Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Yuugo Hachiken is feeling burnt out by life – he's reached a point where he feels like he can't focus on the future and is worn out by his constant quest for academic success. When his teacher suggests that he attend a rural agricultural high school to try and get some perspective, Hachiken decides to go for it. But life at Oezo Agricultural High School isn't the easy ride a part of him was expecting, and he soon finds out that his classmates are just as motivated as the ones he left behind. Can Hachiken find himself amongst the pigs and chickens? Or will learning where eggs come from just send him further into his own depression?
Hiromu Arakawa's agricultural coming of age tale's anime adaptation reached English-speakers long before now, which makes it feel like a real treat to finally get the chance to read the manga. Based roughly on her own experiences growing up in Hokkaido, Silver Spoon is the story of Yuugo Hachiken, an academically gifted student from a fairly prestigious Sapporo school system who flees the dissatisfaction of his life for an agricultural high school in the middle of nowhere. This first volume balances Hachiken's mental state with farm life humor, and the result is a volume that feels both grounded and comedic in equal measures.
A large part of this is because Arakawa doesn't rush the reveal for why Hachiken is at Oezo in the first place – in fact, by the end of this book, we still don't have the full story, although we can make an educated guess that parental pressure and an all-encompassing need to be the best were major contributing factors. The Hachiken we meet is someone who is very obviously out of his element but also clearly not sure what “his element” might be – he remarks multiple times that he feels like he's lacking something because, unlike his new (and presumably old) classmates, he doesn't have a set goal for life. In a culture where you're not expected to decide that until university, it may seem odd that Hachiken feel penalized for feeling adrift in high school, but given Japan's academic culture, it does work – the competitiveness for the best schools and careers begins early, and Hachiken's state might be equated with not having decided on a major at the end of your sophomore year of college. That Hachiken is at a much more vulnerable age as a high school student simply compounds his problems.
As it turns out, his teacher was right to send him to an agricultural school in an animal husbandry program. As anyone who has worked on a farm can tell you, there's not a lot of room for downtime, and for someone totally new to the experience, what downtime there is may be spent feeling exhausted rather than overthinking your own problems. Given that Hachiken has never done the degree of manual labor required of animal husbandry before, that goes double for him, and Arakawa does a delightful job of demonstrating both his fatigue and his horror at each new discovery about where his food comes from, using both body language and facial exaggeration in the art to get her points across.
This component of the story is likely to be the most difficult for people who'd rather not think about the finer points of anus vs. cloaca or the fact that bacon was once a baby pig raised for the express purpose of being butchered. That said, that's another one of the strong points of the volume – while it doesn't go into excruciating detail, Arakawa makes no bones about the systems that deliver fresh animal products to the table, and she, via Hachiken, points out the delights of farm-to-table eating, with the most pointed scene this time being Hachiken chowing down on some smoked chicken and remarking on the lack of chemical tastes. (Personally, I find the conditions the laying hens are kept in more upsetting.) There's a lack of sentimentality that helps to get the lessons Hachiken is learning across, and that is true of both his interactions with the livestock and with his new classmates, who can't quite figure him out. Most of them treat him with mild amusement, but occasional issues do arise, largely because both sides make assumptions about rural or urban life, which again feels very real in the context of the story.
Silver Spoon gets more right than wrong in Hachiken's exploration of agricultural life, both in terms of how he experiences it and as a metaphor for finding himself in a new setting. The thrill of his first tractor ride also marks one of the first times he lets himself go on campus; he fully relaxes and just lets himself enjoy and get enthused about something without worrying about the consequences or what it means for his future. Likewise watching him get sucked into a pulling race perfectly mirrors the reactions of the uninitiated seeing one for the first time while also serving to give him another opportunity to acclimate himself to his new life and to allow him to give himself permission not to get stuck in his own head. Some of his less wonderful experiences serve more as humor, such as the side gag where he gets slammed in the groin by a calf looking for milk or his general interactions with horses who know he's afraid of them. (The Holstein Club, of course, is its own special brand of humor. Breed enthusiasts of any kind can be scary.) There's also a running theme of Hachiken learning that there's more than one kind of knowledge, and it's this thread that's likely to be drawn through the series as central to his character development. Hachiken has been raised in an environment that prizes academic knowledge above all, and he's internalized that along with the need to be the top student. But his new friends and classmates, while academically his inferiors, are far superior in practical and animal science knowledge, things that he never had to think about before. Presumably it is this lesson, which he will learn throughout the course of the larger series, that will help him to make peace with himself and to find his own path in life. If this volume is anything to go by, that's going to be a journey worth following him on.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Nice balance of humor with pathos and farming trivia, story doesn't wallow in sentimentality or gross-out moments
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