A moment of stillness: the appeal of iyashikei

After being lured into anime fandom through hard-edged science fiction and edge-of-your-seat action-fests I’ve always wondered how exactly I started to gravitate towards the whimsical drama and slice-of-life drama; my DVD collection and watch lists have taken on a split personality of sorts with the gritty thrillers and cyberpunk on one hand and mellow realistic fiction on the other. A sub-genre of sorts (we anime fans seem to love our categorising, preferably using as many loan-words as possible) to the lighter and softer side is that of iyashikei, which has taken on greater importance for me as time goes on. The strange thing is that it’s all too often overlooked by fans, hence my raving about it here.

Its meaning can loosely be translated as ‘healing’; the implication being that the experience of viewing an iyashikei anime is to mend a broken heart or soothe an aching head. It’s a niche for sure but for those of us who appreciate such things it’s a comfortable niche indeed.

Since it is in many ways a subdivision of slice-of-life (aka realistic fiction) iyashikei carries the same stigma among some viewers as being ‘boring’ or ‘uneventful’, in which the setting and storyline is mundane and unfocused, often reliant on character interaction and dialogue. Although too much of anything is a bad thing there is I think just cause for sitting down to watch something in which not a great deal happens.

The limited popularity of iyashikei is reflected in its low profile in the fandom and relatively short list of shows that fit the definition. At the time of writing the most well-known example is Aria, the soft sci-fi piece that follows the adventures of a group of girls working as gondoliers on a retro-futuristic terraformed Mars. The Stateside release of the first season has only been recently announced with no news of European DVDs on the horizon; even then it’s in a subs-only box set format that appears to be geared to a minority fanbase.

The news surrounding Aria had me overjoyed, even though it may mean resorting to a Region 1 import. It’s a shining example of what makes iyashikei so special but also an example of how it is possibly the least well-known genre among mainstream anime fans: the first episode for instance consists of three girls and a cat going on a boat trip and eating baked potatoes…for twenty-five minutes. I can understand why you might find the idea of this to be a cure for insomnia but on the flipside, think for a moment about how this contrasts with…well, pretty much everything.

The height of excitement is a high tide; a beach episode comes with zero exploitative fan service; life is played out at a pace suited to a balmy summer’s day. Everything Aria and similar shows have to offer are the polar opposite of the violence, tension and manic energy of what makes up the remainder of TV schedules and high street store shelves. I find that, after a taxing day at work or a few episodes of something faster-paced, iyashikei is a refreshing change that helps me see everything in a more reflective and relaxed light.

Sometimes the whimsy offers gentle comedy in addition to moments of reflection. While the likes of Haibane Renmei and Mushishi have their serene and even comedic moments, iyashikei invariably projects a vague sense of melancholy alongside light comedy but is never dark and downbeat or zany and silly. Chi’s Sweet Home, a currently airing series of short sketches that portray the day-to-day life of a lost kitten adopted by a young family has moments of sadness (the kitten losing its mother and becoming lost) but moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity too, with instances of danger and despair being brief and rare.

The art style of Chi’s Sweet Home is simple and the episodes are less than five minutes in length but it makes keen (and hilarious) observations of feline behaviour, showing the world from a playful kitten’s perspective. Cue bathroom drama, the irresistable appeal of rustling paper bags and the reassuring knowledge that there will be a saucer of milk and a warm bed waiting for you at the end. Watching an episode of this is almost as therapeutic as watching a real-life cat…and when you consider how unruffled and downright lazy these creatures can be, it is easy to see how that can be therapeutic.

Unsurprisingly the subtle charms of iyashikei shows appeal to quite a limited but interesting cross-section of anime viewers and manga readers. While the harmless entertainment makes them suitable for children, it is perhaps the therapeutic ‘healing’ effects that has earned it following among adults too. As life becomes more and more hectic, escapism becomes less of a flight of fancy and more of a much-needed breather on solid ground; Japan has a reputation for being a busy place to live but in truth I think there’s cause for a bit of relaxation wherever you are.

The more mature target audience is an important factor in how iyashikei has a loyal but relatively small following, especially considering how relatively few viewers are outside the teenage demographic of many anime fans. Only Yesterday, perhaps the great underrated Ghibli movie, features quite a lot of trivial events of childhood but because it is told from the point of view of an adult at a later crossroads in her life there is much to enjoy for those of us who have left school and adolescence behind. It also demonstrates how there’s a lot of overlap between iyashikei and slice-of-life (I’m sure the degree to which this is true can be debated by fans over and over) but there’s that extra level of quiet contemplation and calm that makes the iyashikei anime a rare sight but one to be treasured. Good night people and pleasant dreams. ^_^