Please do not fall asleep while reading this column...
It's been a couple of years since I watched Non Non Biyori, but it still remains my platonic ideal for being a sleepy, slow-paced, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant iyashikei (commonly translated as "healing") anime. In my mind, Non Non Biyori is a special kind of show, one where I consider the fact that I fell asleep during each episode of it a point in its favor rather than against it. And while there have certainly been shows of the same ilk that have come and gone since then, none of them (aside from Non Non Biyori Repeat, of course) have quite managed to capture that same feeling, the one that gives you the sensation of laying out in the sun and taking a nap when you watch the show. And I've missed shows like that. So I'm happy to report this season has brought us not one, but two shows that channel the spirit of Non Non Biyori in different ways: Tanaka-kun is Always Listless and Flying Witch.
To be clear, neither Tanaka-kun nor Flying Witch are exactly like Non Non Biyori, but there are enough points of intersection between the three of them – and their overall characters similar enough – that I think it's, at the very least, a fun exercise to look at them together and see how their respective takes on the lazily paced slice-of-life light comedy match up.
The most obvious connection here is that Non Non Biyori director Shinya Kawatsura is also directing Tanaka-kun. The opening seconds of the show are filled with a slow 15-second fade-in from white followed by another 40 seconds of ambient sound before the first line (in a shot of Ohta's mouth that lingers two second before he speaks), mimicking Non Non Biyori's opening, which makes use of the exact same technique in the first episode of its first season. And although Tanaka-kun doesn't feature the same kind of pastoral beauty that its country cousin does, Kawatsura's ability to draw out the peace of a moment (however brief) persists – even in the midst of Tanaka-kun's busier school and city settings.
Flying Witch, on the other hand (helmed by long-time J.C. Staff director Katsushi Sakurabi, whose most recent project was directing the lovely OP from Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?), mirrors Non Non Biyori by actually taking place out in a more rural area, albeit one that is at least populated enough to have each grade in a different classroom. Just as Non Non Biyori's fond focus on its particular image of the Japanese agrarian landscape is transportive, so Flying Witch's set pieces – from the liquor shop Nao's parents own to the rice paddies we see on Mikoto's trip in to Aomori to the mini-mall she visits with Chinatsu – provide just enough a sense of detatchment from urban life to make Flying Witch feel as if it exists in a different sort of world, one that perhaps exists more in our collective memory of a time not-so-far-gone than it does in modern reality. In fact, more than Non Non Biyori even, Flying Witch reminded me of Isao Takahata's 1991 Ghibli film, Only Yesterday – if only for its focus on Mikoto's journey to a new place in the early part of the episode.
One of the other points of unity between Tanaka-kun, Flying Witch, and Non Non Biyori is the use of comedy. All three of these shows exhibit the same sort of gently playful kinds of humor; they're filled with the kind of jokes you're more likely to smile softly at that actually laugh out loud at. Where Tanaka-kun has its delightfully casual joke with Ohta carrying Tanaka around, Flying Witch has Mikoto's amusingly sincere gift of the mandrake to Nao, and Non Non Biyori has basically everything Renge says. For the most part, each show's humor is refreshingly understated – while there may be tsukomi (staight man) responses here and there, more often the reactions of the characters are conveyed through facial expressions or through more naturalistic, less explicily staged dialogue. The result of this is that the shows' moments of comedy not only feel less obviously like attempts at being funny, but also avoid shattering the cozy atmosphere being developed through the slower pacing, musical cues, and more down-to-earth voice acting (among other factors).
All these traits are, on their own, excellent pieces for Tanaka-kun, Flying Witch, and genre paragon Non Non Biyori to exhibit, but they're also important because they free each of their shows to pursue (and achieve!) one last, critically important goal.
That goal is the cultivation of a feeling of community within the show. For all Non Non Biyori's reflections on urbanization-induced isolation for those who remain in the countryside, one of its greatest charms was its portrayal of the family-like small town community formed amongst its young cast and their relations. Of course, Tanaka-kun and Flying Witch's differing premises mean that the nature of the interpersonal relationships and social groups we'll see formed as they continue will be somewhat different from the one depicted in Non Non Biyori. And that's fine! Good, even. I'm looking forward as much to seeing a group of pleasantly cheerful high schoolers form around the lacksidasical Tanaka to picnic as I am to witnessing how the slightly eccentric Makoto integrates with her new family and community. All of Tanaka-kun and Flying Witch's atmospheric and deft comedic touches work in the service of this human element, creating a sense of tonal warmth and comfort that accompanies the soothing embrace of developing companionship and affection.
It's through a combination of all these factors that Tanaka-kun and Flying Witch are able to prioritize atmosphere and mood without feeling like weightless sensory experiments. By grounding their aesthetic priorities through their human components of comedy and community, they're able to incubate a much more wholistically iyashikei experience for the audience. By welcoming the viewer into their world via both their tone and character, these two shows invite us to fully embrace what they have to offer. Whether that be a sleepy life in which we're disturbed out of our listlessness by friends and the mild inconveniences of living or the quietly adventurous life of coming to a new place, we can travel into these worlds for a relaxing twenty-five minutes – and, hopefully, leave refreshed.
In case you can't tell by now, I'm pretty excited for both Tanaka-kun and Flying Witch this season. That we get both of them on Saturdays means Saturday is going to be the most relaxing day of anime-watching we've had in a long time. What did you think of these two shows' premiemes? Will you be sleeping with Tanaka and drifting around on a broom with Makoto this season?