It may be the most overused term in fandom. But if I were writing the entry for “Slice-of-Life” in the anime/manga dictionary, it would be short and sweet: “See: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou”.
Every once in a while I stumble on an older that caused me to ask myself one of my favorite questions – “How in the world did I miss this?” Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is a manga by Ashinano Hitoshi, which ran from 1994-2006 in Afternoon, the monthly seinen magazine. It’s admired to the point of reverence in Japan, having won the prestigious Seiun Aware for best Sci-fi manga in 2007, and while never licensed in English, has picked up quite a few hard-core fans outside Japan. But it flew completely under my radar until recently and when a series has the kind of impact on me that this one has, I like to share my admiration for it.
There is an OVA of YKK – two in fact, of two episodes each – but while they manage to capture a bit of the magic, without question the manga is the way YKK must be experienced. I won’t try too hard to explain it, because YKK eludes capture in words the way only great slice-of-life can. In brief, it’s set in a future where, for reasons Ashinano-sensei never describes in detail, mankind’s population has declined radically and most industrial and technological production has ceased. There are hints an environmental cataclysm was at fault – certainly, sea level has risen drastically – and those that are left live a much simpler and humbler existence than today’s Japanese, passing through the remnants of man’s great achievements like ghosts.
That makes YKK sound depressing, but it isn’t. It’s a story filled with wonder, as Ashinano’s stunning art turns the bones of civilization into something beautiful. YKK has a wistful tone, but ultimately it’s about the unchanging nature of human kindness – ironic as the main character is a robot, Alpha. She runs a coffee shop on the sparsely populated Miura Peninsula, which her unseen owner left to her to run while he set off on an unspecified journey. Alpha’s android origin is a part of the story her human friends don’t ignore, but her true nature is extremely human – she’s clearly an emotional being and forms close bonds with the tiny community that surrounds her, especially young Takahiro, the grandson of the ever-smiling ojii-san that runs the only gas station on the peninsula.
That really doesn’t come close to doing YKK justice, because the only way to understand it is to read it. It will be immediately clear to someone who’s watched a lot of anime in the last five years that YKK is extremely influential – it effortlessly achieves the archetypes of slice-of-life that lesser series try hard to emulate (usually with little success). This is “pure” slice-of-life in every sense – the story ambles along with little regard for conventional plotting or narrative structure, acting as a sort of window through which we eavesdrop in the lives of Alpha and the humans she interacts with. It also manages to be quintessentially Japanese while still being universal, something only the best anime and manga are able to achieve.
I suppose everyone will have their own conclusions about “meaning” and “message” when it comes to YKK, but for me it’s just about the experience of immersing yourself in the peaceful, sad and beautiful world for a little while. Ashinano is a great artist, capable of creating gorgeous images that will imprint on your consciousness forever, and as a writer he creates something that feels totally natural and unforced, as if he himself was just finding out what was happening as he was committing it to paper. It’s a remarkable series, and it would certainly be interesting to see someone attempt to make a full-length adaptation that does the manga justice. I doubt that’ll happen after this much time has passed, but at least we have the manga – Ashninano-sensei’s vision in its pure form, waiting for us to experience it. This is a series I recommend unreservedly.