Gin no Saji is a lot of things, but one of them, certainly, is a testament to one of the oldest, simplest and most important pieces of advice aspiring writers are given: “Write what you know”. Arakawa Hiromu may be one of the biggest icons of shounen manga, but here she’s delivered something that’s a very different animal. I’d argue that there are still strong shounen elements to Silver Spoon, but fundamentally this a melange of many things: a coming-of-age story, a slice-of-life, a memoir, a philosophical musing. Put them all together and you get one of the best series of 2013, and a show that’s quite unusual in the history of anime.
The “finale” of the first season of a split-cour series is always a bit of an oddball when it comes to blogging, and as is most often the case I don’t really consider this a series review post because in no sense is Gin no Saji ending with this episode. But while the story is left very much incomplete, when a studio chooses to adapt a manga in split-cour fashion there’s an implied expectation that the first final episode with have an air of finality to it – be it a cliffhanger, a milestone achieved, or a personal revelation. In this case I think it amounts to more of an epilogue – a recollection and reflection on what’s happened in the first season. There are certainly teases of what’s to come – we get our first glimpses of Hachiken’s parents, and a bombshell line of dialogue delivered quite casually in the postscript (I hope you kept watching those three minutes after the ED, because they were easily the most important part of the episode). But ultimately, it’s very much a gentle transition rather than an ending.
The upshot of all that is that in terms of plot, not all that much happened here. Hachiken finished smoking the remains of Butadon, and found himself quite the man in demand (a wayward croquette yet another indication that Mikage notices when other girls notice Hachiken). The most important part of this thread was the exchange between Hachi-kun and Shingo, where the elder brother encouraged the younger to send some of his bacon home to their parents, in addition to what he plans to send to Mikage and Komaba’s families. Not as a gesture of affection or an indication that they shouldn’t worry, but to “show them what he’s capable of”. This is an interesting dynamic – it’s pretty clear these two have far more in common than Yuugo would care to admit, but at the moment Yuugo’s not capable of separating Shingo from his parents in his mind – they’re all “the family” and thus part of the problem. We’ve only just skimmed the surface of what’s caused all this scar tissue in Hachiken – the nervous breakdown he so casually mentions at the close of the episode – and why he places so much of the blame on his family, but that will surely be a huge component of the second cour.
There’s also quite an interesting conversation between Hachiken and the Principal, as the former is performing his club duties. Hachiken reveals that he was picked on a lot in middle school, and the depth of his self-worth problem. The Principal has functioned mostly as a kind of wise observer figure rather than a true character, and this extends even to his direct interaction with Hachiken. His advice is that it’s OK to run away from your problems, because humans aren’t like farm animals in that they at least have the opportunity to do so. As usual Hachiken is more astute at assessing the troubles of others than himself; he understands that with the weight of family responsibility that they carry, many of his friends don’t have the option to run away either. While they may have a surety of purpose he feels is lacking in himself, he has a freedom that they will never have. The Principal’s assessment and advice are, as usual, preternaturally wise – that Hachiken has a special talent both for empathy and self-expression, rare in children his age, and he shouldn’t hesitate in letting those talents flower. And in a nutshell, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
The meat of the episode is really Hachiken living out the role this premise has cast him in: watching the others around him and reflecting both on their lives, and what they mean for his own. Komaba’s determination and passion for baseball is another life’s lesson – inspirational both for Hachiken and his classmates. Komaba is pursuing a dream that’s different from most of the Ezonoo students – and it’s one that’s almost assuredly unattainable (the odds against a high-schooler eventually becoming a pro ballplayer are truly enormous). While it hasn’t been pursued extensively in the first season, Komaba’s story is in many ways the outlier in Gin no Saji, and one that’s surely almost as relevant to the author as Hachiken’s – my suspicion is that it’s going to be a larger presence later in the series.
What closure is offered in the final episode is in the final few moments, but the irony is that in revisiting the main thread of the first cour the ultimate message is that nothing has really been resolved at all. I think these last moments are rather brilliant, actually – thoughtful, thought-provoking, elegantly simple and to the point. In the first place we have Hachiken resolving that he’s not going to name just his favorite of the new piglets, but name all of them. Why? In his own words (again, it’s hard to add much when a show speaks so eloquently for itself): “It’d be easier if I could just accept that this is how it has to be if we eat farm animals… But I just can’t do it. You can’t just accept it and get used to the fact, not once you’ve seen them.” As Fuji-sensei says, he may “grapple with this for a long time and never come up with a satisfactory answer” – but it boils down to what I said a couple of weeks ago, that it’s not a good thing for everyone who’s engaged in the practice of raising animals for meat to take the process for granted.
It seems very clear that Arakawa-sensei herself has grappled with this issue for a long time – and that she’s probably never herself found that satisfactory answer. Yohsino has become one of my favorite characters for her offbeat personality and thoughtful nature, and she frames it this way: “I can’t deny that the meat tastes good. Still – it’s an issue I’ll need to keep thinking about it I stay in this line of business. If I keep it in mind while deciding what I want to do…” She bemoans her own lack of eloquence in explaining herself – again, Hachiken has that gift far more than most – but her feelings are crystal clear. This is a truly fundamental question in terms of defining ourselves as people, and different people come up with different answers, as do different religions for that matter. But isn’t this kind of self-discovery what adolescence is really about – the act of deciding just what kind of person we’re going to be?
I see Hachiken’s act of naming “Bacon” along with all his siblings as a kind of declaration of his own individual identity. He’s come to Ezonoo, he’s had he’s eyes opened to a world he never knew existed, and he’s changed for it. But he’s also still himself – he has his own values and principles that he’s not going to surrender in order to adapt to this situation or any other. “It’s easy to find a horse that suits you… But it’s also fun to adapt your riding style to the horse.” Adolescence is the time where we grapple with the compromises we must make to become adults, and when we learn that not all of them are necessarily bad. How do we adapt and yet retain the essence of ourselves? This is Hachiken’s challenge just as it is for every young person stepping out of the shadow of their parents and trying to find their place in the world. There could hardly be a more elemental theme in anime than that, and it’s the true essence of what makes a coming-of-age story so timeless and universal.
There’s just not much flash to Silver Spoon. But there’s also no pretense – this is a series that knows exactly what it is, and never tries to be anything else. It says something for Arakawa-sensei that at the highest levels of shounen commercial influence, she would choose to go inward and leave the trappings of the genre behind. We see personal stories in anime once in a while (to some extent every writer’s work is a personal story) but this one goes beyond simply personal. The level of sincerity at the heart of Gin no Saji is remarkable, because it’s clear that the author has felt all the feelings at the heart of this story herself. It’s a reflection on the life she (and her siblings) grew up with in Hokkaido, and on the questions that life sparked in her mind. In its way this series is shounen stripped down to its essence – it’s one boy’s journey and the struggles he faces, and in effect the entire story is a training arc. But the struggles and the lessons are no more and no less than those of learning not just how to be an adult, but to be the adult we want to be. It’s a compelling, entertaining and inspirational tale than asks fascinating questions about what it means to be a human being, and I very much look forward to seeing where the story goes from here.