Just to review, here are a few of the superlatives with Gin no Saji:
- Winner of the Manga Taishou Grand Prize
- Winner of the Shogakukan Manga Award
- 7th best-selling title in japan in 2012
- Fastest Shogakukan title in history to reach 1 million volumes sold
Needless to say, Silver Spoon is a prestige title. It combines commercial and critical success in a way few manga can, and seems a fitting series to welcome NoitaminA back to the schedule (halfway back, anyway). As if all that weren’t enough it also springs from the pencil of Arakawa Hiromu, who authored one of the most beloved titles in manga, Fullmetal Alchemist – a series which spawned not one but two highly-successful anime adaptations, the second of which was arguably the best shounen anime adaptation before Madhouse’s Hunter X Hunter came along.
It could be said that there was a lot of pressure on A-1 Pictures and director Itou Tomohiko, whose previous works as director are SAO and Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin. With a manga this beloved, there’s a perception (largely inaccurate) that all a director has to do is not screw it up. That’s certainly part of the challenge, but it’s far more difficult than most believe to find the essence of what makes a great manga great and capture it in anime. So far, the early returns are excellent. Based on the premiere, Itou-sensei didn’t screw it up, and created a world that was both inviting and amusing.
One of the things that makes Gin no Saji so well-received, I suspect, is that it packs a lot of obvious sincerity. Arakawa-sensei grew up on a farm in Hokkaido, and her knowledge of this world and affection for it are clear from the moment the story begins to unwind. Because Arakawa is who she is Silver Spoon is classified as a shounen, but if such things matter (I think they’re overrated, personally) it seems very much a seinen title to me. To say it represents a departure from FMA is an understatement, but in its way I think the world of Gin no Saji (the title is a reference to the “silver spoon” newborns in Europe – when it was an agriculturally-driven continent – were given at birth, to symbolize the hope that they never go hungry) is almost as strange to most modern Japanese as that of FMA. One of the cornerstones of GnS is the disconnect modern people have from the source of their sustenance – the dirt, the dung, the blood. For most of modern history agriculture has been an immediate reality of life for most people – in the last Century that’s changed radically, and nowhere more radically than in Japan, where the flight of the young to Tokyo has been an increasing reality in recent decades.
Personifying this disconnect is main character Hachiken Yuugo (Kimura Ryouhei). We don’t learn too much about him just yet, but we know he’s a city boy from Sapporo who’s enrolled at Ooezo Agricultural High School, somewhere in rural Hokkaido. From the start it’s clear this is a classic fish-out-of-water situation – Hachi-kun seems to have no knowledge of how to deal with animals, 5 AM wake-up calls, Phys-Ed classes taught by Major Armstrong look-alike Todoroki Gou (fantastic in-joke getting Utsumi Kenji to do the voice – and a fine tribute to Utsumi-san, who sadly passed away last month, making this his final role) with 20 KM runs and the reality of where eggs come from (it’s not a pretty picture). While he’s clearly more comfortable in conventional subjects such as math – an area where he seems to be far ahead of his classmates – it’s agricultural matters that are the main focus of life at Ooezo. Hachiken’s classmates all express a desire to achieve successful careers in agriculture, many carrying on their family’s farming business – it’s clear these are not ignorant bumpkins but modern farm kids with a mind towards succeeding in the 21st-Century. Just what Hachiken wants – and what he’s doing at Ooezo in the first place – isn’t made clear, but he seems to express a certain disdain at the idea of having goals.
Life at Ooezo is hard, right from the beginning, and students are immediately thrust into the thick of it. First-years are immediately split up into groups of five students for work on “practicals” – which seem to double as first-hand experience at agricultural method and free labor for the school’s for-profit farming activity. Hachiken’s teammates are a cross-section of kids from family farms, and one, Aikawa Shinnosuke (Shimazaki Nobunaga) who dreams of being a veterinarian. Hachiken most takes notice, however, of Mikage Aki (Miayki Maire), a horse-loving girl and the neighbor of one of his classmates, seemingly destined to be the primary love interest in the story.
It’s not so much that any wheels are re-invented in the premiere, but it’s a matter of that word again – sincerity. Hachiken’s struggles with runaway calves and glasses and hair-chewing horses, and his (and Aikawa’s) squeamishness at what happens to chickens are genuine and believable. Silver Spoon is quite funny and resolutely earthy, and it seems intent on showing both the idyllic and harsh nature of agricultural life. Deplorable conditions at poultry farms are mentioned in the premiere, and the OP suggests the struggle for Hachi-kun as he realizes that the bacon and steak he enjoys so much comes from cute little piggies and calves. This is a world that’s mostly unseen and unknown for most of us, and certainly one almost never visited in anime (even Moyashimon is a much more conventionally urban setting) – one of many reasons why GnS looks to be a fascinating change of pace both for Arakawa and for the medium itself. Fittingly for a series focused in the farm, a big part of the magic of Silver Spoon is that it feels so fresh, and despite the high expectations this is a premiere that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. All the signs point to this being one of the best shows of the season, if not the year.
ED: “Hello Especially” by Sukima Switch