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.