A Rough Sketch Of Happiness

Wasshoi! Washo-shoi!

Next thursday will see the return of Hidamari Sketch (also known in the USA as Sunshine Sketch) to the small screen. After 3 seasons, 2 OVAs and over a dozen DVD-exclusive episodes, the audience does not seem to be quite done with this adorable franchise just yet. No other show within the moe genre has ever received this many episodes. This raises quite a lot of questions, especially since Hidamari Sketch is not as well known in the west as other cash cow moe juggernauts like K-ON! or Lucky Star. It is rather obvious to see why. Hidamari Sketch lacks the universal appeal present in the few shows that manage to set themselves apart from the many, many other shows about four high school girls being adorable. In fact, Hidamari Sketch is rather lame. Nothing ever happens, nothing makes sense, there seems to be no pacing, nor a plot and most conversations take place on the intellectual level of a five-year-old. Nevertheless, Hidamari Sketch has a wholly different appeal. It has a certain charm few other shows can call their own, and that is why I love it to bits.

A rag-tag bunch of wide-faced misfits

Hidamari Sketch introduces us to Yuno: a timid, yet ambitious girl not to be confused with the deranged stalker of the same name. Yuno moves away from home to attend Yamabuki High, a school renowned for its fine arts program. How exactly Yamabuki manages to attract students from all over the country when its only known art teacher is a shameless airhead who can’t act her age is beyond me, but Yuno manages to make it in and settles down in the Hidamari Apartments, located right across the street from the school grounds. Surprised why such a conveniently located dorm still has an apartment for rent, Yuno quickly finds out that the Hidamari apartments are rumoured to house only the most madcap of Yamabuki students.

Left to right: (top row) Sae, Miyako, Yuno and Hiro; (bottom row) Nazuna and Nori

Yuno quickly finds herself caught in the Hidamarites’ alleged zaniness and starts her daily life as an art student, which mostly consists of doing jack all. At the start of season 3, Yuno, Miyako, Hiro and Sae are joined by the level-headed, computer-savvy Nori and the cripplingly shy Nazuna, who was dumped at Hidamari by her parents without questions asked. As is almost always the case with these kinds of anime, the characters are well distinguished. Yuno is the naive, cute one, Miyako the ditz, Hiro the motherly type and Sae the neurotic straight man; but the characters often manage to break loose from these tried-and-true archetypes with each girl coming with her own set of quirks. Ume Aoki often resorts to some very extreme measures to enable her viewers to set her characters apart but overal, it’s the personalities that make them memorable.

What is even more striking is the subtle character development weaved into the plot. Especially Yuno grows quite a bit for an anime comedy character. In the first episodes, Yuno is very naive and insecure, but when season 3 rolls around, she has grown into a much more cheerful and confident child. One scene in particular sees her trying to take care of freshly-joined Nazuna, recognizing some of her old self in the fragile new tenant. Taking a cue from a shoujo manga she recently had, Yuno suddenly reaches out for Nazuna’s hand and squeezes it tightly with a reassuring smile. Cue Nazuna freaking out and an audience realizing that, despite the newfound maturity, Yuno is still the same old dorky Yuno.

Yuno has a very… vivid imagination.

Even though Hidamari Sketch -just like every other show within its genre – leans heavily towards the more cheerful and idealistic end of the spectrum, a handful of episodes do see Yuno struggling with uncertainties surrounding her dream of becoming an artist. Yuno often works hard, yet her grades do not always make up for it. Even the usually breezy and childish Miss Yoshinoya proves to be quite a torn in the side. It is a rather surprising reality check for a genre usually dominated by characters who either breeze through any sort of work or simply cannot be bothered. In the earlier episodes, Yuno even seems envious of her best friend Miyako, who can laze around all day and still produce genius-level art like it is dopamin. Of course, there is never any real bad blood between the friends and more often than not Yuno realizes there is no reason to cry over spilled milk within five minutes, but it is always nice to see some more profound storytelling in a show like this.

The Shinbo factor

Up to now, the still ongoing manga has been adapted into three separate seasons – Hidamari Sketch in 2007, Hidamari Sketch x 365 in 2008 and Hidamari Sketch x ☆☆☆ in 2010 – by studio Shaft and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, who is probably the most well-known (and to many a fan, the only known) anime director of the current generation. Aside from his rather disturbing affinity for twisting the camera in the most incomprehensible angles and being neurotically fixated on specific body parts – especially if they belong to little girls – the Shaft head honcho is best known for his psychedelic artistic vision, often incorporating traditional media, art shifts, photography and other sorts of visual quirks into his works. Over the years, Shinbo has mastered getting as much artistic value out of as little money as possible, yet this method has not always been welcomed with wide open arms. A large portion of the anime viewership has grown tired, even annoyed, of his signature style, mostly because they think all the visual nonsense adds nothing to the story.

Judging by everyone’s face, there must be something horribly wrong with that cake.

Hidamari Sketch, however, is a different beast altogether. The barely-there premise and art school setting give Shinbo complete carte blanche to do whatever he wants to and get away with it. The visual presentation of Hidamari Sketch creates a certain sense of consistency, yet still manages to surprise even after 47 episodes. Mundane actions, such as ascending the stairs or ringing a doorbell, are often substituted by reminiscent abstract animations. The six main characters are represented by symbols – crosses for Yuno, a cat’s paw for Miyako, a hair bun for Hiro, glasses for Sae, a computer mouse for Nori and hair bands for Nazuna – that are integrated in the visual presentation at any given moment. Shinbo’s playing around with traditional art gets more spotlight then ever before, with famous paintings crossing over with the infamous ‘wideface’ art style often leading to hilarious results. The theme of the season often blends into the  directing as well. x 365 is chock full of references to the number 365 or the days in a year, and x ☆☆☆ takes this even further, with stars being a recurring motive in the presentation – just watch the OP, for starters – and three symbols being counted often serving as a transition between scenes.

Slices of life, slices of time

The 47 episodes of Hidamari Sketch can be watched in any order. Chronology is not really an issue in the world of Hidamari Sketch, as the sole main event in terms of plot (Nazuna and Nori joining the cast) separates the first two seasons from the third. Hidamari Sketch aired out of chronological order in the first place, which leads to some fantastic results. Later episodes often refer to events from earlier ones, and sometimes, it’s even the other way around, thanks to the messed-up continuity order of the show. An early episode of the first season shows Yuno taking care of a butterfly in her room, and only a few episodes later we see how she met the caterpillar that would become her pet. The de facto pilot episode of the show, that sees Yuno moving into the Hidamari apartments and befriending her fellow tenants, does not even show up until the second season and the first season’s opening sequence references some scenes from the manga that would not even be adapted in that season.

Note the complete lack of background. This happens a lot in Hidamari Sketch.

This makes Hidamari Sketch a show exceptionally fit for being watched – if I can use a horribly overused anime line- at your own pace and by your own rules. You can easily watch five episodes in a row, or one episode whenever you are feeling a bit under the weather. You can watch it in airing order, in chronological order, in reverse order or completely at random. Like a true slice of life, Hidamari Sketch has no real beginning or end. The series as a whole is a scrapbook chronicling random events from Yuno’s life. This forms a stark contrast with the individual episodes, which all religiously stick to kicking off and wrapping up in the same way. Once an episode, you will see Yuno waking up and turning off her alarm and ending the day with a bath in differently coloured water every time. All these elements invoke a certain sense of comfort and familiarity. Hidamari Sketch is a show that welcomes you with open arms no matter at which point you get into it.

Better than Prozac

Unlike many other shows within its vaguely defined genre, Hidamari Sketch has no real aspirations to be a comedy. Sure, there are jokes – most of them courtesy of Miyako being her random old self – but usually, Hidamari focuses on trying to be heartwarming before trying to be a riot. At most times, it knows its strengths. The original manga is of the 4-panel variety, but rather than trying to present a punchline at the end of every gag, Hidamari Sketch usually treats us to a heartwarming or cute situation. It is one of the only things that can cheer me up when I’m feeling under the weather, or make me relinquish my usual cynical mindset. Comparing Hidamari Sketch to blog favourite Yotsuba&! would be a considerable few steps too far, but the experience is rather similar.

What better way to end this post?

While it usually avoids jokes only the most hardcore of hardcore otaku would get and even manages to be adorable without using the checklist of trite moe elements that are practically synonymous with success by now, Hidamari Sketch is very much an acquired taste. The franchise greatly expects you to like Aoki’s designs and over-the-top reactions. In some cases, it could come over as boring, even more so than other shows in its genre. Yet at the right place, at the right time and with the right mindset, Hidamari Sketch produces a cheerful feeling only very few other shows can replicate. It is an intrinsically generic and boring premise brought to life by means of a discrete and memorable execution in all its facets. Ume Aoki’s instantly recognizable character designs, Shinbo’s imaginative art design and the warmth in its storytelling all contribute to what makes Hidamari Sketch that one slice-of-life show that does not only get a fourth season, but deserves one too.

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