Mine has been a life of much shame. Shrinking from the sun, I’ve spent countless hours holed up in my room, shunning interpersonal contact, hidden from God’s light. I can’t even begin to guess what it must be to live the life of a human being, and perhaps for good reason.
I speak of course, about the fact that I managed to complete watching all five seasons of Hidamari Sketch, as well as the myriad specials and OVAs, within the time span of a week. This unhumanity that I feel, it’s not so much the weight of abandoning my morals to watch cute girls socialising for 60 episodes (I counted). No, its deeper than that; a sort of intense religious experience that shakes up the foundational core of who you consider yourself to be as a human being. In other words, I’ve been formally baptised into the church of Slice of Life (SoL) by Reverend Akiyuki Shinbo himself through the glory and grace of Hidamari Sketch. Where God once smiled, now stands a shrine to Studio Shaft. So it goes.
Maybe I’m framing my thoughts in over-dramatic terms. But it is true for the longest time I was a Slice of Life “Atheist” of sorts. Watching shows that are solely about people doing… absolutely nothing? I was determined never to let myself sink that low. Perhaps this would be the hill that I would die on. Perhaps you could have called me He-Who-Wrestles-With-Comfiness.
The opening scrimmages were indecisive, with me watching a couple of episodes of Lucky Star, Non-Non Biyori, and Yuru Camp, and deciding never again to venture near the borderlands of Slice-of-Life. I would stay over on the safely marked part of anime and that would be that. I settled into a state not entirely unlike some psychological Berlin Wall.
But of course, the Berlin Wall never lasted.
The first show that I might call SOL that I enjoyed was Shirobako. I was initially interested in the neat concept of an anime that was about the process of making anime. But eventually, I stayed for the wide cast of interesting characters. The workplace setting meant no annoying highschool anime shenanigans, and that the main characters had real drama (read: workplace deadlines and shitty coworkers) to deal with. Finally, it meant that the efforts of each character felt that much grounded in reality and a concrete goal.
In many ways, Shirobako was as much of a light workplace drama as it was a Slice of Life. But it did help me take that next step (Up? Down? Towards Heaven or Hell?). And that step was another P.A. Works show, Hanasaku Iroha. P.A. Works had shown me they were extremely competent at the workplace setting, and the prospect of watching what was regarded as the opus magnum of Mari Okada, a director I had previously had only negative experiences with – Black Rock Shooter, Kiznaiver, Iron-Blooded Orphans – was too interesting to ignore.
Hanasaku Iroha follows Ohana Matsumae, a 16-year-old girl unceremoniously dumped by her mother at her grandmother’s ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn, where’s she’s also informed she’ll be working as a waitress to pay for her own room and board. Thankfully, she’s got short-tempered trainee chef Minko Tsurugi and reserved fellow waitress Nako Oshimizu to help her along the way (along with two killer openings from Nano.RIPE to set the tone before each episode.)
Having devoured this show, the timeline returns to Hidamari Sketch. The last time I had watched anything from Studio Shaft was Hanamonogatari and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. So in a way, I also have to thank Hidamari Sketch for being the first Slice of Life I not only put into my favorites of all time but for propelling Shaft back into being my most-watched studio, thanks to a rewatch of Madoka (capped off with watching Rebellion for the first time) and starting a rewatch of Monogatari.
(Madoka is also great, but that’s an essay for another time, I suppose.)
I mention Madoka in particular here because it was not only also directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, but also CD’d (Character Designed) by Ume Aoki, who here is responsible for the source material, a 4-Koma manga also titled Hidamari Sketch. You might know Shinbo as being credited on almost every Shaft production in existence since he’s joined the studio (some joke that the only thing he does is stamp his name at the end).
Hidamari was produced concurrently with many other Shaft shows known for insane visual inventiveness around the turn of the decade – Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, the Monogatari series, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Certainly, some of the episodes show that extraordinary surreal flair: like episode 5 of the first season. But what really impressed me were the subtle textures used in the final two seasons, Hoshimittsu and Honeycomb. In a way, they reminded me almost of the scrapbooking effects used in Madoka Magica, although to the opposite effect (To create a beautiful world rather than one of sheer nightmares)
Not only are the characters themselves animated with grace and detail, but their outfits themselves also use just about every fabric pattern you can think of to pop as much as possible. It’s almost as if all the characters live in some sort of idyllic dressing game setting. All of this is accompanied by the judicious use of those same textures for the backgrounds, and deft use of post-processing to create some truly delicious composites.
You can tell Hidamari has been adapted from the 4-Koma with exceptional care through the amazing reaction shots of each of the characters that follow each gag. Each one feels like it’s own beautiful art piece, filled with just enough flourishes to be a joy to behold.
Not that the series doesn’t pack weight beyond simply being heartwarming. Shaft doesn’t go easy on making the more dramatic or emotional moments as memorable as possible, and the roster of characters is as colorful as the show itself. Yuno is the lovable, vertically-challenged MC, Miya the gluttonous comic, and their neighbours and seniors at the Hidamarisou apartments, the calm and collected Sae and mother-figure Hiro and you have the perfect four-woman cast. Of course, there’s also their laidback landlord Oya-san, and their quirky homeroom teacher, Yoshinoya sensei. Later additions to Hidamarisou are the terminally shy Nazuna and the straight-man of the cast, Nori.
Hidamari Sketch constantly invites you to join a day in the life of the residents of the apartments of Hidamarisou for aspiring young artists studying at Yamabuki Art High School, from waking to sleep, and in the end when the series finales with the graduation of seniors Sae and Hiro, you can feel the same nostalgic sadness as you also graduate from the last life lessons Hidamari Sketch has to give you.
(Well, you can always rewatch it though, I guess.)
I’ve now fallen into what one of my friends calls “Kirara-Hell”.
(Kirara is a line of manga magazines from Houbunsha aimed at the seinen demographic that feature stories that are mostly about the relaxing lives of young women – except maybe Gakkou Gurashi, I suppose.)
(Pictured: Kirara Hell. Or maybe it’s “Kirara-Heaven” when I think about it another way.)
The line between salvation and damnation is often unclear, I suppose.
In the end, after having lived the better part of two decades myself, having gone through the good times and the bad, friendship – and more importantly, loss – I guess I can truly appreciate works that are close to what life really is about: nothing in particular, really. Just kick back and relax a bit.
I’m a Slice of Life apostle now, and I’d welcome you to come with me.
Because, sometimes, religion isn’t about a church, or a big man in the sky. It’s about cute anime girls, and maybe a cathartic mug of tea.