Whoo-hoo! Our first Guest Review of 2014. Even more exciting, it’s a brand-new Guest Reviewer. How cool is that? Today we welcome Bradley M. of Those Damn Cartoons! with a review of sleeper series Non Non Byori, the anime based on a manga I have never reviewed here. Please welcome Bradley to Okazu and shower him with praise and thanks!
Natsumi, Komari and Renge live so far out in the Japanese countryside that they’re not even sure they live in the countryside, since they’ve never had anything else to compare it to. But it’s a comfortable life. Their small town, which probably isn’t even a town but a small collection of farms that just happen to be within a few kilometers of each other, has a bus stop, a candy store, an unoccupied vegetable stand and a rundown school, where they make up three-fourths of the entire student body. But now they’re getting a fifth student and a new friend, Hotaru, who transferred in from the far-off land of Tokyo. She assures them that yes, they do live in the countryside, and also, Renge, it is weird for a family to own an entire mountain.
Non Non Biyori is an iyashikei anime like Aria and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, set in the modern Japanese countryside. It’s an idealistic cartoon that’s a bit like a picture of puppies- completely relaxed, intensely cute and utterly charming. This thirteen episode series is the ideal anime for a Sunday afternoon, watched while wrapped in a blanket and sipping coffee. These kind of anime tend to get labeled as “slice of life” and dismissed as moe fodder, but there’s a distinct tone that separates series like this one from, say, K-ON!, that’s important to note. That tone is gentleness, and a sense that anything wrong or threatening is miles away. It’s the idealism of Tolkien’s Rivendell transplanted to Japan, and while there may be cutesy comedy or some stressful problems, comfort is the overriding feeling through it all. That’s different from other series like Azumanga Daioh or K-ON! which, not to take away anything from them, are basically sitcoms.
Non Non Biyori opens with the strained, heartfelt sounds of a recorder playing a simple tune over lingering shots of its idealized countryside, firmly placing it in the iyashikei category. Its children are practically ideal as well, especially the very smart, if a bit loopy, second grader Renge, whose intensely cute voice (voiced by Kotori Kowai) is a little rough and always excited. If you aren’t grinning after hearing her greet Natsumi with a cheerful “Meowning!,” you could very well be dead inside.
Relationships and observational jokes about life in the countryside, children, and first (Yuri!) crushes are the dominant source of humor and heartbreak in Non Non Biyori, not only between the children but also their parents, teachers, and the other adults in their life. There’s a great sense of community here, where everyone knows everyone else and that provides a sense of security to the children and the viewer, even when the children struggle with losing friends to the end of summer break or have a hard time with their parents. It’s a community that would be the envy of Mennonites. This is a sensitive anime that’s completely in tune with its characters and setting.
Since this is Okazu, I should mention the Yuri, which comes from a subplot where Hotaru crushes on her sempai Komari, who is largely oblivious to her feelings. While it’s played largely as a childhood crush, the humor from this borders on creepy obsessiveness, since Hotaru does things like make little handmade Komari dolls, but it’s generally played tastefully and in good fun. It’s also just a cute pairing. Komari may be older but she’s much shorter and physically and mentally less mature than Hotaru, making for a nice contrast that lets the two of them play off of each other very well. Since this anime is almost entirely devoid of men, you can also detect hints of more Yuri goodness from other characters, though nothing else is as explicit.
Overall, Non Non Biyori is a very good cartoon with a narrow audience that does what it does competently. It does cute, funny and heartbreaking equally well on what is obviously a very small budget, with very little in the way of animation. Heck, they shamelessly try to save money by holding onto a still of a character’s face for nearly a minute, absent even some mouth flapping, and it says a lot about the writing that the scene still works, and made for one of the saddest moments in the series. We seemed to get at least one relaxed Yuri-esque comedy like this every season, and for my money, this one was my favorite.
Non Non Biyori is currently streaming (free, legally, with regional restrictions) on Crunchyroll.