Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Jul 29th 2014
Sub.DVD - Complete 1st Season
Hachiken isn't sure how he ended up with his fingers jammed all the way to the back of a friendly calf's slobbery mouth, but that's where he's found himself at Uezo Agricultural High School. Hachi was born and raised in Sapporo, studying his butt off to get into a prestigious school like any other student, but the overwhelming pressure burnt him out hard, and he instead decided to apply to a high school that was as far away from home as he could possibly afford. Uezo was affordable and required on-campus living, so Hachiken made his way to the sprawling farm academy to be coached in all things sweaty and rural, despite having no farm background of his own like all the other students. He has no ambitions, no dreams, and nobody he knows living within miles of his new dorm in the middle of the mountains. He's just entered high school, and Hachi is already giving up.
However, after meeting a host of eccentric classmates who start pushing him to his limit, most interestingly a smart, beautiful equestrian girl named Mikage, Hachiken decides he might have a purpose at Uezo after all. It's up to him to find his own place, with the help of an unlikely porcine pal. Hachi and his new piglet friend "Pork Bowl" are the runts of their respective litters, with very different lives ahead of them, but at Uezo Ag, no dream seems out of reach when you have the support of people (and animals) that care.
Right from the start, Silver Spoon offers anime fans a large dollop of acquired taste. Critter humor abounds, but not all of it is cute and fuzzy. The variety of animal feces, births, and carcasses shown in these 11 episodes is just as varied as the types of cuddly creatures we see. The series often plays out like a comical version of Agricultural Science 101, with characters defined by their specific farm focus (chickens, tractors, horses) as much as their personalities, and a city-slicker male lead who stumbles from subject to subject, baffled and inept and only attending the farming school for highly suspicious reasons. The novelty of the setting and concept are the chief selling points of Silver Spoon, and anyone easily repulsed by seeing a photorealistic dead deer or a calf sliming its way out of its mother's womb for the first time should be aware that Silver Spoon is true to its concept: farm life is gross.
For the most part however, Silver Spoon is a lighthearted adventure through potentially gruesome rituals like poultry-cleaning or calf-birthing. Silly jokes abound about how eggs come out of chicken bum-holes, horses like to chomp on people's hair, and just how quickly cute little piglets turn into big sloppy porkers. The pastoral "salad days of high school" tone that infects most series of this kind is definitely present here, and the wacky cast of characters, each with their own series of running gags, reinforce that light, escapist tone as well. (The large amounts of extremely detailed delicious food don't hurt either. All the ingredients for every meal under the sun at Uezo are fresh and student-grown.) Even if the kids are required to get up at 4 AM, work all day, and then collapse into a bath for only fifteen minutes before curfew, Uezo Ag seems like a place you'd like to attend.
This is aided by the show's production design, which is all soft and bright natural colors on Hiromu Arakawa's familiar rounded puppy-dog-faced characters. The animation isn't always fluid, in fact it seems more deliberately erratic for the sake of a gag most of the time, but the emphasis is on the details of the setting, and maintaining realistic animal anatomy regardless of animation fluidity. (Unless the animals are super-deformed for a gag, but that's more common with the human characters.) If anything, the cartoony humans are the least detailed parts of the show compared to the deep backgrounds and structured animal designs, but the cast's simplicity allows them to emote well and somehow it all seems to fit in the same world. The music is conventional but strong, and fits the tone of the show well, with predominantly dramatic and sweeping orchestral instruments plus some folksy acoustic guitar. Altogether, the show evokes a fresh and uplifting tone like a blast of chill mountain air, and this carries over into the theme songs as well. It's hard to imagine a j-rock (in this case the "j" stands for jazz,) group more bucolic than Sukima Switch, who are getting a lot of anime work these days, in this case Silver Spoon's harmonica-happy ending credits song. Aniplex's DVD release itself offers clean versions of these themes, as well as Japanese trailers and TV spots, but no other notable extras.
Heartwarming it may be, but Silver Spoon's strongest aspect is that it remains warm while never becoming saccharine. Farm life can seem very cruel, and this fact forms the thematic core of Silver Spoon, and the strongest part of its extremely unique perspective. Author Hiromu Arakawa, who has displayed her ability to provoke complicated emotions in her previous hit Fullmetal Alchemist, once again returns to form, asking questions through Silver Spoon that have no concrete answers. Just asking the questions is fulfilling in its own right, however, and in the case of Silver Spoon, Hachiken realizes that running away to "a simpler life" in the mountains isn't possible, because the harsh realities of running a farm mirror the harsh realities he was trying to escape in the city, and are part of the global human experience we must all accept. He makes innocent mistakes that cause the businesses of his friends to suffer, he follows the lives of racehorses who must win races reliably or be sold as meat to keep the ranch in business, and over time, he has to accept that the piglet he named and reared like a pet out of denial of its life purpose must eventually be sent to the slaughterhouse. It slowly dawns on Hachi that life is never fair, and never simple, no matter where you go. This presents him with new questions: "Is it still worth the effort?" and "What's really worth pouring effort into, if you might regret it later or it never pays off?"
Having grown up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, Arakawa is clearly taking the themes of family, friendship, and effort vs. reward that she explored in FMA and bringing them down to earth in a way that reflects her own childhood experiences. It is remarkable and a little bizarre to see what appears to be the inception of the author's fascination with "equivalent exchange" in this unassuming farm life comedy. She seems to reflect on her rural roots with overwhelming fondness, but also a little mature reflection, and clearly wants to share that part of her life with a wider audience. It's an admirable goal for a genre (high school slice-of-life comedy) that is so often concerned only with pure escapism, and Silver Spoon has a wisdom all its own that only its author can express so distinctly. (There is a chilling element to hearing the staff veterinarian say "The most important thing you have to accept before becoming a vet is that you will have to kill animals that you care about," but it's also meditative and meaningful in its own way.)
Coming back to the lighter side of the show, its more chipper elements can often be its weakest. While the show is often funny, it definitely abuses some running gags to the point of tedium. Hachiken's overreaction to every icky aspect of farm life can be taxing, as well as lame sitcom jokes about Mikage's overprotective dad or how bad Tokiwa's grades are. On top of that, even with Hachiken as an audience proxy, the intimate fondness and familiarity with farm life the story exudes seems geared to speak more to those with some experience on a farm and may mildly alienate those who don't have an innate affection for grimy livestock and the hard work needed to keep them happy...before sending them off to be made into food. It's a complicated life, but Hachi falls in love with it fairly quickly, and the audience is clearly expected to follow, which may or may not happen depending on your comfort with the most rural of themes and worldviews.
Perhaps the neatest thing about Silver Spoon, silly or serious though it may be moment-to-moment, is that throughout every vignette, the story is steadily building to a moving resolution of character for Hachiken. True to its ideals, Silver Spoon rewards Hachi for all the seemingly meaningless sideroads he goes down to find his purpose on the farm, and he learns from every single one. The horse ranches teach him the value of bonding with others to gain new perspectives on your own life, the cattle farms teach him that different answers to the same problem can be right for different people, and Pork Bowl the piglet teaches him the greatest lesson of all: you may not get back exactly what you give when you work hard towards a goal, because every once in a while, you'll be rewarded with something greater that you could never have imagined. Silver Spoon is a "slice-of-life" with a distinct and deliberate narrative arc just under the surface, clearly a deeply personal work for its creator, and all around a pleasant and thoughtful time in the boonies.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Educational while remaining warm and funny, diverse character designs and development, honest and thought-provoking perspectives on the circle of life, family ties, and work ethic
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