「八軒、馬に乗る」 (Hachiken, Uma ni Noru)
“Hachiken Rides a Horse”
There’s no denying that Gin no Saji represents a huge change-of-pace, in just about every way.
There’s not much about Silver Spoon that’s by-the-books. This is the sort of anime about which my friend in the film and TV business – who basically still thinks of anime as all giant robots and space battles – would ask, "Why are they even doing this animated? It could just as easily be live-action." It’s a story that gets right down in the muck (literally) celebrates the unglamorous, and comes from a mangaka whose last work was one of the most beloved fantasy series in shounen history. In short, Gin no Saji doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all about this series is that it’s been one of the most dominant manga commercially since its introduction. Arakawa-sensei’s name no doubt got a lot of people through the door, but Silver Spoon has managed to keep them there despite not pushing many traditional shounen buttons – each volume is a blockbuster and the series is among the Top-10 sellers in Japan (last week Volume 8 was #1 on the bestseller list, at almost 500,000 copies – including the special edition with the “Holstein Club hand towel”). It remains to be seen if that commercial success will translate to the anime – I have severe doubts it will do well on Blu-ray as that’s a very different segment of the market than the one buying this manga, but this is also the sort of anime that’s probably expected to do more to cross-promote the series’ brand than sell discs, more like a shoujo or seinen title.
None of that would matter if the series wasn’t any good, but fortunately it is. I won’t claim this is one of the most exciting series you’ll ever see (so far anyway) but it’s managed to get me invested in a lifestyle I know almost nothing about. The most striking thing for me in watching this second episode is just how difficult life is for Hachiken and his classmates at Ooezo High School. They wake up ay 5 AM for practicals. They have a full day of classes both academic and agriculturally focused, and are allowed 10 minutes for a bath in the evening. They’re required to join a club, despite their workload. And much of their day seems to be spent shovelling shit. Frankly, I’m exhausted just watching them.
In truth, I think this is all part of Arakawa’s homage to the agricultural life she grew up on. Even most city folk know that life on a farm is hard, but it’s interesting to see it portrayed here in pretty unvarnished terms. Gin no Saji is at least to some extent a simple argument for the virtues of hard work and the cleansing power of sweat and toil. The students are, as an instructor tells Hachi-kun, "slaves of the livestock". It’s the livestock who bring in the money and in hard practical terms, what these kids are at Ooezo to do is learn how to make money off livestock (and crops) in the 21st Century. It’s not pretty, and even in the confines of the school there’s disagreement on the merits of technology-based commercial farming and old-fashioned methods, as witness the debate between Tamako (Takagaki Ayahi) and her brother Shin’ichirou (Ono Yuuki) over the merits of additives in poultry production.
In story terms, the great unknown of Silver Spoon continues to be the main character. We still aren’t told just why Hachi-kun has decided to attend Ooezo, though it’s clear enough that he places a great value on academic ranking and disdains the idea of having goals. In spite of being something of a blank slate Hachiken comes off as a likeable lead – he’s very much playing the role of audience surrogate for now but quite effectively, and we’re starting to see signs that he’s warming to the challenge at hand. His personal journey is nudged along this week by the requirement that all students enroll in a club (the "Go-home Club" apparently not an option). Hachi-kun would of course rather rest up, but a rule is a rule – and every a brief but highly amusing encounter with the Holstein Society ("Look at those teats!") – he’s "rescued" by the Buddha-like instructor of the Equestrian Club Nakijima-sensei (a very funny Masutani Yasunori) he ends up joining the club we always figured he would.
There’s no question that Hachiken has ulterior motives (named Mikage-chan) for joining the EqC. And it ends up being quite different than he expected – including the heartbreaking news that first-years must wake at 4 AM to care for the horses. And Hachiken doesn’t even like horses – he’s quite scared of them in fact. But it’s another case where Arakawa is sharing her obvious love with the audience, because we get quite an education about the equine: about their timid and observant nature, about how to feed them (that flat-palm thing is indeed crucial) and about the joys to be derived from the experience of interacting with them. Indeed, there’s quite an elemental relationship between humans and horses – the word for "horse" is one of only about a dozen or so thought to be so old that it’s roots in human language predate the divergence of Proto-Indo-European (the precursor of most major European languages, including Latin and Greek) and Chinese – meaning the words are similar in modern European languages and Chinese and its descendant languages (like Japanese).
Probably the most important moment in terms of Hachi-kun’s development comes when he volunteers to care for the horses during Golden Week. It’s important because it means bonding time with Mikage, but even more because he did so without even knowing she would be staying behind too. Between that and Hachiken’s determination to help hapless teammate Tokiwa Keiji (Shouji Masayuki) with his math, it seems Hachiken is actually becoming involved with his surroundings – which the hints about him suggest is a major milestone. It would have been interesting to see Hachiken in his home environment – I expect that will come eventually – but for now, the priority is to flesh out the world of Ooezo Academy, and watch Hachi-kun struggle to figure out how he fits into it.