has him taking on a single mosquito, which proves to be one of his greatest challenges).

Once he enters the official hero ranks, in fact, Saitama proves so powerful and so disinterested that he soon gains a reputation as a cheat or a fraud; it’s all so easy for him that people suspect he’s not really doing any of it and he gets no credit for his heroics. This further frustrates him, as one of the main reasons he entered the program in the first place was so that people might finally start to appreciate him.

Two things stood out to me about this series. The first was how they managed to keep his victories satisfying, even as he’s never in the slightest danger at any point in the story. Mostly this is done by making the monsters as smug, as boastful, and as brutal as possible. We see them tearing through civilians and the other heroes, while laughing and giving grandiose speeches about how terrifying and unstoppable they are. Then Saitama shows up, they laugh at him, and…

(I also appreciate that Saitama spares enemies who surrender or admit defeat)

A late-season two-part storyline about a sea monster is particularly good in this regard. We see this thing beating hero after hero, each of whom is fighting his hardest, but can’t cause any serious damage to this smug, arrogant creature. Then, partway through the battle, he finds his way to a shelter for civilians and proceeds to try to kill them all for no reason, even spitting an acid glob at a little girl for no other reason than that she was cheering for the heroes. The good guys are pouring everything they have into stopping him, but he just keeps coming, keeps knocking them around almost without even trying. Genos is the only one who even seems to give him a challenge. Then, just when things are at their worst, Saitama shows up and lets the thing have a free shot at him without any effect before…well, doing what he does.

The show lets us experience that sense of desperation, of hopelessness, and of just how hateful the monster is. It shows off what is basically an unstoppable bully preying on helpless innocents and then just as things look hopeless, it confronts him with a hero that he has absolutely no chance of defeating. We know that the good guys have won and the day is saved the moment Saitama arrives, but the monster doesn’t, and so we get to enjoy the prospect of him gloating while knowing he’s about to get his comeuppance.

This sequence also shows off the other aspect that stood out to me. As noted, the other heroes throw everything they have against the sea monster, all to no avail. Then, after Genos has been beaten and is about to be killed, one final hero shows up: Mumen Rider, the Cyclist for Justice! He is literally nothing but a guy on a bike, and not even a particularly skilled or strong guy on a bike. He shows up to a fight with a monster that has recently shrugged off blows sufficient to vaporize a skyscraper, and he throws his bike at it. He then takes it on in a one-on-one fight to try to save the cowering civilians and his crippled fellow hero.

Now, in just about any other show, especially a comedy, the point would be how stupid and suicidally overconfident Mumen Rider was, and how ridiculous the whole idea of costumed heroes is to begin with. But not here. Here it’s one of the most heartfelt and moving scenes in the show, as the man stands up knowing full well that he will lose this fight, but he still gives it everything he has. Because that’s what heroes do.

The point, the show argues, is not whether you win or lose; it’s not about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about your willingness to show up and give it your all; to “muddle through” as one character puts it. The heroes are heroes, not because they always win, but because they always fight.

Saitama himself sums it up perfectly: “If the heroes run and hide, who will stand and fight?”  You see what I’m talking about? The show is basically a parody, but it knows what real heroism is and it succeeds in making it appear truly admirable even amidst all the comedy and absurdity.

Then, after the battle, Saitama does something else truly heroic. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a great moment, but it’s a reminder that heroism isn’t just a matter of standing up to danger. Saitama’s physically invincible, for all we can see. But he can still be heroic by laying down his own cares, his own desires, and his own comfort for the good of others.

This, by the way, was what Captain Marvel was missing (well, one of many, many things): Danvers never makes a sacrifice, never gives up anything she wanted, never puts other people’s interests or needs before her own even once, meaning that her ‘heroism,’ such as it is, is purely a matter of her powers; because she can do things no one else can simply because the script says she can, so the ‘inspiring’ conclusion is that she realizes she has the power to blow up alien space ships without breaking a sweat. With One-Punch Man, that’s the premise and the question is how he can actually be heroic or even invested when he’s all-powerful, which leads to the question of what makes a hero in the first place.

Of course, the show is primarily a comedy, and a lot of the humor revolves around the show recognizing and having fun with its own absurdities. At one point, Saitama meets “the most powerful telekinetic in the universe!” And proceeds to comment, “you’re just throwing pebbles around. Anyone can do that.” One of my favorite moments has Saitama revealing the secret of his strength, which is so ridiculously anti-climactic that Genos starts angrily pointing out that it’s literally impossible that that’s the truth of his power.

Also a lot of humor comes from Saitama’s asocial, detached personality, especially in contrast with the earnest Genos. With his extreme power, Saitama often ends up getting preoccupied with seemingly meaningless details, such as when a monster bursts into his apartment and he punches its head off…because it broke his ceiling. This then becomes his primary motivation for the ensuring battle. Later, in the midst of a battle with an immensely powerful foe, he realizes he may have made a crucial mistake; he may have missed bargain day!

I also like the gags involving Saitama’s would-be rival Speed-of-Sound Sonic (“Who would have such a redundant name?”), a ninja for hire who, finding that his super-speed and ninja skills don’t work on Saitama, determines that he will beat him some day! Needless to say, though he always escapes with his life, it is rarely with his dignity. Meanwhile, Saitama really cannot be bothered and treats the whole thing as a minor annoyance at best.

There is also some more…off-color humor. Saitama and some of the other characters end up naked a few times when their clothes get blasted off. A character called ‘Puri-Puri Prisoner’ is a hulking, flamboyantly homosexual superhero who ends up naked every time he appears (nothing graphic, thanks to some strategic camera angles) and has a good deal of related humor (he is played mostly for laugh, though is a very powerful hero).

Of course there’s the gore factor as well, as Saitama’s punches turn his enemies into bloody chunks or splatters them into red smears against a wall, while the monsters themselves are often gleefully grotesque and produce effects to match. Basically, the content is something to be aware of before you go in.

Then of course, the whole story isn’t told in the first season, and there are some big threads left hanging and several characters who are clearly being set up for roles later on, but since I’ve only seen the first season, I can’t comment on what happens later on. Personally, I found the story I got satisfying enough as it that I don’t feel any urgent need to press on despite the poor word on the subsequent seasons. That is to say, the first season of One Punch Man is an excellent piece of work, both very funny and surprisingly heartfelt, and that’s good enough for me.

 

Some Thoughts on ‘Silver Spoon’

            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.

 

See?

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.

He ends up eating that pig

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.