Saturday, September 21, 2013

Silver Spoon

Silver Spoon (or Gin no Saji if you're so inclined) what was met with a bit of an incredulous reaction when it was announced. A series about a teenaged boy attending an agricultural high school? By the mangaka of Fullmetal Alchemist?!? Not exactly the follow up anyone was expecting! But it's apparently inspired and informed by Hiromu Arakawa's childhood being raised on a dairy farm, so we could at least expect a fairly accurate depiction of farm life. But with even that aside, there were still some worries lurking. The premise is surprisingly similar to Moyashimon, another noitaminA series about life at agricultural school (well, university) and it wasn't too long ago that we were burned by its sequel, Moyashimon Returns ().

Fortunately, I can safely say that Silver Spoon is pretty great. The premise of a city dwelling teenage boy choosing and moving to an agricultural high school makes for a ton of hilarious fish-out-of-water shenanigans, gives us a relatable perspective on such a culture, and allows for some really interesting questions to be asked and discussed regarding how people perceive food and farm animals.

Farm animals perceive Hachiken as food

There are three key areas which I feel Silver Spoon absolutely shines in. The first: the comedy. Silver Spoon is freaking hilarious. Obviously, Hachiken as our main character is the source and centre of the majority of the comedy, and he's put to great use.

Now, a lot of anime comedies have the same problem - when a character reacts humorously to something another says or does (essentially the boke tsukommi routine, but not quite so strict in practice) it tends to be overblown and loud, amounting to the show almost shouting "WE ARE BEING FUNNY RIGHT NOW LAUGH, LAUGH AT THIS CHARACTER'S REACTION" and it's really not funny when it's being unwittingly hammed up to insane proportions. Hachiken's reactions however - and it's nearly always him, what with him being the fish-out-of-water main character - are basically how to handle this kind of comedy perfectly. The timing and beat of the delivery on his reactions is short and sharp, lasting just long enough for the reaction to have been a meaningful one but never so long that it outstays its welcome, and they're subdued and understated enough that it's never distracting or attention-grabbing. They're there, often in the background or while other characters are talking, with faces and poses that are realistic enough to not pull the show out of its naturalistic presentation but still exaggerated enough to actually be funny. It's a bit difficult to explain in text why and how it works so well, but if you watch this series you should see quite clearly what I mean.

It was a rough first day

Hachiken's status as an outsider, as a fish-out-of-water in this little agricultural community, is a great source of jokes that's exploited to full effect. Whether it not being able to handle the animals properly or competently, having adverse reactions to certain revelations about how and where his food is sourced from, or just having to deal with certain innately weird elements of agriculture and a school for it (the menacing and imposing guys commenting on the bodies and tits in a magazineabout breeding cows comes to mind), a lot of great jokes come out of his situation. But it's that last point in particular that gains the most benefit of his unfamiliarity with everything. Hachiken's perspective is ours as well, given that most of the audience is going to have roughly the same social background as him, so we can relate to him and find amusement in some comparatively mundane things because it's as un-mundane for him as it is for us. But thanks to Hiromu Arakawa's familiarity with the subject manner, it all feels very affectionate.

The character driven comedy beyond Hachiken is also handled rather excellently. The cast in this series is pretty big, but each character is nonetheless varied, distinct and very memorable. From the fearsome and ruthless Tamako, to the loud, energetic and idiotic Hajime, with their devious but Buddha-looking teacher and Hachiken's own super-skilled but ultra-laid-back older brother amongst many, many others inbetween, the range of personalities present is nothing short of impressive. All of them get their moment in the limelight, even if only for the sake of a joke or two, but none of them feel superfluous; the majority even get some major scenes with Hachiken, often helping to establish or develop his character in often unusual ways. And the chemistry between all of them is nothing short of excellent - the sense of dumb camaraderie between the guys is palpable (best demonstrated in the fifth episode, where they all sneak out of dorms past curfew to see something impressive ), the knack Tamako has for finding others that share her shrewd business sense and sharing in profitable ideas is frankly terrifying, but above all the friendship going on really comes across as genuine. None of them feel like nothing more than their particular character traits, but neither are they so realistic that they aren't funny. It's a delicate balance that Silver Spoon treads without a problem.

Bros gonna bro

The small romantic elements of the series - basically Hachiken's crush on Aki - are incorporated into the comedy quite well. Most of them are simply Aki getting Hachiken's hopes up with one line, before crushing them with the next, but the moments that are surprisingly side-splitting are the reactions she has to rumours that Hachiken is or will be with someone else. They're small and understated - dropping the board eraser, loosening her grip on chopsticks - but the careful and deliberate timing on them, coupled with the hint-dropping that Hachiken's feelings may well be mutual, elevates them superbly.

The second key area Silver Spoon is fantastic for is food porn. Seriously, this show will make you fucking hungry. The bacon, the beef bowls, it's no surprise considering it's an agricultural school, but DAMN has loving attention been paid to all this. But nowhere is it more prominent and amazing as the single episode that is entirely dedicated to a pizza party. Pizza has never looked so good (in animated form).

Fuck I want pizza now.

That pizza looks far too delicious I mean FUCK

The third and arguably strongest element of Silver Spoon is Hachiken's character development. The trajectory of his arc is pretty predictable, just from the premise - city-dweller comes to understand and love agricultural life, puts some of his problems from back home in perspective, etc. - but the way it's handled, the questions that are asked and the manner in which he explores them, they all point to some excellent and intelligent writing and characterisation.

His troubles at home are revealed gradually over the course of the series, but essentially amount to being bulled in middle school, and never quite being able to meet his father's high expectations. His teacher recommended this agricultural high school as a means of giving him a fresh start, away from everyone else. Thanks to all this, he has become somewhat insular and struggles with a dream for the future. The former plays out pretty straightforwardly, as he gains friends and organises cool stuff for others, but the latter has a bit more subtlety to it. He doesn't come to a dream this season, but his eyes open a lot to the dreams of others: Aki is expected to take over her parent's farm, but doesn't want to, Ichiro aims to become a pro baseball player to help bring money in for his parents but acknowledges he may have to run the farm, Tamako can't wait to take over her parent's farm and make it even more profitable and prominent, and so on. Hachiken is jealous of those who already have their dreams sorted out, but it's not anywhere near as clear cut for those whose futures are already laid out for them - he's envious at first, but when they express their dissatisfaction, how is he supposed to feel? It's a more complex topic, and when Hachiken has to digest it his views and opinions become more nuanced. Even though Silver Spoon hasn't ended, he's becoming more at peace with not having a dream at the moment, and that's good.

I don't know what's happening just off-camera and I don't think I want to

But my favourite aspect of his character development is how he faces and copes with animal death. It's a theme from very early on, as he gets first-hand experience in gathering chicken eggs, and witnesses a chicken slaughter. This is played for laughs, as he struggles to eat due to "eww gross", but hunger gets the better of him and he finds out its delicious. But the topic comes up again and again - he takes a liking to a piglet destined for slaughter, naming it even, and he does his best to come to terms with that fact (his name for it is Pork Bowl, so he doesn't forget that it will be food), but it's difficult and shown to be. Another great example is when he's working at Aki's farm over the summer. A deer is hit, and he has to skin it as 'punishment' for wasting a load of milk. He struggles. He struggles really hard to make for the first cut, but eventually he does (even praying to/for the deer in thanks for the food - something he picked up from a friend) and overcomes his queasiness and uneasesort of. Afterwards he still feels guilty and weirded out by it, which is good! It would be unrealistic for a single event like this to suddenly get him in the mental state he'd need to be in, because it's a complex issue - especially for someone who wasn't raised in an environment where that was the norm. Hachiken's development in this area is handled really intelligently and maturely, and really displays the subtle feelings he has about slaughtering and handling animals for food. The growth he displays is tremendous, but at the same time it's always difficult for him. It's just that over time he's able to take a more realistic and healthy attitude towards the life many animals lead.

Behold! Bacon in its natural state!

Silver Spoon is hilarious and thoughtful in equal measure, moving between light-hearted and serious tones with ease and without awkwardness. And it's surprisingly intelligent and nuanced about even its goofiest subject matter, all the time demonstrating some fantastic character development. The only real complaint I have is that it doesn't feel complete. Considering that a second series is scheduled for the winter 2014 season (2 seasons after this one aired), that's not exactly a surprise - this is very much the first half of the series, so stopping here is obviously going to be disappointing. While it has impacted my opinion on this first series as a standalone entity, it has also got me incredibly excited for the second half. I can't wait!

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