Sunday, February 10, 2013

Slice of Life, Arakawa and Silver Spoon

What does a story about alchemy and understanding of balance have to do with an agriculture student living in Hokkaido?

The answer: Arakawa Hiromu.

In my opinion, which is admittedly not a very heavy of lofty opinion, there is nothing better than having a mangaka that is able to create a real body of work. Not just having a manga that was so popular that is has crystalized a mangaka for all time, think Kubo Tite, Kishimoto, Higuchi Asa, Hatori Bisco, and Watsuki Nobuhiro when I talk about a crystalizing of an artist. Their careers have been defined by one long running epic storyline. While on one hand, this is amazing. They have entrenched themselves in the minds of readers and their respective magazines, but I have yet to see any of them write another manga.

As the great manga and anime Bakuman taught all fans, the manga world is an unforgiving place. If you can't get the editors behind a project and then reach the fans than you are cancelled and your place taken by another artist. You can have a hit and then be immortalized in the manga cannon for all time, as all of the mangaka I mentioned above are.

Yet, I can't help thinking that fact is kinda disappointing and a little sad. To only have 1 hit and 1 manga to define your career must be frustrating. When I read a book, for example, like it and connect with the world and characters that an author creates I go out and automatically try the rest of the books the author wrote. I do the same thing with manga. I've done a whole series of Adachi Mitsuru's manga and I've looked at both Tamura Yumi's epic post-apocalyptic series for that same reason. I love reading and comparing a writers/mangakas body of different series and seeing the progression of an artist because, lets be honest, that is the best part of art. Dissecting and discussing the changes and the continued fluidity of any art is some of the best arguments we can ever have.

All of us manga readers already know that Arakawa Hiromu was going to go down in manga history as the creator of one of the best shōnen manga of all time, Fullmetal Alchemist. The only anime that I am aware of that got reanimated within years of each other. No matter which anime season you watched, for the record I read the manga and then watched Brotherhood and couldn't have been more satisfied with every aspect of that anime, you knew that Ed and Al were going to become the next big thing in the manga/anime world of cosplaying. And I'm sure that everybody now knows about her next amazing manga called Silver Spoon, or Gin no Saji, that has been serialized in Shogakugan's Shōnen Sunday. 

Let us think about the slice of life manga. What makes a good slice of life? What kind of setting does a slice of life need to showcase the characters, but still be a central part of the story? What kind of normal need to be looked at to make a these kinds of plot lines successful? How fantastical can a "normal" life be before you get into fantasy?

I've pondered these questions more than once. That would be obvious since I am a self proclaimed slice of life fan. Got a group of friends trying to make it as a band? People trying to manage their lives in sexy Tokyo? Kids dreaming of going to Koshien? I'm sold. As much as I love being sucked into a new world where I have to learn about how things work and the different layers of a new culture, I love what one podcast I have heard called "visiting people" when I read. Their relationships, problems, triumphs, and personalities are things I love to watch and make predictions about. 

Silver Spoon is the best slice of life manga I have ever read. Period. I have said on a pervious post that Bakuman is one of the best slice of life manga out there. Yet after I started reading Silver Spoon, I got to thinking and I asked this question on tumblr. Which is the better slice of life; Bakuman or Silver Spoon? I got 4 answers and all of them said, Bakuman was better.  Honestly, I was pretty surprised by this because I think Silver Spoon is the better slice of life. And I'll explain why.

Frankly, Bakuman is a manga about manga. It takes place in Tokyo and the protagonists are mangaka at the all powerful Shōnen Jump magazine. We as manga fans are always going to be looking to understand more about our very large hobby. Saiko and Shuujin are constantly discussing mangaka and titles that manga fans know and love, creating a intertextual wonderland that gives fans huge amounts of cultural capital when they understand and know those examples. All the scenes with the editorial staff are a goldmine because the walls are lined with posters from Jump's most famous manga and Eiji goes walking around throwing manga titles into his speech left and right.  I'll admit that I was all about those pieces of capital while I was reading the series. Nothing is more empowering than getting all the references and deeper examples of assumed knowledge in that series.

We could all imagine the world that mangaka live in because all we have to do is look at journalists in the West. They are on deadline every week to get their pieces out to the public and they are competing with other reporters to get whatever stories their editors throw at them. Throw in some women and we could have a reshowing of The Devil Wears Prada. That was the image that I continually connected to while reading Bakuman

Now don't get me wrong, I liked Bakuman and in a few years I'll probably reread it and enjoy it for the sheer nostalgia and I'll still smile at the intertextual references and I'll be proud of myself. Indeed, there are more manga themed manga coming out all the time now that Bakuman showed the industry that it could make money and was a legitimate storyline that readers will emotionally invest in. All that intertextual knowledge isn't going to make any manga about manga the best slice of life manga.

When I think of what makes a good slice of life, I automatically think about a life that isn't normal. Save the normal slice of life for romance and sports manga and bring in the agricultural school in Hokkaido. Arakawa's Silver Spoon is actually taken from Arakawa's own life living on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, which is the bread bowl of Japan and it's northern most island. Hachiken Yuugo, the main hero, is a young man who has been burned out in Japan horribly strict and regid educational system and has no dreams for his future. He purposely goes to a school that is away from his home in Sapporo and the father that he can't connect with.

What follows is the telling of the Japan that foreigners and Japanese themselves don't usually hear about; rural farm life in Hokkaido. Have you read that manga before? Can you even imagine that life? It's different, difficult and culturally enriching. Think of being so far out in the sticks that the pizza delivery doesn't go that far. Cell phone reception? That's a pipe dream for these kids. Hachiken is a representation of how Japanese youth are burning out in the repressing educational system. I know Hachiken. I taught Hachiken when I was a teacher. He can't connect to his parents, doesn't understand his own thoughts, and has no dreams of his own because he's never had a chance to actually dream them.

The reader is totally immersed into this world, this very real word, of rural farmers. This is where the setting allows the characters to shine through, but is never forgotten. These kids have economical dreams to either expand their family farms, create their own dairy products, learn more farming techniques and animal husbandry. All their actions and thoughts are connected to this life where no one bats an eye on killing a chicken or a piglet. Families are under financial and political stress. All these factors affect how the characters think and how they see the world, with Hachiken playing the perfect foil to them because he doesn't. Hachiken could easily become a placeholder for the reader into this new world because he and the reader are learning and changing their views on life together, but he never does. His character and his thoughts are what connects the reader to this community. 

There is comedy, there is romance, there is friendship, and success, but Arakawa doesn't shy away from the reality of these peoples lives. These problems are real and you could go to any rural area in Japan, or anywhere really, and known that real people have these same problems. This is no fairytale like Bakuman, it is a true learning process for not only the characters, but the reader as well. Instead of a small section of life like what we see in sports manga, Silver Spoon puts the reader within a whole community. A community that is completely separate from the glitzy and soapy lives of business men and college kids in Tokyo that we have read about for years and years in the manga world.

Looking at Silver Spoon, we can't help but appreciate how Arakawa was able to completely switch story tracks from a fantasy, steam-punk, setting with a plot that dealt with understanding balance, the universe, and the connections with the Third Reich of WWII to a modern young boy without a dream in life making his way through the dairy program at an ag. school out in the boonies. That takes true storytelling talent, as well as some smarts. It could be argued that she took a flyer on Obata and Oba's drastic change from psychological and ethics challenging Death Note to nonmainstream/mainstream battle manga Bakuman. A smart business plan, in my opinion, for all mangaka. 

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