On the eighth day of anime, an anime studio sent to me…

…eight, adorable piglets.

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(And yes, I am dreadfully behind on 12 Days, but let’s carry on, shall we?)

Perhaps the most underrated title of the year, Silver Spoon is an elegantly quiet story of finding one’s place—in one’s family, in social circles, and perhaps most importantly, in one’s self.

Our protagonist, Yugo Hachiken is a young high school student hailing from the busy, large city of Sapporo. After failing to pass the entrance exams for his top school choice, he decides to enroll at a small, agricultural school under the assumption that as a less prestigious, and non traditional curriculum would be easier and less rigorous, thereby leaving him with more time and energy to prepare for his college entrance exams.

It’s an all too-familiar story, which makes Hachiken so relatable. And it’s an especially good one for any high school student to watch–especially those who are uncertain (or in some cases, too certain) of their futures and their lifelong dreams.

My name is Yugo Hachiken. I have no idea what I want in life and have no idea what I'm interested in.
My name is Yugo Hachiken. I have no idea what I want in life and have no idea what I’m interested in.

Beyond the personal narrative of Hachiken’s coming-of-age, is a larger narrative that comments on agricultural industry and the tension existing between traditional and modern practices and cultivation models. Considering the age we live in now where farmers make up of only a tiny fraction of the population, we tend not to think too much about where our food comes from beyond the store. In the US, for instance, less than 1% of the population claims “farming” as their occupation. [1] Particularly in Japan, where the farming population has not only declined in number but is also facing the problem of an aging farming population, rethinking agricultural practices is a hot topic.

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So much for an "easy" high school experience...
So much for an “easy” high school experience…

Another Charlotte’s Web…Or Not

When they first introduced the piglets in episode 3, upon seeing them, and Hachiken’s instantaneous attachment to the runt of the litter (later unceremoniously dubbed “Buta-don” or Pork Bowl) raised some nostalgia feels in me when I was struck by how his reaction resonated with the opening scene from E.B. White’s children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, where a young girl named Fern saves the runt of the litter from the slaughterhouse.

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small,
could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his
daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one
thing, a little runty pig is another.”

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This
is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

For those who have read the book, Wilbur is a young piglet who is fortunate enough to be in the company of good friends who are compassionate and clever enough to find a way to save him from his fate to the slaughterhouse. It is a sweet story of love and sacrifice, and of loyalty and friendship.

Silver Spoon is not this kind of story, and tells a story that while full of heart, never loses itself to the sentimentality expressed in by White’s Fern Arable. Unlike White, Arakawa Hiromu (yes, the very same mangaka who authored Fullmetal Alchemist) does not let ourselves get bogged down by undue sentimentality.

The senpai's idea of a thank you gift for helping out.
The upperclassmen’s idea of a thank you gift. Nothing like a freshly decapitated chicken to start off your day.

Pork Bowl’s appointment with the slaughterhouse, unlike Wilbur’s, is never really a point of uncertainty. Rather, it is Hachiken’s feelings about having Pork Bowl becoming meat, reconciling the fact that every slab of meat and sliver of bacon he’s enjoyed came from a live (and heart-stoppingly-adorable) creature that becomes his internal battle. Rather than adopt the resigned “it’s-just-meat-don’t-get-attached” mentality of his classmates, who all are from farming backgrounds, Hachiken can’t help but feel affection for Pork Bowl.

Resident city boy takes a shine to the newest runt of the litter...
Resident city boy takes a shine to the newest runt of the litter…

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It’s a stance of uncertainty, rather than hypocrisy, and one that Hachiken is continually grappling with. The charm and emotional attachments he makes with the animals he comes in contact with–whether they be cows, horses, or pigs–bemuse his classmates, who can’t help but respect his naiveté and wonder themselves if it’s possible to look at animals at not just livestock or food products.

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To eat or not to eat, that is the question.
To eat or not to eat, that is the question.

There’s nothing like a little anthropomorphism to justify the sparing of an animal’s life. Unlike Wilbur, we are never allowed access to Pork Bowl’s thoughts (indeed, even the naming scheme employed in Silver Spoon alienates us from considering Pork Bowl as something other than food, though it doesn’t stop Hachiken from loving the little guy anyway).  But Silver Spoon never loses sight of the realistic portrayal of the farming industry. Pork Bowl may be the cutest pig ever, and maybe even a friend to Hachiken, but it is nothing more than an animal to be eaten.

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While moral vegetarians may find Pork Bowl’s fate and Hachiken’s decision to personally buy and eat him horrifying, I actually find it very fitting within the moral parameters that the story sets from the very beginning. Arakawa’s aim is not to preach or to deride the practice of raising animals for human consumption–rather she sets out to show us a balanced picture of what it looks like and what it is all about–tender care and a lot of sacrifice. The anime never flinches or attempts to shield us from the cold reality of the slaughterhouse: the fact that innate cuteness isn’t enough to spare a pig from its inevitable destination as being prepared and served up on a platter (by the hands of the one who took care of him, no less!) It’s this resolute narrative clarity that elevates Silver Spoon from predictably heartwarming to masterfully delicious storytelling.

Why does meat have to taste so delicious?!
Why does meat have to taste so delicious?!

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And thus the naming cycle continues for a new generation of piglets.
And thus the naming cycle continues for a new generation of piglets.

[1] From Ag 101 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Read more at: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/demographics.html

[2] From “Before Breakfast” of Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, published by Scholastic, Copyright © 1952.

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2 thoughts on “Requiem for a Pork Bowl: Sentimental Pragmatism in Silver Spoon

  1. I really liked the strightforward, honest nature of the story. Not only did I feel for Hachiken and the rest of the (very well characterized considering the short length) cast, but I also learned a surprising amount about farming and agriculture in general.

    Never thought about comparing it to Charlotte’s Web, but the comparison seems obvious in retrospect. Very nicely done 🙂

    Silver Spoon also reminded of a Japanese film that came out a few years ago, which had a similar premise: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_Days_with_a_Pig. Thoughts?

    Like

    1. I also learned a lot about animals and agriculture in this show. Farming is a tough and often risky occupation–there are so many factors to consider and the story did a good job of tying in the character development with the various problems farm businesses daily face.

      I haven’t watched Schools Days with a Pig but it looks really interesting–I’m especially curious to how it actually ends. Will add that to my to-watch list!

      Like

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