Adapted from the top-selling manga by Arakawa Hiromu, famously known for earlier manga Full Metal Alchemist (FMA), the anime of Silver Spoon aka Gin no Saji (GnS), was genuine, down-to-earth and just so sincere that sometimes, it was hard to believe it’s an anime. Fans of FMA snapped up her new manga but besides the art style, it is a completely different creature of its own. There’s no fantasy world setting, no big studio action scenes, no bigger political plot and definitely no homunculus. GnS is based on Arakawa’s own experience growing up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido and thus set in the real world in an agricultural high school, with real world family issues, real high schooler problems related to growing up and just overall waist-deep in realistic situations we can identify with on a thematic level.
Aired during the noitamina time slot in Summer 2013 and produced by A-1 pictures, GnS first came across as yet another high school slice of life, romantic comedy, coming-of-age drama, except it’s set in an agricultural high school. The setting’s not unique but also not very often used. High school stories are usually about growing pains, facing reality by not running away from it, all the while with friends playing supporting roles in helping one another. GnS is not much different. Or is it?
Main character Hachiken Yuugo (Kimura Ryouhei doing a complete 180 from his other Summer 2013 character in Blood Lad) has run away from Sapporo after middle school, leaving his city boy self behind as he enrols in Oezo Agricultural High School located out in the countryside, all because he failed the entrance exam for his preferred high school. Rather than go for second best, he went to Oezo thinking a school of lower standing with an easier academic course would give him more time to prepare for university entrance exams. Plus it’ll be far away from home and in particular, his father. Boy was Hachiken wrong. There’s hardly even mobile phone reception in some of these farms!
Hachiken is the typical representation of a group of youths in each generation. He starts off with the spoilt thinking a brat born with a silver spoon would have, that just because it’s agricultural and of lower standing, things will be easier and more relaxed. Unlike most anime MCs, he’s studious and hardworking and not the anime version of a loud-mouthed spoilt brat. That’s what makes him so dangerously close to the real world because haven’t we all at some point thought that way about something so far removed from us? I know I did and that’s just from watching episode 1. I dare you to watch it – you’ll never look at eggs the same way ever again.
Hachiken’s a nice guy (Kimura Ryohei using his nice guy, earnest to goodness but not OTT voice here to wonderful effect). He’s obviously running away from his reality, one that he did not decide but also one he never thought to challenge and question, which is a mistake so many people make, resulting in mid-life crises and regrets on the deathbed. Ok maybe not that dramatic. But when you run away, you need to know what it is you’re actually running away from. Otherwise, how can you face it? Throughout GnS, we follow Hachiken as he figures his life out. He learns to think for himself, to observe the bigger world around him beyond his own and to actively strive towards small goals, each time working out what his true bigger goal is. And it’s a beautiful process (I think I’m mentioning this way too many times but that’s just how much I loved this show) we see through his interactions with the new classmates, living in a hostel and life in the countryside starting at 4am daily.
Hachiken’s smart and hardworking – when it comes to studying for exams and getting into good schools that is. He’s a hopeless case outside of that (rings any bells people? Think of your own classmates back in the day) and that provided much comedic relief early on in the series. Tokiwa Keiji (Shoji Masayuki) can’t do math but is adept at handling all things chickens. That’s all he needs because he’s taking over his family’s chicken farm. He has no aspirations of going to university because he doesn’t see the need for it, a concept Hachiken doesn’t understand because he thought it was the “natural” thing to do. He does better than everyone on most general subjects and feels smug about it, before the next scene cuts to show his classmates doing better than him at agricultural-related subjects, which is what matters for them.
Other classmates include Aikawa Shinnosuke (Shimazaki Nobunaga, a little understated in spite of his concurrent role as KyoAni hottie Haru in Free!), who wants to become a vet but is reluctant to slaughter animals in his bid to study the subject. He has a university-level knowledge in the subject but can’t overcome the irony the killing animals in order to study them. Yet he doesn’t want to give up, a concept Hachiken didn’t know to empathise with. Komaba Ichiro (Sakurai Tooru) wants to be a pro baseball player and is devoted to it by splitting his time equally between classes, agricultural duties at school and his baseball club. But he has to quickly take over his family’s business especially ever since his father died from overwork on the farm. Pro-baseball means big money, not for him but for improving his family’s farm. Hachiken learns that dreams have to be for the right reasons.
What high-school slice of life anime would it be without the love interest? Cue equestrian Mikage Aki (Miyake Marie), Hachiken’s love-at-first-sight classmate. She loves horses and as the only child, will one day have to inherit the cow and horse farm family business. I suspect that’s not what she truly wants as is hinted in the series so maybe we’ll have more on this in season 2, along with the possible love development with our boy Hachiken.
The rest of the supporting cast includes Hachiken’s brother Shingo (Konishi Katsuyuki exuding his America + Canada persona) who has spitefully quit from Todai (Tokyo University – the most prestigious one in all of Japan) because it was their Father’s dream and not his own; Inada Tamako (Takagaki Ayahi) who provides dark humour as she constantly exploits loopholes while obsessing for money, plotting to take over her family’s industrial farm; the various teachers and staff members, each with their own unique (i.e. crazy) personalities and last but not least, buta-don!
Having grown up in a city myself, GnS has been an eye opening anime episode after episode. The amount of labour that goes behind even a single egg, the economics of a litre of milk and the healthy birth of a calf, the fate that awaits piglets from the very moment they are born – they line-up for milk from momma pig and the last one to fight for a feeding spot inevitably WILL become the smallest pig when it grows up, meaning it’ll fetch the least price – a rather Kafkaesque reflection of our lives? Being light-hearted and all, GnS had many fun moments. 2 in particular stood out for me – making pizza from scratch because pizza delivery companies don’t deliver to the countryside none of Hachiken’s classmates have eaten pizza before and I mean from real scratch – they had to mill their own flour, and plotting (spy-style, playing on tropes) to leave school beyond curfew just to take a picture of a super agricultural machine Hachiken thought was a state secret. It did not have dark moments per se but we do see Hachiken’s character growth in moments like when he cut up the road-kill deer (giving new meaning to having blood on one’s hands) instead of turning a blind eye and of course, the final fate of buta-don.
GnS is just so, so real. Some people are ambitious, some have dreams and some just choose to go with the flow of what their parents/society decides is best to utilize (exploit) for the greater good of society (economy). And GnS is about dreams, about going with what parents have decided, about utilising their positions in the countryside of Hokkaido to contribute to Japan’s society. But the key difference this anime has conveyed is that whilst there are dreams, these are built on realistic expectations and very hard work. It’s not fluffy. It’s cuddly and warm but also cruel and realistic at the same time. This is not your typical anime/manga because while it comes across as light-hearted, once you delve deeper and think it through (as I did while writing this review), you realise that Arakawa’s created a literal, real-world version of FMA (minus the politics and brotherly camaraderie). It’s not fantasy of any form but down-to-earth, good and true honesty about growing up and carving your place in society, actively contributing to it because you want to not because you have to, knowing what you really want vs what you can do and willingly put effort and work towards it. In this agricultural high school setting, these themes cannot get any more literal as we’ve seen with buta-don (bless him).
There aren’t any beautiful art background or visual effects that come to mind, there isn’t even an OST. The pacing is comfortable, the characters believable and to each their own, they manage to do so much in terms of character development with so little time. Kudos to the seiyuus for conveying a sense of realism in spite of the anime medium. GnS is worthy of its noitamina time slot and a live-action movie adaptation is in the works for the ongoing manga. Who says we can’t learn anything truly meaningful from watching anime? Hopefully season 2 brings forth more truths – I’m rooting for you Hachiken!