The Sigh of Ume Aoki: Anime and the Irretrievable Past

‘A voice, fleeting, to the sky, the top of the sky, that’ll someday vanish…’

Hidamari Sketch is primarily known for both its relaxed nature and Ume Aoki’s distinctive style. The series started out as a 4-koma, featured in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat, aimed at the seinen demographic, and could arguably be considered emblematic of the format’s light comedic air. Yet, as I have waxed lyrical on before, not all 4-koma need amount to soothing fluff.

At a glance, the series might appear to be an example of an ensemble cast, especially if one first approaches the series via the anachronistically-ordered anime. Yet, as one soon realises, the series is essentially a coming of age story centred about the character Yuno, and so we follow our curiously-shaped-hair-clip-wearing heroine on her journey through her final three years of school.

For the first three volumes we become accustomed to the cast and, aside from a story about a visiting stray cat, all seems happy and carefree. In the fourth volume, however, a slight shadow is cast. A hint of things yet to come.

First we meet again with the third year Arisawa, to whom we shall return shortly. This is followed by the third years’ graduation, and the customary display of their individual projects throughout the school. It is during this one chapter[1] that the impending departure of the second years, Sae and Hiro, is fully recognised by our diminutive leading lady.

In the following volumes we find further subtle hints towards Sae and Hiro’s imminent departure, both of whom are now third years. These illustrate both the melancholy that comes with the separation from good friends, but also a more optimistic outlook, in the sense that both Yuno and Miyako, her best friend and fellow second year, must now step up and perform the duties that will soon be thrust upon them. Yet I should like to highlight the extra chapter at the end of the sixth volume, in which we focus on Hiro’s worries. We are given insight on both Hiro’s concerns for the future, and the enduring strength of the relationship between the two third years. For Hiro is a reluctant traveller, taking the slow path towards the day on which she must eventually fledge.

Of course, Hidamari Sketch is not the only manga to deal with the emotions that, we are told, bubble to the surface at the end of one’s time at a particular school, or indeed, university. The K-On! franchise broaches this as well, with the four leads’ final concert at their school designed to evoke an emotional response. Kozue Aoba, the landlady and love interest both from Mahoraba, faces a similar worry. Those she has surrounded herself with, who are now effectively family, are set to leave the mansion they have called home for many years. Whilst Kozue does eventually send her charges off with a smile, it is still shown that she holds both worries for the future, and is in no way looking forward to the day they choose to leave.

Of course, these are not the only examples, any series that deals with a similar situation, of separation or loss, will likely broach similar ideas. Often too, these are some of the most affecting or poignant moments of a series. Perhaps denoting a turning point in the series itself; an indication that the end is nigh.

Yet, one wonders why this might be so affecting. Whether this is a uniquely Japanese affair, or that offerings from the Occident can be just as powerful.

Certainly, within this little corner of the internet, Japan has shown ample ability to tug at one’s heartstrings. One might presume this to have its roots in the concept of mono no aware, or rather, the pathos of things. Perhaps best evoked with the image of cherry blossoms; the Japanese Cherry Tree blooms in spring, with the blossoms dying only a couple of weeks later. These, as the internet will be only too happy to inform you, have assumed a number of different meanings. Yet perhaps the most enduring has its roots in Buddhism’s ideas of impermanence. The swiftness with which these, often beautiful, blossoms bloom and then fall are effectively a metaphor for life itself.

That the academic year in Japan starts and ends either side of the Easter holiday, naturally allows Japanese media to to capitalise on this. A number of perspectives arise. Of the promise of a new beginning. Of waving off old friends, and preparing to receive the new. Or of one’s own departure, bequeathing one’s role and reputation to those soon to walk the path just taken. Each replete with a shower of cherry blossoms in their wake.

Yet can it be said that Japan holds a monopoly over such a scenario?

‘Scatter in the sky, and I caught the fragments
Of dreams raining down, the light…’

Whilst the standard occidental academic year does not start during spring, nor may we lay claim to scenically cascading blossoms, one finds the sentiment behind departures and arrivals practically universal. Indeed, for the major events in one’s existence; that of life, death, and all the minor milestones in-between, one might suggest that similar emotions are evoked for each, regardless of one’s nationality. Though it is inevitable that there will be slight differences in the details, as derived by one’s culture, base emotional responses to these are unlikely to differ greatly. The emotional response towards the day when good friends make their own way in the world, and each with a different direction, to take an example, is likely to be similar no matter one’s background or nationality.

To continue onwards with the running example, I feel it a reasonable assumption that all those reading this, and indeed those likely to read, watch, or otherwise consume entertainment with the required level of complexity for such plots, will have experienced leaving, and watching others leave, an educational establishment of some description. This allows one to draw upon one’s own experiences in order to sympathise with the characters presented. One might also argue this to be more powerful a reason for its affecting nature than the aforementioned mono no aware. Thus, we arrive at two answers to our two questions. Shared experiences lend weight to such plots, and this is by no means limited to media that hail from a little island in the east of the Orient.

That sadness is felt at peoples’ passing need not suggest this wholly a bad thing. Disgustingly clichéd though it may sound, such sadness is proof that one has made good friends, and memories to cherish. Change, after all, is a good thing. The past may be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, or it may be left to obscurity within the annals of history, nor may we ever return to it. It is, however, terribly important. Made more so, perhaps, by its resolute irretrievability. As a butterfly, moth, or dragonfly sheds his skin one final time to reveal his resplendent adult form, we too, mature and move forward through change in our person and circumstances. One might even argue that our experiences and memories, shaped by our choices in life, define who we are.

Returning then, to Hidamari Sketch, must we assume and prepare for a great wave of sadness, of a crushing melancholy never before felt on this earth? The answer to this question is simply no; Hidamari Sketch might touch the occasional emotional nerve, but remains an optimistic series overall. Indeed, as Arisawa took her bow, we found more a passing of the baton than a ceremonious sendoff therein. A single high five and a smile suffice for a most charming and confident character. Whilst Sae and Hiro will doubtless command a greater emotional weight in their departure, it is my personal view that Yuno and Miyako will choose to step up to the challenge of both their third, and final, year and the responsibility towards their younger charges.

Notes

1. [^]Entitled ‘Congratulations on your Graduation!’ for those with the volume to hand.

‘Scatter in the sky, the fragments of dreams…
I’ve found it now, I caught the light.’

11 Comments

Filed under Editorials

11 responses to “The Sigh of Ume Aoki: Anime and the Irretrievable Past

  1. windyturnip

    You sum up what makes Hidamari Sketch different quite well. It has a slice of life feel and some light comedy, but its subtle character growth is really what sets it apart from the crowd. I recently finished the first season of the anime and, as I read your article, I realized the meaning behind some of the events throughout the show.

    I have to admit that some of the growth in Yuno is incredibly, almost painfully slow, but it gives the show a more real feel. Instead of some unbelievable epiphany at the end of the season, changes are constantly taking place without the viewer even realizing it.

    Keeping in line with the show, the artwork is simple and minimalistic, and the animation is unique. It keeps your attention without drawing you away from the character interactions.

    Although I’m certainly not the most qualified judge, I believe that Hidamari Sketch is a masterpiece of the moe genre. It shows the true potential behind a genre that has recently been taken taken advantage of and ridiculed, and it creates a show that can be enjoyed and, at the very least, respected by all viewers.

    • A_Libellule

      I sincerely doubt anyone could say that the character development in Hidamari Sketch is anything but glacial, it is there though. I have always found that Hidamari‘s development creeps up on you, it is only in hindsight that one realises just how far the girls have travelled. But perhaps I am alone in this.

      As you have only just finished the first series I feel I should hold back, though I can say that the anime adds a fair amount to the experience. Firstly it expands upon the events of the series; sometimes by only a fraction, others by miles. I am of the opinion that these additions, that help make the adaptation what it is, serves to aid the manga. This is not to say that the manga is bad, rather it is still very good, but that the source material and adaptation complement one another nicely. You mention the stylistic aspect of the show; this too plays its part. Shaft’s abstractions and artwork certainly help to give it a unique flair, and one that I could not imagine Hidamari being without. Especially the iconographic elements that lend themselves so easily. There was one final point I wanted to make, but it escapes me now.

      I am not exactly the best judge either, and nor would I quite claim it a masterpiece, but I can certainly understand where you are coming from. Hidamari Sketch is, in my view, one of the most well known examples of its kind, and whilst slice of life, ‘ambience’, or however we are calling them these days vary greatly in quality, it is at least well done. I’ve mentioned this before, but the 4-koma style, as with any style, genre, or medium, has a certain flexibility. It need not be adorable fluff alone, and it is when it defies this expectation that I find myself most enthralled.

      But I have said enough, I think. I thank you for reading, and for your comment too.

    • A_Libellule

      Oh, yes. It was the fact that the anime is anachronistic. I rather get the feeling that this only helps to obscure the development further. Yet the ordering works. The characters’ development does not suffer from it. It is an anime one can take one’s time over, after all…

  2. Of all the ways in which an anime (or manga, or any work of fiction, really) tends to come to an end, I think this method, the one commonly tied to Slice-of-Life something-or-other, has to be my favorite. So often, people set aside what can be learned from fiction, and especially anime, because ‘there’s no such thing as happily-ever-after;’ because they think it isn’t realistic.

    These kinds of moments in a series, I feel, really refute that. If you look closely enough, you can really see both a past and a future, not only for the main characters, but everyone they’ve affected, and the place they’re leaving itself. You understand that there is much left to come, and as such don’t have to feel as though anything you learned–that the characters learned–can only be valid in this closed-off world of start and finish. You can carry that lesson–those emotions–forth with you.

    If I’m honest, I myself disregarded Hidamari Sketch in the past, and as such, haven’t watched it. I didn’t expect to take much away from it; that was in the past, however, and I feel rather proud to know that I have a different view of it now. Perhaps someday soon I’ll give it the attention it deserves. Either way, thank you for this incredible post; the people who say the things that so often go assumed are the ones a lot more people should be listening to.

    • A_Libellule

      I cannot for the life of me remember where the heavily paraphrased idea, ‘a happy ending is just a story that hasn’t finished yet,’ comes from. I do find myself sympathising with it, however. On the other hand, I see no reason why we cannot indulge in a little happy ending from time to time. Nor does it mean, as you so eloquently argued, that we cannot take anything from it. The emotions you talk of are, it could be argued, grounded in reality. They come from a writer who is unwaveringly human, just because they have been put into fiction does not make them any less valid. Fiction is there to educate us, too. When one looks at fairy tales in their original forms, or folk tales, or myths, or legends, they carry a message, a lesson. So yes, I’m in agreement with you on this.

      When you come to revisit it, might I be so bold as to suggest you look at both the manga and anime? Perhaps not on top of each other, but you might take a little more from it than just from sampling the, admittedly wonderful, adaptation if you do sample both.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. the_patches

    What’s interesting about Hidamari in comparison to Azumanga Daioh, is the presence of prominent sempai characters to set up this particular scenario. When a series centers on one group of kids, the leaving event seems more monumental than it will likely appear here, since we’ve been primed for it by the departure of Sae and Hiro (to live in sin together. wwwwww).

    • A_Libellule

      Interesting.

      Whilst writing the post I had thought of Genshiken. It too has a number of people, all in different years. I did not, however, feel the departure of the main character Sasahara, and the others of his year, to be any less monumental than it would have been, were they all in the same year.

      On the other hand, Azumanga Daioh, which only took me three years to finish, does seem to have a greater focus in that they all go their final ways at the same time. Yet it could perhaps be argued that Genshiken really only saw off its cast in one fell swoop.

      Perhaps then, and feel free to correct me on this, it is a matter of focus. Of how this focus is spread across the years, and what purpose the older characters serve within the series itself.

      Arisawa for instance, did not have all that much focus, she was there, in effect, to embody the distant future. A day that must come one day, but one that is still very far way from the perspective of Yuno and Miyako. Because of this, I cannot bring myself to imagine her departure to have diminished the weight the inevitable ending will bring.

      Of course, one cannot deny that Sae and Hiro have greater presence within the series, and so in this instance I agree that they will alter, and perhaps reduce, the ‘melancholy’ of the ending.

      All in all, I’ll agree with you, but with my minor revision that it is the distribution of focus that determines the degree to which an ending is monumental. As opposed to simply the years of the characters on which the series is centred.

      Oh, and if you’ve not read Mahoraba, I would suggest it. I feel you might like it, a couple of the characters and chapters in particular.

      Thank you for reading, and commenting too. Most appreciated.

      (Also, Miss. Aoki has effectively made them canon already, so yeah, in sin it is. Still feel sorry for Natsume though. She’s a wonderful girl, with a magnificent character arc, yet too few seem to like her. ;_; )

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