Iyashikei: The Genre of Healing – An Attempt at a Definition

This can be considered a replacement to my earlier post, Iyashikei: The Genre of Catharsis. That post is outdated and bad, so please ignore anything in it that contradicts with this post.

Describing iyashikei is hard. I’ve tried it before, and it didn’t turn out that well. However, after reading a fairly large number of takes on the subject, including academic papers focusing on the healing genre outside of 2D culture, I think I’ve been able to come to a semi-workable definition. This is going to take a bit of time and quite a few words, so strap in as a I explain my current understanding of iyashikei as a unique genre.

Part 1: The Purpose of Iyashikei OR How to Define the Genre

Let’s start with my definition. Currently I would define iyashikei as: a genre which heals the audience through a heavy focus on atmosphere, usually using the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware in order to find beauty in any number of mundane situations. Iyashikei series move at a slow, calming pace, forgoing tension whether it be in narrative or comedic form. Iyashikei is ultimately a genre of safety, one that encourages exploration but always within safe bounds.

The main goal of iyashikei is to heal the audience. As I said in my first post on the topic, iyashikei series are intended to create an emotional reaction that brings catharsis, lowering raised moods while simultaneously presenting a beautiful experience to observe.

This is especially important in Japan. This is a country where decades of economic stagnation have created two straight Lost Generations, and where major terrorist attacks and natural disasters have plagued the public consciousness. This has combined with long hours, both in school and at work, to create an environment in which a numbing escape where nothing really happens is seen as ideal. It’s this environment which blended with the long-standing aesthetic of mono no aware to create iyashikei.

Of course, iyashikei is still enjoyable to those outside Japan, though seemingly less so. A show which calms you down surely has some sort of universal appeal — after all, everyone needs rest. Still, I think it’s important to note that this is very specifically a Japanese genre. You could probably find works from outside Japan that have some of the traits, maybe even a few that entirely fit, but it wouldn’t really exist as an intentional part of the genre in that case.

I hope I’ve made it clear exactly what iyashikei is, and why it exists, so let’s start looking at that definition a little deeper, finding out the actual structure of an iyashikei series.

Part 2: The Execution of Iyashikei OR What that Definition Actually Means

We must first focus on the atmosphere in iyashikei series. This is the aspect that people look at the most, and that makes sense. It’s immediately clear upon watching one of these series that their sense of atmosphere is key to the series’ healing element, and each work’s specific atmosphere is what it’s most often known for.

The primary way an iyashikei uses and creates atmosphere is through heavy focus on setting. The setting of an iyashikei series is not merely a background detail or a tool for plot development — it is the lifeline of the series, and could possibly be considered the main character. This extreme focus on setting is something I think of as a requirement to count as an iyashikei; I don’t think I would include a show in the genre if it didn’t spend lots of time on panning shots of the setting.

One important trait of the atmosphere and setting of an iyashikei series is that they are often described simply. This is particularly common in iyashikei novels, but even in the visual arts this remains true. Works like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and Amanchu talk about their environments in very plain and simple ways, and often devote significant time to describing them. This can be seen as pointless given their extensive background work, but it makes it clear how important the setting is to these shows and manga. The emotions of the characters — and hopefully the readers — are largely driven by these simply described settings.

In spite of their simplicity, the settings in these shows are memorable, primarily due to their heavy focus. Anyone who’s watched Aria knows Neo-Venezia, Non Non Biyori’s quiet countryside is captivating, and the beautiful out-of-time Japan in Mushishi is something I’ll never forget. These settings are used as characters with their own personalities, and they’re almost always subdued yet beautiful. Of course, these settings and atmospheres are greatly connected to the aesthetics and themes of iyashikei, which we’ll soon cover.

The greatest example of an aesthetic or thematic commonality in iyashikei is mono no aware. Mono no aware is a Japanese aesthetic that can be loosely translated as “the pathos of things” or “sensitivity towards things”. Mono no aware is usually described as a somewhat bittersweet appreciation of the beauty found in life, with the knowledge that everything in it is ephemeral. More specifically, it can be invoked by bringing up the transience of an object or an experience, and then expressing appreciation for the topic in spite of — or often because of — that transience.

Mono no aware’s prominence varies based on the series in question, but it’s almost guaranteed to appear in any iyashikei work to some extent. Mono no aware is used to enhance the idea inherent in these series that life should be appreciated. By accepting this, the audience becomes more comfortable with the world around them, fully accepting the beauty of the media they’re consuming, and thus they are healed.

Another element of iyashikei that’s key to cover is the pacing and use of narrative. Iyashikei series have stories of course. There’s no feasible way to make a work of art that has no narrative to speak of. Each series has an overarching plot to some extent, and individual episodes or chapters obviously have narratives of their own. Iyashikei de-emphasizes these compared to other genres, but it’s important to note that it goes even further than other slice-of-life subgenres.

Most slice-of-life is slow and has little happening from episode to episode, but there’s a key difference between your Gochiusa and your Aria. The former, while lacking in strong narrative focus, still provides lots of tension in the form of jokes. Iyashikei series on the other hand tend to totally eschew tension whatsoever, even comedic tension. The jokes in iyashikei are intentionally repetitive and familiar, because they aren’t really there to make the audience laugh. They’re there to further draw you into the show’s pace, which is always the key goal.

Lastly, we need to look at iyashikei as a safe form of exploration. Most works focused on exploration have some danger to them: after all, it’s hard to know how dangerous the unknown truly is. This danger is antithetical to iyashikei’s attempt to heal the viewer, and so iyashikei presents a safe means to explore. The worlds in iyashikei series almost certainly have bad things, but nothing bad will ever happen to the main characters in these series. There’s no tension raised by the possibility of failure or disaster for the characters we follow, because that would have a major negative effect on the audience’s mood.

Now that we’ve gone a bit more in depth with the genre’s definition, it should be fairly clear what a show actually needs to do to be an iyashikei. These criteria seem fairly straightforward, and to some extent they are. The issue is that there are a lot of shows that come close but don’t quite fit, so it’s important to actually look at what shows are iyashikei and which aren’t, making it clear what iyashikei actually includes.

Part 3: The Limits of Iyashikei OR Examples that Do and Don’t Fit the Genre

Let’s be clear from the start: this is all my opinion. A lot of the lines here are very fuzzy, and I can’t ensure that everyone will agree with me on this. In fact, I can say with confidence that my opinions on whether some of these shows fit are incredibly controversial, and I disagree with a lot of people on this topic. Still, I can’t meaningfully take any position outside my own here, so let’s get on with what I think counts.

To start are Kozue Amano’s works, Aria and Amanchu. Aria is practically the head honcho when it comes to iyashikei, and for good reason. Besides just being an excellent show, it meets every requirement I listed here. Mono no aware is a common theme, such as in Episode 4 of the Animation, where Akari finds a video sent between a long-dead couple working at an abandoned terraforming base during early Martian colonization. Very little happens in Aria, there’s almost no tension until the end, and even then it’s minor at best. On the other hand, Neo-Venezia is focused on heavily, to the extent that I know it quite well now. Her other work, Amanchu, easily follows in Aria’s footsteps in this regard, and while it focuses more on character development and less on the world, it still focuses quite a bit on the setting, and it easily meets all the genre’s other standards, so I think it still fits.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is another unambiguous iyashikei series. The mono no aware is incredibly intense in this manga, as it spends tons of time finding beauty in a world which is ravaged by climate change and slowly losing its population of human beings. One chapter is simply an appreciation of underwater city lights which have long since lost their purpose. Like every other great iyashikei, nothing really happens in this series, but it’s so wonderfully presented that it doesn’t really matter.

There’s two other easy iyashikei to cover. The first is Non Non Biyori. This show has a bit more comedy than other examples, and the cast does get a bit more focus here than in the average iyashikei, but the pacing, use of mono no aware, and heavy focus on the setting easily push it into the iyashikei category for me. At the same time we have Flying Witch, which fits perfectly in every way except it doesn’t use mono no aware that much. I see this as a bit of a flaw, because it’s just too happy of a show sometimes, but while subdued it is present once in a while, especially near the end, so I’m inclined to include it in the genre, mostly because it fits the other criteria so well.

Lastly we have Mushishi. I really struggled on whether or not to include this as an iyashikei, and while I ultimately decided to do so, it was a hard decision. Mushishi is much more somber and melancholy than even YKK ever gets, and certain episodes get a bit too plot-focused, and therefore have a bit too much tension. Ginko always turns out fine, but the sense of safety seen in most iyashikei doesn’t exist for the other characters. Still, the series uses mono no aware in a fairly large number of episodes, the focus on a rural Japan surrounded by spirits is strong, and ultimately there’s no real goal or overarching plot. This show is close, and just barely made it into the iyashikei category, something I can’t say for the other shows we’ll be looking at.

There are a few common ways that shows I would call “iyashikei-adjacent” fail to count as iyashikei. The first is a little too much narrative focus. This is especially common in shows that start out as straight up iyashikei series before slowly morphing into more of a drama as they goes along. My two main examples here are Haibane Renmei and Sora no Woto. Both of these shows would absolutely count as iyashikei series if you only counted their first halves, but they both make a turn towards higher dramatic stakes as they go on, with climaxes that go beyond emotional and into the realm of fully dramatic. Both these shows still have a strong sense of mono no aware and provide tons of catharsis, but they get just a bit too high-stakes for the genre in my opinion. A few other shows like Kemono Friends fit this mold as well.

Another common way that iyashikei-adjacent shows avoid counting is through heavier use of comedy and less emphasis on the setting and atmosphere. My clearest example of this is Hidamari Sketch. Hidamari is really, really close to being an iyashikei, but after my most recent watch I realized it still has its original 4-koma style comedy pacing, which really disrupts the flow in a way that wouldn’t work if it were an iyashikei. It’s close, but it has too much comedic tension and doesn’t emphasize the setting enough. Hidamari is just one of many shows influenced by iyashikei heavily even if not quite an example. It’s part of a genre usually called CGDCT, kuuki-kei, or nichijou-kei, and it’s the closest slice-of-life subgenre to iyashikei, though it’s usually missing major use of mono no aware alongside the subtly different atmosphere and pacing.

One more example of an iyashikei-adjacent series is Chatting at the Amber Teahouse. This yuri manga doesn’t quite count specifically because of its other genre: despite its slow pace and occasional use of mono-no-aware, it focuses too much on romantic development to really count as an iyashikei in my eyes, because the romantic tension is enough to basically disqualify it, as it plays far too major of a role.

So, we’ve seen some examples of what I think fits in the genre, as well as some examples of what doesn’t. When you combine this with the definition, the mysteries of iyashikei as a genre shouldn’t be so obscure anymore. And so we’re left with a few remaining thoughts.

Part 4: Final Thoughts on Iyashikei OR The Value of Iyashikei and Where It’s Going

Iyashikei is doing better than ever. Last year we got a couple of Aria OVAs, Flying Witch, Amanchu, and likely a few others that I missed. Things are doing good in the land of explicit iyashikei, but things are doing even better when you look at iyashikei-adjacent shows. CGDCT gets plenty of shows each year, and with recent shows like Kemono Friends we’re seeing more shows influenced by iyashikei, shows that still attempt to heal their viewers even if they don’t use the traditional pathway to do so.

It’s iyashikei’s ability to influence other genres that I think gives it the most value. CGDCT is huge, and early works in the genre like Hidamari make it clear that iyashikei played a big role in forming what is one of anime and manga’s biggest genre’s. What I hope to see in the future is a furthering of this effect, where totally different genres like action and mecha start to take more influence from iyashikei. Not a ton of writers can write a truly fantastic iyashikei series, but elements of it are definitely useful to a lot of media, and I’m happy to see its role as an influence expanding.

I can’t pretend that my definition is definitive or in any way complete. Genre descriptions never are; we’re just grouping things with some vague similarities because it makes it easier for our brains to think about. They’ll always be arbitrary and unclear, despite our best efforts to prevent that. The fact that I drew upon academic sources hardly gives me any validity in prescribing the way the word should be used. Language like iyashikei is only clear insofar as it communicates a clear idea, and I think my definition here does the best job of making it clear what’s being referred to when iyashikei is referred to. If a different definition were to become popular while remaining consistent, I’d be happy to adopt it, but I’ll be sticking with this while we lack a standard definition. Our definitions will never be perfect, but I at least want this one to be a good starting point for people to go off of.

Sources:

Roquet, Paul. “Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction.” The Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2008, pp. 87-111.

Pruess, Michael. “Interesting Nothing.”

Pause and Select. “Understanding Disaster, Part 4: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and the Harmonious Apocalypse.” Online video clip. Youtube, 18 December, 2016.

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5 thoughts on “Iyashikei: The Genre of Healing – An Attempt at a Definition

  1. Pingback: Iyashikei: The genre of catharsis – Floating into Bliss

  2. I am personally confused with the whole healing thing versus slice of life, and I think you do bring up some good points. The Mono no Aware is a fascinating aspect that clears up a few things, but as I keep reading, I think I just realize that is Iyashikei really a “genre”? It feels more like a visual style or storytelling element. I ask because healing seems to work on not just slice of life since it can be fantasy, drama and comedy as well. I think I’m more confused now. 😄
    My basis for a healing anime has always been Ghibli movies, and maybe I’ll read more on Iyashikei on my own. Thanks for the informative post.

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    1. Zeria

      I would say that iyashikei can come in two forms, an elemental form and a genre form. Ghibli movies and such incorporate many healing elements but shy away from slice of life, and so iyashikei is just an element to them. Certain slice of life shows however fully embrace iyashikei, so I would consider it a genre in those instances.

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      1. The problem with the genre form is that it’s strictly slice of life, so you can argue it’s an element of slice of life A style slice of life or even drama or even action can use.
        But I’m no expert though. I’m just stirring my brain thoughts. XD

        Like

  3. Pingback: A Place to Start: My Best Posts – Floating into Bliss

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