Non Non Biyori
Somewhere, deep in the heart of rural Japan, there is a laidback place where time is best told by the passing of the seasons, where sometimes the only traffic on the road is the local cow, where an unattended roadside vegetable stand and a candy store count as the nearest thing to a "convenience store" in miles, and where, most importantly, kids can be kids.
Fifth-grader Hotaru Ichijo has just transferred from Tokyo to Asahigaoka Branch School, a combined elementary and junior-high school with just four other students - first-grader Renge and three junior-high siblings: Natsumi, Komari, and Suguru. This series tells the story of their everyday life amid the passing seasons of the countryside.
のんびり (nonbiri) : carefree, at leisure
From its opening moments, Non Non Biyori welcomes us and makes us feel right at home, celebrating the magic of carefree everyday life in a backcountry environment that is unfamiliar to the vast majority of Japanese people (much less Westerners). Largely eschewing the usual overtures to fan service and manic comedy, we instead get an honest slice-of-life series that nevertheless remains compelling and heartwarming and ends up as almost something of a inaka love letter, where instead of lamenting its remoteness, it celebrates aspects of country life you can never experience in a city.
Carlos: Now, I've dinged other supposed slice-of-life shows for being "about nothing" before (most infamously, Kokoro Library), but where that show featured lifeless, dull, unrealistic characters in a caricatured, manicured setting, Non Non Biyori is alive in every sense of the word -- the characters are lively, the situations realistic, and the setting itself is richly depicted in a way few other anime truly match.
Having myself spent a bit of time there (in my case, the inland areas of Hiroshima and Shimane prefectures), it's really great to see a series that gets the look and feel of rural Japan absolutely right. The backdrops are sumptuous and detailed, and every bit as good as you'd see in a Studio Ghibli film, which is as high a compliment as you can get, especially for a television series. Several times, I'd pause the show just to show off the background art, which somehow seems to get more and more beautiful as the seasons pass.
Tim: Non Non Biyori was a big surprise for me when it was first announced. I mean, a school girl series focusing on a variety of girls of different ages instead of a gaggle of high school girls all going to the same exact class together? And having the entire series take place in the countryside, as opposed to the suburbs or city, with gorgeous scenery that wouldn't look out of place in Yokoyama Kaidashi Kikoku? I was baffled a bit, honestly. And pleasantly surprised by how well it came out, too.
Unlike Carlos, I've never been to Japan. But I have been on the occasion out to the country, and while I couldn't appreciate it much when I was little, there is a sense of nostalgia I have for it all the same anyway. Non Non Biyori captures said nostalgia perfectly. It's not a school kid series - in fact, school antics are very little of the series - but a series about both the kids and adults in the series going out, exploring, or just celebrating life. This gives it an all-ages appeal not seen in many other series of its kind, which tend to focus on juvenile comedy or pop culture references.
Given that this is a character-driven show with little real plot (apart from the everyday events of our students), it makes sense that the characters and their voice actors are some of our primary points of interest. We've mentioned powerhouse voice actress Kana Asumi (Popura Taneshima, Wagnaria!! / Nyarko, Nyarko-san before, and as adorably diminutive junior high schooler Komari "Koma-chan" Koshigaya, she gets to channel a bit of Napoleon complex without being as much of a motormouth as usual. Ayane Sakura (Merry Nightmare, Yumekui Merry) is pleasantly spunky as Komari's younger (but taller) sister Natsumi "Nattsun" Koshigaya. The real show-stealer, though, is Kotori Koiwai (Iwai Mushiyanokoji, Severing Crime Edge) as pint-sized Renge Miyauchi, the first-grader whose constant Grumpy Cat frown belies a brilliant sense of wonder and irrepressible personality. In a cast of kids who act like kids, the most precocious of the lot is overdeveloped city-mouse fifth-grader Hotaru Ichijo, played by relative newcomer Rie Murakawa (Aoi Futaba from Vividred Operation) who gets a bit of overeager "admiration" for "Koma-chan-sempai" that is played largely for laughs. Also played for laughs: Komari and Natsumi's older brother Suguru (whose voice you never once hear during the course of the show), and their seemingly lackadaisical, but well-meaning teacher (and Renge's older sister) Kazuho Miyauchi (Kaori Nazuka - Subaru from .hack).
Background music and themes tend to be perfunctory in many television series these days, but that's not the case here. The opening theme ("Nanairo Biyori" by indie pop band nano.RIPE, who also provide themes forHanasaku Iroha and Humanity Has Declined) hits exactly the right notes, and the understated soundtrack from Hiromi Mizutani (Hell Girl, Toriko) adds exactly what is needed, though Non Non Biyori also knows when to turn off the music and rely on the sounds of nature ... or sometimes even nothing at all.
Carlos: Having read the manga since watching the anime, I can confirm that there are really few changes from the original work by Atto (whose only prior non-doujin publication was a single volume seinen fantasy manga called "Koakuma Meringue"); director Shinya Kawatsura (Kokoro Connect) and veteran scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida (Aria) know how not to mess with a good thing here, and more importantly, how to translate it effectively to the anime medium. Compared to many "cute girls do things cutely" shows out there, there is relatively little fan service -- in fact, one of my favorite scenes involves the realistic reaction of a junior high schoolgirl involving a forgotten childhood episode being caught on videotape, and the subsequent look of sheer mortification on her face. In any other show these days, this would be a fetishized plot point, but not here, and this gives me a bit of hope for future shows.
Tim: The fact that Non Non Biyori is able to take the mundane events of real life - going to a candy store, doing weed pulling, or even hiking up a mountain to see the sunset - and make them fun and exciting is a testament to how great its writing is. In addition to the hilarious tape scene Carlos mentioned earlier, I'd like to note another episode I really enjoyed; the episode where Renge, her sisters, and the candy store owner Kaede (typically known as, well, Candy Store) go up to see the first sunrise of the New Year. It shows how Kaede and Renge first met, the former babysitting her. (And even as a baby, Renge still has the Grumpy Cat expression.) It's an all-around cute episode, and the flashback scenes spliced between the mountain climbing is one of the better done flashback sequences I've seen in anime in a long time. The episode's ending is also darn cute.
I also found myself really liking Komari. Being an older sibling myself, I know the feeling of trying to use my own age as a means of superiority, only for it to humorously backfire. (Such an example in this series; Komari tries to use her more "mature" taste in J-Pop to show her age amongst her younger friends. Unfortunately, it backfires on her friend and Hotaru, who start talking about more mature Western and classical music.) Same thing with the height situation; when I was 12, I had cousins my age that shot up literally a foot above me, and it made me feel tiny. I was in my mid-teens before I caught up to them. And a lot of conversations between her and her teasing younger sister Natsumi wouldn't have felt out of place in my own childhood growing up. As someone who seldom connects anime with real-life, a lot of scenes with the various siblings and their families in Non Non Biyori hit me close to home. To me that is what separates it from, say, Azumanga Daioh, which will funny, had a cast that was more into archetypes than as full-fledged characters. In comparison, Non Non Biyori's cast felt very organic, much like with the casts of Aria and Hidamari Sketch.
At twelve episodes, Non Non Biyori doesn't overstay its welcome ... in fact, we came away from the series really wishing for much more. This gentle, carefree, laid-back look at life in modern rural Japan is, to us, pitch-perfect, and easily lands among our very favorite new shows. Fortunately Non Non Biyori sold very well in Japan, so more of it should be on the way soon.
Recommended Audience: There is far less fan service than in the typical schoolgirl anime - there is one episode involving school swimsuits (mostly played for laughs), and there's some slight hints of one schoolgirl crushing on another schoolgirl, though this isn't explored in any real depth. Apart from that, the worst thing that happens is probably the kids' teacher making them plant rice for a couple of hours, which is probably technically illegal child labor in most jurisdictions, but also completely played for laughs. No nudity, no violence. Definitely okay for older children and above.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source from Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subtitles.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Non Non Biyori © 2013 Atto / Kadokawa Shoten / Media Factory / Asahigaoka Branch School Management Association
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