BY JOAN LI
Slice-of-Life without a Slice of the Pie
If things were to go originally as planned, I would introduce Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi as a standout series in its genre. But then I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s latest and most likely last contribution to the anime industry, The Wind Rises, which spirited a piece of me away even after I walked out of the theater. Focusing on work was a struggle for the rest of that evening, as I drifted off into film’s beautiful animated sequences, hand painted sceneries, and poetic lines. Naturally, I was frustrated to see it cast aside as a competitor in the Oscars for Best Animated Feature. The Wind Rises will most likely never gain as much attention as Disney’s Frozen, not only because it’s a foreign film against the product of a domestic, media conglomerate, but also because it belongs to a non-mainstream genre that doesn’t conform to expectations of animation. It’s not just The Wind Rises; Mushishi and practically the entire genre of slice-of-life suffers from lack of appreciation from the general audience. So this time, instead of focusing on only one series, I’m going to introduce slice-of-life as a whole, since I don’t think I could possibly pick among some of my favorite, yet underrated, films and series.
At first glance, Mushishi and The Wind Rises seem to have very different premises. Originally created as a manga series before being adapted to a show, Mushishi follows one man’s episodic travels in a low fantasy setting based after Edo Japan as a sort of shamanic practitioner taking various jobs involving spirit-like creatures called mushi. On the other hand, Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer whose projects were used by Japan during World War II. The latter is more realistic than the former, but both are slow in plot — that is, there is very little explicit conflict, and the storyline lacks a strict dramatic structure. Ginko, the main character of Mushishi, never undergoes any character development, and Jiro maintains his optimism throughout his life.
This is actually characteristic of the slice-of-life genre: what would typically be criticized as weak plot is compensated by compelling ambience. This is precisely what Mushishi and The Wind Rises do so well. There is something indescribable about the way the two works create poetry out of animation. The fictional folklore regarding the mushi never fails to enchant. The concept of these creatures adds a whole new layer to the show. This is taken to its full potential, because each species of mushi is unique and given careful attention to detail in animation. Likewise, The Wind Rises has gorgeous hand-painted scenery, a rare sight these days in any animation industry given the convenience of computer graphics programs. And although the story is historically grounded, Miyazaki masterfully transitions the audience between Jiro’s reality and his dreamscape of ambitions, creating a surreal atmosphere that makes the audience as absentminded in a daydream as the protagonist. Ironically enough, this is the magic of slice-of-life: it can take the mundane and make it otherworldly, without the help of action scenes or a fast paced adventure.
It’s almost heartbreaking for me when the charm of these shows never quite gains the appreciation it deserves even the animation audience. One of my friends who went to watch The Wind Rises with me came out unimpressed, saying that it bland in comparison to Miyazaki’s best-known film, Spirited Away. Indeed, Spirited Away did seem to garner more critical acclaim when it was released more than a decade ago. It is the only anime film to have ever received an Oscar. Considering the most popular and recognized animated shows in American culture, it seems that the odds here are consistently in the favor of works such as Spirited Away. The story follows a girl who is whisked away into an Alice in Wonderland-like world and must find her way back. In a sense, such a plot is quite similar to other Oscar winners for Best Animated Feature, such as Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, or Frozen. All these animated works are explicitly adventure-themed, brimming with explicit, imaginative fantasy in an overarching plotline with clear goals. The Incredibles actually taps into a long-time, American animation trend of action packed, superhero series. So it’s rather understandable that this friend of mine, who grew up watching Disney and superhero shows, would be puzzled by something like The Wind Rises. The day-to-day life of Jiro and the wanderings of Ginko certainly do not include living toys, superhero families, or talking snowmen — but why does that have to make it any less entertaining?
The dominance of Disney movies and other action-adventures in this country’s animation industry has created a wall of expectation that excludes the slice-of-life genre. When people watch an animated show or feature film, they go in with the idea that they will be immediately taken away by a fairytale romance, an exciting journey, a kick-butt adventure with a sidekick. That, or they expect something along the lines of Spongebob Squarepants to go along with a brain-numbing, post-exam ramen binge. Either way, none of these expectations include the realism and relaxing pace of The Wind Rises or Mushishi. The subtleties of their music scores, lyrical scripts, and careful animation ultimately lose to flashy, dramatic sequences.
Even as I reach the end of my lamentation, my friend is still sending me links to “Do you Want to Build a Snowman?” parodies (why yes, I have heard the screamo version) while The Wind Rises remains in the shadows of its more mainstream cousins along with Mushishi and its direct siblings in the slice-of-life genre. To be fair, I am actually a huge Disney fan and Spirited Away is actually yet another one of my favorite movies that I watch year to year. But the qualities of these animated works are, for me, incomparable to the impact of slice-of-life masterpieces, which mesmerize us with plain life. That in itself is both impressive and inspirational — it is these works that open us to the splendor of the lives we lead. The lax, episodic characteristic of Mushishi displays that there is something to be gained each day, and the dream sequences in The Wind Rises show that the existence of magic is merely a state of mind. We neither need to have ice powers nor Kryptonian strength to live exciting lives. Reality itself is something magnificent, and that revelation is slice-of-life’s gift for whoever is willing to broaden their horizons and experience it.
Joan Li ’17 (joanli@college) doesn’t believe in pumpkin pie or any other type of pie without a crust on both the bottom and the top.