Just for fun, I imagined what the audience reaction would have been like if there’d been an “Al and Ed make pizza” episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, say, right in the middle of the Ishbal storyline. About the closest think I can imagine would be the way the soccer episode of the original Eureka Seven (which I was
the one person one of two people who liked, apparently) was received. It’s not that there weren’t a few such moments here and there in FMA, but if any series was ever packed full of story – past, present and future – that was the one. To call it and Gin no Saji apples and oranges would be the understatement of the year.
I suppose it’s a testament to Arakawa-sensei’s talent that she can do two series of such vastly divergent thematic structure and have them both be massive hits (in the world of manga, anyway). If any recent anime seems to be a pure slice of life, Silver Spoon might just be the one. In a sense this series with it’s agricultural focus – and thus a keen awareness of the passing of the seasons and the cycles of nature – makes a perfect canvas on which to paint a slice of life story. That label is applied to so many series erroneously but it really seems to fit here, and it’s all the more remarkable that it’s been so popular given it’s relative lack of moe (apart from piglet moe, complete with head-bob – certainly a new twist on the “moepig” meme. As Sempai says, “Piglets are cute.”), which is the commercial fuel for a lot of successful slice of life. That’s even more true in anime than manga, so I suppose the real acid test will be whether this series commercially bombs in TV form, or manages to sell a few Blu-rays and give NoitaminA decent ratings by its own standard.
There is a story being told here, and it’s Hachiken’s tale of personal growth and self-discovery. It’s happening at a leisurely pace, but every week a little bit of the picture gets filled in. From the start there’s been the suggestion that Hachi-kun is a highly competitive person, concerned if not obsessed with such things as class rank, and that some sort of failure in that department might have pushed him to seek to flee his home when his high school years started. So when the exam results are revealed, that should be a big moment for him – especially when his overall scores put him at the top of his class by a wide margin. But he seems strangely unsatisfied with this – there’s the fact that he was beaten on specific sections by students who specialized in them, to be sure, but it seems to run deeper than that.
Fortunately for Hachiken distraction is provided quickly (one of the benefits of an agricultural school seems to be that they run you so ragged, there’s no time to think about anything for long). During a massive school cleanup operation Hachiken finds a disused brick oven underneath a pile of garbage that includes a life-size Colonel Sanders (these are in front of pretty much every KFC in Japan, and don full Santa suits in December, as the Japanese were convinced by a brilliant marketing campaign that Americans consider KFC a Christmas tradition). The best part about what follows, for me, is how accurately it captures the way kids grab hold of an idea that seems cool and just run with it. An abstract musing about making a pizza leads to the revelation that most rural Hokkaido kids have never eaten a real one (outside the delivery area? Hell, they’re outside the cell phone area) and things snowball from there until the enterprise takes on the air of obsession and soon the entire school is drafted to help, each in their own way.
I love pizza – it may indeed be my favorite food in the world when done really well – and there’s no doubt that a wood-fired brick oven is the best way to make a thin (Italian-style) pizza. I’m not so keen on the idea of Gouda on pizza but cheese isn’t the staple of the Japanese diet as it is in the West, so you take what you can get – the school has a tiny cheese-making room, and fortunately Nakajima-sensei (fast emerging as one of the funniest in the cast) has a secret underground ageing room for his wheels of Gouda. Everything else you need is easy, because Ooezo is effectively self-sufficient – flour, veggies, firewood, and yes – bacon (again not my first choice for a pizza, but after having tried what the locals call “pepperoni” I’d take it as a substitute) are all a snap. Everyone pitches in, the oven gets cleaned and repaired, Hachi-kun and Mikage have some nice bonding, and even the teachers gets into the spirit. A really good pizza baked with wood in brick, with fresh-picked tomatoes for the sauce and veggies just swept clean of the dirt they were grown in? I almost felt like I could taste it myself and laughed right along with the students. Tasting real pizza for the first time is an experience I can never have again – it’d be like seeing Seirei no Moribito or drinking Trappist ale for the first time – so while I felt a little envious, seeing the infectious glee of the kids was a wonderful moment.
Witnesses all this – and providing a bookend for the episode – is Shiroichi-sensei, Hachiken’s perhaps unrealistically caring and devoted advisor from middle school come to check up on him (the real reason for his call last week). His words to the Principal provide yet another clue to the riddle of Hachiken’s character: “In middle school Hachiken seemed to be held hostage to the notion that he had to make something of himself. So much so that he had no idea what kind if person he wanted to be.” In its way I think this series is all about providing context – putting the production of food in context for an audience blissfully unaware of how such things happen, and taking Hachiken out of his comfort zone and forcing him to think about his place in the world. There’s little conventional drama here, but one of the dramatic climaxes of this season – perhaps the biggest – will surely come when Hachiken must face the reality of Porkbowl’s fate, and the context in which piglets are raised. The topic was gently broached this week, a soft-spoken but insistent reminder that Hachiken’s personal journey is going to have some very painful moments.