Gin ni Saji – 03

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This is the second series this season that’s made guilt a big part of the viewing experience.

It’s ironic that a series so grounded in unglamorous, smelly reality should stand out as exceptional as much as Gin no Saji does, but that says something about the standard templates that this medium uses to paint its pictures.  I continue to believe that if someone other than a famous mangaka with a track record of massive sales had written this series it would never have become a commercial success, because not enough readers would have given it the initial chance that hooked them into it – and that’s assuming anyone would have published it in the first place, which is hardly a given.  As far as being adapted into an anime – a far more limiting and risk-averse channel than manga – forget about it.

But that’s not how it is, because Arakawa Hiromu chose to roll the dice and write a story that completely broke with her past successes, and thank goodness she did.  I’m always pleased when a series I go into with huge expectations meets them, and this one has.  I haven’t read the manga so my expectations were based solely on reputation, and my response wasn’t that I was blown away immediately.  Rather, it was of being impressed that Arakawa had created a world that felt very real and easy to slide into as a viewer, with characters that immediately seemed recognizable (I’m sure her signature characters designs are psychologically important in that).  The emotional buy-in has been more of a slow build but it’s kicking in hard now, both for Hachiken and for the larger themes at play in the series itself.

As a lapsed vegetarian, I’m quite interested in the way Silver Spoon approaches the notion of agriculture and the sentimental side of raising livestock (which is of course a non-factor in industrial farming, which is the lion’s share of agriculture today).  This is the world Arakawa-sensei grew up in and she knows it well, and she seems to be charting a middle course of sorts.  I’ve seen praise lavished on Gin no Saji for “not sugarcoating” the hard realities of farm life and meat production, and while to be truthful she is sugarcoating – there are disturbing things we’re not seeing, and Ooezo is far from the most vile type of commercial farm – philosophically I agree that she’s being pretty realistic.  We’re seeing the cute animals that make up our buta-don and smoked chicken and hamburgers, and the realities of the way they’re raised (though again, being spared an unduly harsh vision of it).  As an outsider to all this, Hachi-kun is playing the classic audience proxy – like the vast majority of the readers and viewers of Silver Spoon he knows next to nothing about farming, and develops emotional attachments to the animals he’ll later be enjoying for breakfast and lunch.

Watching this show can be pretty uncomfortable for me, to be honest, because I tried to be a vegetarian and while I lasted for a couple of years in the end I just couldn’t hack it.  I know pigs are extremely smart, but I still love to eat them – and that fact doesn’t make me especially happy.  Piglets make a perfect vehicle to explore this dilemma because in addition to the fact that pigs are far more recognizably like “pets” than cows or chickens, piglets are so damn cute.  We’ve seen this runt of the litter story many times, but it always cuts to the heart.  I certainly can’t blame Hachiken for feeling sorry for that little pig relegated to the eighth teat (and the “hachi” part just makes it even more of a slam-dunk) but his fellow students are right – if he names that animal he’s simply indulging his own sentimentality.  Tamako is right to tell him to call it “Porkbowl” because that name will remind him every day of what will happen when the little one is three months old.  Whatever you feel about eating meat, I think people should fully understand the process of how it gets into their bellies.  It’s a decision everyone needs to make for themselves and like most decisions, it’s one that should be made in full possession of the facts involved.

Another element of rural life that’s portrayed with an admirable lack of sugarcoating this week is the “Ban’ei” racing.  This is unique to Tokachi and has been on the decline on recent decades, and frankly it’s easy to see why.  Superficially it bears little resemblance to the glamorous world of thoroughbred racing – these are stocky, brutish draft horses pulling sleds loaded with cinderblocks at a walking pace.  But they do share a commonality, in that the mortality rate for the participants is appalling in both sports.  With thoroughbreds it’s because these animals are designed for the express purpose of winning at the racetrack, which makes them fragile and easily injured (which with horses, usually means death).  For the horses of ban’ei it’s a testament to the brutality of what they’re forced to do (seriously, I was expecting Mikage’s horse’s leg to snap – and it happens all the time).  It’s an ugly spectacle, with roots in the hard, cold life of Hokkaido farmers.  As Mikage’s uncle tells Hachiken, most of the unsuccessful horses end up as horse meat.  In a sense this sport offers animals who’d otherwise be killed a chance to live on – but does that end justify the means here?

It’s hard to say just exactly what Arakawa’s view on all this is – for now it seems to be that middle course I referred to.  She’s saying she understands the way some of the things we’re seeing impact us emotionally, but also asking for understanding of the people who make their livelihoods off of them.  Whether that’s enough will depend on the viewer, but so far it’s undeniably working from a narrative standpoint.  Probably the most interesting single element of the episode was the meeting with the veterinarian at the racetrack who, cat on shoulder, takes the kids through the uses of his various weaponry (Hachiken is appropriately shocked).  His notion of what it takes to become a vet?  “You have to be able to kill.” he says matter of factly.  You’re often asked to be the arbiter of life and death, especially where livestock are concerned.  But he also says that by shouldering that burden you can do real good – saving the lives of animals that might otherwise be lost.  He too seems to have charted his own middle ground, and found a path that he can accept and one that makes him feel fulfilled.  It’s a path that everyone would feel likewise about, that’s for certain.

As for Hachi-kun himself, we continue to be given dribs and drabs of exposition about his past.  It’s clear he “lost” at something he considered important (could it be as trivial as the top rank in his class?), and that’s one reason he wanted to go far away from home for high school.  He seems to have tried to emotionally cut all ties with his family.  His argument with the baseballer Komaba Ichiro (Sakura Tooru) is quite illuminating, as well as being quite realistically portrayed.  He speaks of how important it is to win, then in-turn decries how unfair it is that livestock (like the draft horses and the unlucky smoked chicken) aren’t rewarded for trying their best.  He speaks enviously of Ichiro’s secure life, where he never had to study to get into high school and has a job at the family farm waiting for him – not realizing that Ichiro’s father has died and his mother is managing the place on her own while Ichiro matriculates.  Ultimately the two boys come to realize – given some additional perspective from the vet and the somber funeral for one of the ban’ei horses they happen upon – that each simply lacks understanding of the other’s life and problems, for now, and they reach a sort of peace (though Ichiro’s apparent closeness to Mikage is surely going to test it).

That vet says something which I think can be applied to both the series’ larger themes and to Hachiken’s personal ones.  “In all things, I think having a dream requires having the resolve to struggle with reality.”  Gin no Saji seems very concerned with the inevitable conflict between the ideal and the real – the compromises we must make in order to adapt to the harsh world we live in.  As with most about this series, that notion is deceptively deeper and more powerful than it initially seems.  It’s a very mature, subtle premise to build a series around and one that’s rarely explored in anime form, and that’s one reason I think this series has a chance to be really special – and why it’s struck such a nerve with the manga readership.  Anyone who read Fullmetal Alchemist or watched Brotherhood surely knows that Arakawa is a writer who’s extremely adept at exploring the difficult questions of existence, but without the trappings of fantasy that FMA explored those themes are largely laid bare here, carrying the entire series on their shoulders.  Not many authors would have tried it, or been given the opportunity to even if they had the will – and I’m very glad Arakawa chose to pursue this course.

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  1. i

    I love bacon, sorry piglets.

    There seems to be a parallel theme running between the lives that these animals live (results are everything) and as one of the horse mourners pointed out: the live on life/death depending on human whim and that of Hachiken's result orientated thinking and broken past. Arakawa-sensei was always able to create and intwine themes beyond the typical shounen series and always create a debate but unlike the butcher her views on it was to simply accept the reality but hold to the ideal for hope, which the vet vocalizes.

    In SSY there was an uncomfortable parallel to the japanese warring period and the fighting between the baka nezumi, that we can see animals, living very much like humans, as pitiable and yet unable to make the connection that they are equivalent to lives like our own in ways we are too blinded to see.

    There was a similar theme of course in FMA on the island training episode and it seems to be one Arakawa-sensei knows quite a lot about. I I really do hope for more beyond the second season. The reason of Gin no Saiji provides a good balance with the unreasonableness of AoT. Some feel good doping before going out for a hardcore sprint cycling.

  2. R

    It seems that the comedy gets toned down a bit, while the drama gets dialed up this week. I really like that — the comedy in the previous episodes got us to like the characters, and now the drama gives us a chance to learn more about them.

    It's a little torturing to watch the Ban'ei" racing, but then, like you, I really like the different themes that were brought up this episode. The one that you mentioned, and the one about winning, efforts and results — I keep thinking about and reflecting on them.

  3. S

    I;m glad that this series is starting to turn up the drama a bit. Not by much, but just right to make it more intriguing than jokes. I've really come to understand Hachiken and the other characters have really grown on me.

    More than anyone, this seasons female character for me goes to Mikage. I was so sure that Kimi no Iru Machi would have my favorite character but after her grin, I can't help but say Mikage is the most enjoyable character so far.

    How can you not laugh at that grin!?

  4. r

    I'm so happy they animated this one. I never heard the manga but I was definitely a huge fan of the two installments of FMA, the work of the same author who wrote Silver Spoon. I know it's too early to say, but this is already my favorite show in this season. I'm glad there's another great show that can fill the empty place that Chihayafuru left me. This is one of the shows that I'll definitely look forward to.

    Oh! And I'll have a meaningful read again on reading your insightful reviews after each episodes. Although I'm already having that experience reading your Hunter X Hunter reviews,I'm also a huge fan of this series, the old version and the new one. I just silently lurks most of the time! lol :)

  5. T

    This post is probably one of the most useful posts that you have written in terms of me as a reader. I am loving this show but was not quite able to put the words to as why and this post summed it all up pretty well for me. It is greatly appreciated.

    I agree with your point on the middle ground and I think that she plays it very well. This industry has both pretty large negatives and positives on its ledger and I think the mangaka did a very good job of bringing you back to the middle as a viewer every time your mind swings back and forth. The way it is done with geniality and without being forced I think is one of the greatest strengths of the show. As a viewer I swing back and forth from appalled to understanding of the difficult situation these people are faced with.

  6. Thanks to both of you (I do notice you de-lurk sometimes, Ravenne!).

    Arakawa is playing a bit of a dangerous game here trying to walk a tightrope, but judging by the manga sales she seems to be pulling it off to the satisfaction of the readers. Only a really confident writer would even try, I think.

  7. Y

    I don't know If you can call this "middle ground" since the whole premise ignores the real issue: factory farming. I'm pretty sure any normal person who "loves bacon" wouldn't be able to eat any for a looooong time after spending an afternoon in one of those hell holes.

    The moral dilemma of killing animals after raising them in a somewhat healthy environment with care and respect is interesting for sure. But that's not where 99.9% of your bacon comes from. Factory farming is. And it is hell on earth, on a global scale. Millions of living beings living their entire lives in fear and agony until they get slaughtered.

    When I read things like "I love bacon, sorry piglets" it reminds me how most people just don't know… Don't want to know. And watching this anime probably won't change any of that, so I wouldn't say it's playing a dangerous game at all. If anything, it'll make people believe that's how factory farming looks like.

    Yeah, you probably guessed by now… I'm vegan. So I'm still curious to see where this show goes.

  8. Z

    I agree with you that this series isn't really playing the dangerous game. Also as it is a cartoon there is that disconnect from reality that you wouldn't get from a documentary.

    Gin no Saji isn't likely to change my opinions either way.

  9. K

    Well it is perfectly possible that Arakawa herself doesn't support that type of farming. We know Arakawa grew up on a farm, we obviously don't know what the conditions were like on her family farm, but we have no reason to believe it was like the conditions you described.

    Anyways this series isn't meant to show the worst of farming. Just because Arakawa doesn't show it doesn't mean she is denying its existence. It's just not what this series is focused on.

  10. Z

    It says that she was raised on a dairy farm, so she must have picked up the other stuff from all the neighboring farms.

    This series is more focused on the relatively positive (organic) side of farming and so the possibility go into the fairly negative stuff isn't really there. Therefore she isn't running a tightrope as the OP stated.

  11. S

    I wouldn't push aside the possibility that the implications of factory farming won't be explored in some future episode. We've already had glimpses in debates about natural vs. tech-enhanced breeding (e.g. about genetical engineering in the first episode). My feeling here is that Arakawa is trying to strike the middle ground in that sense too: she probably feels that the relationship between humans and farm animals has been a nearly symbiotic one for thousands of years, and doesn't see eating meat as wrong in itself, but also thinks that respect and awareness are the minimum that we owe to the animals whose lives we use to support our own. As someone above noted, this whole theme was already contained in FMA's "training on the island" episode: Ed and Al come close to death because their sheltered nature prevents them from killing cute animals (but they find cute both the rabbit and the fox that kills it). When they come at peace with being part of nature, the universe, and thus the alimentary cycle, including the worms, bacteria and parasites which will decompose their bodies once they're dead, they come to terms with the idea of killing animals as well – yet they do it with a prayer and apologizing, acknowledging the importance (almost the sacredness) of the moment. With this kind of view, I can't see Arakawa to be too keen to factory farming. Personally, while not being a vegetarian, I try to keep my meat consumption low and think it would be great if we just reduced our global consumption and productivity – trying to reduce the need for factory farming as well, which would be good for us, the animals, and the environment. I also would like once in my life to experience the same things Hachigen's experience in first person, to test myself and my beliefs against actual emotional impact. The one single strongest reason I'm not a vegetarian is that I value adaptability over everything – I don't like the idea of having trouble finding food. Wherever I am, I'd like to be able to eat something. If it's a place where only or mostly meat is available, meat it is.

  12. T

    Gin no Saji is bizarre. It doesn't draw on shounen tropes, it doesn't throw in suspense elements, and we're just watching someone go about his daily grind- shoveling manure, tilling the soil, and petting soon-to-be-bacon.

    But it draws you in. It's puzzling. I have never been interested in farm work, the most I do is water plants and care for one dog. Also, I used to walk past a slaughterhouse near my old home, and the sounds and smells were all sorts of horrifying- but I eat meat. I laughed at the chicken beheading scene, but then felt bad for laughing.

    Maybe it's the comedy running through it. It's not forced, as you said, it's sincere and smartly written. I can't deny it's refreshing to watch something so pleasant, after watching various ways people get eaten (you know what I'm talking about).

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