Sweet but with no artificial sugar added!
One thing to keep in mind about anime production is that the people working in the industry are all adults – meaning that there’s usually a touch of a grown-up’s perspective, even in stories dealing with childhood. The age gap between the staff and the children characters can sometimes lead to a glorification of youth and their achievements – especially in a society where that stage of development is heavily valued. Additionally, a large percentage of the anime and manga markets are comprised of children and teenagers, meaning that romanticized portrayals of life are fairly commonplace. This is all fine and dandy, given how diverse anime can be between its different demographics and genres. However, for audiences that prefer stories with a worldview that adheres more to reality, they may have to do a bit of searching within the medium.
This brings me to sweetness and lightning, an anime about a single father named Kouhei raising his energetic daughter, Tsumugi. As its name would imply, sweetness and lightning is a jovial show that uses its cute, unassuming charm to explore the simultaneous joys and struggles of parenthood. Although the anime presents an idealized worldview of its characters and their lives, there’s a striking amount of realism in the portrayal of Tsumugi’s antics and Kouhei’s fatherhood.
The core of Tsumugi’s personality in sweetness and lightning is that of an adorable, energetic kindergartener. She’s a very excitable girl who is slowly learning the ins-and-outs of the world around her; for Tsumugi every new experience brings a sense of wonder and bedazzlement. A flower viewing brings a smile to her face and widens her eyes, whereas a meal consisting of nothing but plain rice is fun because it’s a special dinner with her father – there’s no shortage of excitement in Tsumugi’s life!
What’s nice about these joyous moments in sweetness and lightning is that they are appropriately characterized by Tsumugi’s expressive gestures (as opposed to her simply stating how much fun she’s having). Little details such as Tsumugi kicking her feet while watching a magical girl anime (which totally isn’t Precure) demonstrates her enthusiasm and imparts a degree of realism. As saccharide as sweetness and lightning may be, there’s rarely a time where its bouts of happiness are overstated. Tsumugi’s body language conveys exactly what she’s feeling, making her excitement genuine and justifying the show’s touches of romanticism.
sweetness and lightning is by large a feel-good anime, but it clearly depicts some of the struggles of parenthood, while suggesting others in subtext. Kouhei’s wife passed away a few years after giving birth to Tsumugi, forcing him to raise his daughter as a single parent. Between juggling his job as a high-school math teacher and a father, Kouhei certainly has his work cut out for him. Unfortunately, this results in a few compromises, ranging from Tsumugi having to spend time alone and primarily eating premade meals from the convenience store.
What I liked about sweetness and lightning is that it presented these issues as less of a vehicle for melodrama and more as a consequence of Kouhei’s busy lifestyle (to no fault of his own). We first realize that Tsumugi isn’t eating properly through a scene of Kouhei inspecting her half-eaten bento. This suggests that Tsumugi is starting to tire of the same premade meals that her father is preparing out of convenience. The final nail in the coffin, however, is when Kouhei comes home the following night only to discover his daughter literally drooling over images of meat on the television screen. It’s at this point that Kouhei understands that he needs to start taking more care in providing Tsumugi with better nutrition.
Likewise, there’s a certain degree of unspoken communication in the show that exists between Tsumugi and Kouhei. A good example of this occurs during the opening scene of the first episode where Tsumugi attempts to wake her father up after he sleeps through his alarm. Although her intentions are pure, Kouhei notices his daughter stepping on some of his quiz papers and tells her to stop. Tsumugi quietly apologizes while making a face that shows she’s made a mistake. But suddenly her tummy rumbles, and next thing we know Tsumugi’s mind can only think about food – a small detail that conveys a trait common of kids her age: a short attention span.
As we can see, while Tsumugi’s excitement and whims often dictate her behavior, the entirety of her personality isn’t captured by those sole traits. Tsumugi loves expressing herself in a free-spirited way, but not to the extent of being unruly. It may not be on a level of conscious understanding, but there’s a part of Tsumugi that realizes when it’s appropriate to be noisy and when she should be respectful of the adults. Once again, a small detail that goes a long way.
In short, while sweetness and lightning is a fluffy show, its fluff does little to detract from its core depictions of childhood and parenthood. While its approach may not be to everyone’s tastes, sweetness and lightning shows how even idealized worldviews can feature more realistic portrayals of people and life.
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