Iyashikei: The genre of catharsis

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Iyashikei is one of the genres which is most unique to anime and manga. Existing for the most part as a sub-genre of the slice-of-life genre, it has few well-known parallels outside of the anime world. Despite being a sub-genre for the most part, iyashikei goes far beyond merely being a smaller category, giving an experience that no other genre is capable of.

Iyashikei means “healing-type” and the genre’s works reflect this meaning. Iyashikei aims to heal the viewer through delivering a sense of relaxation and catharsis. This is accomplished through a tranquil – though not necessarily happy – in-show experience which allows the viewer to calm their mind and relax by focusing more on the emotional experience than on the intellectual. In the West, where the destination is much more heavily favored in fiction, this can lead to a sense of boredom. To the Japanese however, a focus on the journey in fiction is much more common than in the West, so a work in which little happens but what happens is meaningful and cathartic will be much more popular.

Iyashikei is often – and not always incorrectly – labeled as a sub-genre of slice-of-life. However it has many distinct traits which do not apply to other slice-of-life shows and warrant its recognition as a genre of its own. While iyashikei shows can have romance, drama, and comedy to some extent, it is often to a much lower extent than in other forms of slice-of-life as too much of a focus in any of those categories would take the focus away from delivering a cathartic experience.

Iyashikei has the popularity it does, especially in Japan, because it can appeal to almost anyone. Be it due to school, work, or other life factors, everyone develops stress and a desire to relieve it is universal. Iyashikei is a genre specifically designed to relieve the feelings which stress creates, making it easy for a large group of people to take to it. This popularity has increased in the form of “Cute Girls doing Cute Things” shows, though these are more heavily comedy focused than many early iyashikei. To truly understand the genre it’s important to look back at its broad history.

Iyashikei as a genre has existed for a long time, but the first work I can find to be called iyashikei is the 1991 anime film by Studio Ghibli Only Yesterday. However having not seen it the first iyashikei I can address is Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou a 1994 manga. YKK is a stellar early example of the genre, exemplifying all that the genre is about. Iyashikei was hardly the most popular following YKK’s start, but the genre continued to exist. In the early 2000s more iyashikei was made with the increase in TV anime, including such shows as Haibane Renmei. In 2005 iyashikei hit its stride, with the debut of both Aria the Animation and Mushishi in October. Later examples include such popular shows as Hidamari Sketch. However the genre did not truly become the semi-powerhouse that it is today until the debut of K-On!. K-On! is an example of iyashikei and fits the genre perfectly, but it created a major trend in iyashikei works. Many shows aired since have been adapted from manga which were more heavily comedic and more focused on having multiple cute girls, often labeled as “Cute Girls doing Cute Things” such as Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka and Kin-iro Mosaic. These shows often have an atmosphere that could be said to be louder or more hectic than those in the less comedic variety. The less comedic types did not die out and include shows like Sora no Woto and Non Non Biyori which employ the quitter and more contemplative tone of shows like Aria and Haibane Renmei. This change in atmosphere was a success, as much more iyashikei is made into anime than in the past and those shows that are made are often quite popular, with this greater chance of adaption even spreading into the less comedic entries.

Despite this increased popularity, iyashikei remains a relatively small genre compared to those such as action or comedy, but a large number of the shows which claim the label are of a high standard. With the context of how the genre has evolved and which shows aired in what periods I’d like to take a look at my opinion of the quality of shows within the genre throughout the years.

Sharing a not uncommon opinion, I feel that the best anime in iyashikei Aria the Animation. Aria is able to masterfully display every possible element of iyashikei perfectly. As the most important aspect of the genre, Aria’s atmosphere is superb. It’s remarkably tranquil, and gives across a certain sense of magic while at the same time seeming semi-plausible. Stronger than any other show it’s able to make me accept whatever it does, leaving me to lose myself in its atmosphere as soon as an episode starts. The soundtrack is used to great effect, properly communicating both the semi-aquatic mood of Neo-Venezia while at the same time ensuring that you’re entirely focused on the atmosphere the show is creating. The background are stellar, conveying the true beauty of Neo-Venezia as well as was possible within the anime adaption. The characters serve the same purpose, by both having interesting character arcs and feeling like they could be real people, but also by fitting with the atmosphere perfectly as generally happy, kind, and good people. Above all what Aria does the best is make you feel that Neo-Venezia is real and that you are there for every 24 minutes it’s on-screen, and it does this better than any other iyashikei I’ve ever seen.

My second favorite iyashikei is Mushishi, which stands in stark contrast to many other examples of the genre due to its darker tone. While most iyashikei could be said to bring tranquility through blissful peacefulness, Mushishi could be said to bring it through a solemn or quiet peacefulness. Mushishi is not necessarily a happy show like most others in its genre, with episodes often ending in tragedy or a lack of closure. Despite this it maintains the healing which is central to the genre. Even in tragedy Mushishi remains calm and cathartic, accepting the nature of the world and merely presenting it. By doing this Mushishi encapsulates the best aspects of iyashikei while presenting it in a much more tragic manner, resulting in the same ultimate effect but appealing to a slightly different audience. The music contributes greatly to this, as it does in all great iyashikei, by contributing to the mood in important scenes. The music is haunting but calm, always giving off the sense that the show could all be just a Japanese folk tale. The openings are similar, they are melancholy but slow, keeping with the overall feeling of the show. Mushishi heals the mind in a way uncommon to the genre, but it does so with the utmost care, leading it to be one of the genre’s very best.

Many other iyashikei also stand out as fantastic series. Haibane Renmei has a similar tone to Mushishi’s in many ways, with some of the heaviest themes found in the genre, including depression, suicide, and guilt. In many ways the series is almost too dark to even be considered iyashikei, as it could end up depressing the viewer instead of healing them, but it is handled deftly and delivers a healing experience, though an unorthodox one, by the end of the series. Haibane Renmei really shines because it pulls off its tone so well, making you care for what the characters are going through and making the darkness seen throughout the series clear at the star while also healing the viewer from the very first episode. On the other side, Hidamari Sketch serves as both a fantastic healing experience and also manages to be quite funny and experimental, blending the blissful happiness of traditional iyashikei with it’s 4-koma source and Shaft direction to create a long-lasting and popular iyashikei. Hidamari Sketch’s brilliance lies in how well it blends the various styles, creating something that feels distinctly like a shaft show while also causing laughter and catharsis. Lastly, K-On! is one of the most emotional iyashikei I’ve ever watched, keeping an overall plot which leads the viewer to care for the characters and share emotions with the characters in a way most other iyashikei can’t do. K-On! managed to usher in the widespread popularity of a new type of iyashikei while being a fantastic show on its own merits.

It’s clear by this point that my favorite genre in anime and manga is iyashikei. There’s a lot of reasons for why I love the genre, and I think that my reasons for loving it is the reasons people are generally interested in the genre. The largest reason is the healing aspect, as it’s the genre’s main feature. As I said previously, iyashikei shows are perfect for handling stress. After a long day of school watching an episode of Aria can help me relax, which leads me to better thinking in regards to the school. Much like many people listen to music to relax, I can watch iyashikei. The other reasons are somewhat show specific, but my favorite iyashikei tend to have these traits. The way character development and conflict is handled in my favorite iyashikei is particularly well-done and hard to do in more hectic genres. Aria, Hidamari Sketch, and K-On! all share this focus on how people behave when they become unable to stay with each other forever. This common theme works so well because it’s something everyone’s gone through, but as someone who’s moved seven times at sixteen it hits me especially hard. This is the central conflict and the main motivator for character development, as the characters come to accept parting while still continuing to care for one another. Mushishi and Haibane Renmei scratch a different itch, serving as perfect examples of introspective and somber shows, akin to spending your time thinking alone. All good iyashikei have to nail the healing, but other themes can make a good show great.

Iyashikei is now a relatively popular genre, and I hope it remains so. It’s had a larger emotional impact on me in general than any other genre. It’s a genre that contains my favorite anime in Aria and five of my top fifteen anime. I hope that at least one person is inspired to watch one of the shows I mentioned in this. Iyashikei is an incredibly unique genre which deserves attention so that it may continue to prosper.

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4 thoughts on “Iyashikei: The genre of catharsis

  1. オオサンショウウオ

    Well I was with you until you mentioned K-ON. Can’t say I’m a huge fan but it’s been a while.
    Kokoro Toshokan and Kamichu are worth mentioning. Dunno if you’ve watched them or what but I don’t see them here so I’m going to assume you haven’t. Kokoro Toshokan has a similar set up to YKK in that they’re in the middle of nowhere and barely get any customers. I’d put it up there with Aria as it has that same magical feeling to it that you mentioned. And Kamichu is basically a mix of Ghibli and Aria.

    Like

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