Nymphs and Shepherds: Moyashimon

Moyas[h]imon: Tales of Agriculture
2004-2014 Ishikawa Masayuki

“The series follows Tadayasu Sawaki, a first-year college student at an agricultural university, who has a unique ability to see and communicate with microorganisms. Del Rey Manga licensed the manga, but only released two volumes in English in North America. An 11-episode anime television series adaptation, animated by Shirogumi and Telecom Animation Film, aired between October and December 2007 on Fuji TV’s Noitamina programming block. An 11-episode live action adaptation was aired on Noitamina between July and September 2010. An 11-episode animated second season titled Moyasimon Returns aired from July to September 2012.”
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moyasimon:_Tales_of_Agriculture

Characters:

Tadayasu Souemon Sawaki (our hero)
Kei Yūki (our hero’s childhood friend)

The doppelgänger girls:
Yū Kaneshiro (Okinawa)
Marie (France)

Keizō Itsuki (the prof)

Kaoru Misato (tall, shifty, later likes Hasegawa)
Takuma Kawahama (short, rotund, a returnee from Mexico)

Haruka Hasegawa (the rich girl)
Hazuki Oikawa (neat freak with a scooter)
Aoi Mutō (miss ufo world traveller)
Aya Hirooka (sempai bartender)
Hana Kanō (a craft brewery owner)

 

I need to write something and it might as well be on Moyashimon. The alternative is a report on the first ever World Court in The Hague prosecution under the heretofore secret World Leader Likeness Sex Robot Ban Treaty (2015). From a quick perusal of the filings, I can see that one will get brain-bleachy rather fast. [Later: strange; the filings have been scrubbed from the web. I blame Soros and the Fergus Illuminati]

The slice-of-agricultural-university-life manga ran 10 years, spawned 2 anime seasons and a live-action series and was often considered as ‘The Agricultural School Genshiken’. Perhaps Genshiken was ‘The Otaku Moyashimon’ ? Yet only now are thieving enthusiastic English language leeches urrm fans getting around to completing a scanlation of the manga – and only, I suspect because of a certain character. The licensing for an official English release expired with the DelRay efforts, reverting back to the Big K, who have kept it on ice. Folks who may have stumbled on it remember it as quirky, good-natured and mostly about cartoon bacteria and lovingly drawn young women.

Unlike the Genshiken, it featured a promotional view of (agricultural) university life that recalled the otherwise forgettable ecchi attempt to boost enrolment at a Hokaido university Fine Arts program, ‘Boys be Ambitious‘. The comparison exposes Moyashimon’s first weakness; there is a reason young uns get sent off to expensive universities but aside from some drunken yuri subtext, nobody is getting any in aggie land. The romantic wasteland almost justifies the thin plot complication of (Tadayasu Souemon) Sawaki’s childhood friend (Yūki) Kei vanishing and reappearing as a very fetching goth loli themed crossdresser with suppressed feelings for our hero. Not that it goes anywhere, except that the mangaka throws in two more samefaced girl Kei-chan doppelgängers to confuse the issue. The French one, Marie or the Okinawan one Yū might eventually grow to have some feelings for our hero Sawaki but who knows?

Otherwise, weird fermented foods of the world, as well as more common Japanese staple fermented foods and beverages are explained at great length and much alcohol is consumed by the older members of Itsuki-sensei’s lab seminar class. Ag school is interesting, perhaps you should try it.

Three broad approaches characterise and redeem the manga (and therefore give the two seasons of anime something to lean on)

The drawing is first-rate, detailed, interesting, pro-level accomplished. The anime by necessity simplifies the character designs and shifts the visual emphasis to the slice-of-life gag panel stylization. The manga is far richer in detail, mostly elaborate scene pages and near portrait-sketch renderings of the women characters.

The woman characters are strong and are written as having a degree of agency, even as they are definitely there for eye-appeal. At least they are not moe-blobbed and/or top-heavy, even as the plot convolutions that flesh them out are well-worn chestnuts. In comparison, the two dodgy guy upper-classmen are thin and ridiculous until well into the story. Masayuki-sensei likes to draw attractive young women characters. He revels in costuming them in leggy outfits that are heavy on belts, buckles, heels and boots but avoids wrecking their backs with huge boobies. By this last trick alone, the women characters gain a higher degree of in-story seriousness than one would at first expect. When he grunges a girl character out, she appears formidable and capable, rather than a mess. When he overdoes it with fashionista fetish-punk or Harajuku wear, the effect still works. Agricultural University is posited as a place where young women can play with their style while still being taken seriously. The effect extends to Kei as Yuki-chan, who as honorary Moyashimon coed gets to have far more fun than Kei-kun.

Kei Yuki-as-chan is also why cheap leeching anglo-outlanders like me are getting to read the last remaining volumes of Moyashimon. Once again, we are indebted to a certain honey-themed group of fans who have a taste for gender-bending characters.

While Kei-chan manages to steal a kiss from a surprised Sawaki shortly after their (re-)appearance, it takes some 100 chapters before Kei-chan finally pops and embarks on an halfway-around-the-world pursuit of their childhood friend who has gone off to meet one of the rival doppelgängers, Marie. Even as they dissemble when asked if they are smitten. This is rather tame. Even annoying (1)

On the other hand, there is more than enough going on around the lab class to keep Sawaki busy, along with the venue changes offered by grumpy dominatrix rich girl Haruka Hasegawa’s problems and resources, Itsuki-sensei’s vast web of political and financial connections, a nearby ancient sake brewery turned booze shop and secret lair to wealthy sake connoisseurs and assorted other plot diversions. Then there is our hero’s ambivalence towards his gift – he never had an easy time of it being able to sense and communicate with microorganisms and temporarily losing the ability was even more disturbing. Such is the power of a stolen kiss from your best bud who is now a hawt goth loli girl.

While Kei has unresolved feelings for their childhood friend, the manifestation of these seems to occur by whim of a dice-roll or whenever the story is at a loss for a new arc. That the plot device that they were always considered effeminate (and hated it) and so decided the G. Gordon Liddy out their issues (per anime, not manga) by transforming into a stunningly attractive gothic Lolita (who just happens to have 2 doppelgängers in the story) somehow gets folded into their conflicted feelings for Sawaki and provides a clue as to the larger structural problems witin Moyashimon’s story telling.

I know this fits a well-worn manga/ anime story trope. The “I like him but I’m a guy – I’ll become a girl” is a common trope but I wish the creative types of Japan (and the rest of the world) would give this one a break. Unfortunately this kind of trick is too easy, especially when the approach to story-telling is “make a neat place, fill with attractive, quirky characters and then let them bumble around and see what we can write about“. Verisimilitude Overload Failure occurs when too many things get thrown at the wall and random bits stick and stick together. You can get away with this kind of mess for a short tale but once the story establishes itself and settles in for the long haul, cracks begin to show.

Time to add another new character and change the venue!

“Oh shit, she looks like Kei, again!”

“So what: we’ll stick it in the “unresolved shit” basket and we can pull it out later when we are short of ideas.”

“Sounds good to me…”

Kei-as-chan may be one of the most interesting charas in Moyashimon but kitchen sink gender theory will get nowhere with them because the character is written as a complete mystery. They are dropped in as edgy eye candy and comic relief. They don’t even get to be part of a harem because there is no harem of suitors after our slouching protrag. He just gets dragged around to interesting places with formidable women because he can sense bacteria. Any time Kei-as-chan or otherwise wanted to declare an interest they would undoubtedly win something by default.

Since Kei-chan was around long before the Genshiken‘s Hato Kenjiro made their debut, I speculate that the latter’s appearance might owe some debt of inspiration to the former and that the complexity of the Hato character only benefited from the earlier version. Kei-as-chan still gets to do more in Moyashimon as chan than the they did as kun, even as their stepping-in-to-save-the-day activities usually involve displaying themselves to an audience.

I think the mangaka was too busy trying to balance the “super-power” of the MC, against the rest of the ensemble and then juggle the eye candy and the voluminous side-trips into bacteria and fermentation lore. It is remarkable how little of the story relies on our hero’s ability to “see” and “communicate” with microbes. That the author goes easy on the trick makes it possible for the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to get sucked into many 7 page talking bacteria omake chapters detailing how miso, sake, mirin and the like is made.

I had no idea you can make your own natto. Apparently you use a bit of leftover as a starter.

We might even venture that Moyashimon got away with its odd story-telling conceits by situating its appeal not only within the ranks of “educational” manga but also within the ranks of manga that celebrate culturally nationalistic lore; in its case the better strain of the type. While Moyashimon goes on about the culture and the cultures of fermented food oddities from all over the world, it never loses its confidence in the ability of dedicated Japanese enthusiasts, scientists, farmers, chefs and brewers not only to preserve their legacies but to find and appropriate the best that the rest of the world has to offer; even as it notes how the pressures of modernisation/ globalisation threaten the survival of some of these.

Like the recent “Otherworld Restaurant”(Sekai Shokudou) anime, the outlander other and their fare are an opportunity for exchange, learning and localization, rather than a fear-driven imperialistic fantasy or derision.(2) A useful attitude to foster, given the approaching challenges of the 2020 Olympics. Given the sense of doubt that crept over Japan in the wake of the 3/11 tragedies, I can understand how the somewhat confident mood of Moyashimon suddenly felt out-of-place as it wound down to its conclusion. Either that or Moyashimon just ran out of fermented stuff to showcase. Fatigue set in. The Ag Uni ran out of festivals, while less than a full year of subjective time passed for the students.

Despite its meandering ways, Moyashimon never lost its good heart and remains a fun read, even as we outlanders await its conclusion. Ishikawa Masayuki went on hiatus from his next series in 2015, citing eye-strain and fatigue. Perhaps when rested he may revisit his campus? Or perhaps I am missing something important about the entire exercise. Going off to university is a time to see and do new things; the order in which they occur is usually outside of one’s control and for a while, largely opaque as how and why things are as they are. Then new neat shit happens! Wow! So while each arc of Moyashimon needs some excuse to further this trick along in a somewhat predictable way; get through the festival, retrieve the aged Okinawan hooch, follow Hasegawa to France, Put on a mini-Octoberfest, go help Marie with something or other in America, these are all excuses for elaborate journeys of discovery – or at least sightseeing trips with plenty of interesting food and drink.

Okinawa, now that sounds interesting…

Unfortunately, the campus itself is a composite, existing somewhere near both Osaka and Tokyo, so pilgrimage visits are impossible.

I hope the mangaka got a lot of enjoyable research vacations out of the story. If you make it to Japan, do not fail to take in a tour of any modern brewery or sake brewery you can get to. Tours are usually quite reasonably priced and well worth the time spent. The Kirin brewery I went to on a weekday was nearly empty: we got the whole tour to ourselves as the guide practiced her English. And of course, be sure to spend $15 on a bottle of live farm sake (doburoko) as soon as you arrive (and have secured lodgings with a readily accessible WC) – it is a great way to wind down after 24 hours in airports and trains while you inoculate your gut for your stay.

And you can imagine that all those little Moyashimon critters are talking to each other as you partake.

 

ENDNOTES:

(1) Spoiler warning! Highlight to read white-text:
Chapter 118 pulls a rather annoying no homo/ no genderqueer/ was all crossplay therapy or sumthin moment with Kei. To say that Kei remains unresolved, or at least conflicted would be an understatement. Chapter 119 attempts a quickie patch job, which was kind of cute but still feels like a jerk-around. If you are needing a resolutely pro-heterosexual story line, the order of forms is re-established as in any pastoral play. If you were rooting for team rainbow: crap, another jab to the ribs. At least our hero made an effort but in the end remains a slouching, schlub.

(2) This does not stop the mangaka from getting really pissy about fast food and smelly trains in America. Later discussion throws a sop at some of the worst of the criticisms, while re-emphasising the importance of tradition in culture. The mangaka is at a loss to deal with late industrial capitalist accommodations to polyglot cultural mixes, something which is quite common in the Japanese psyche. Europeans, among others also suffer from this. See for example, Jean Baudrillard’s America and Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality.

 

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One thought on “Nymphs and Shepherds: Moyashimon

  1. !! Moyashimon! I haven’t been keeping up with the current releases as well as I should, I suppose, but I look forward to catching up. It was a fun anime full of microbiology love, and I enjoyed Del Rey’s first two volumes as well.
    I think your observations on the nationalistic trend in it, and the appeal to traditionalism, are both pretty intriguing as well – it’s a strange mix of elements, isn’t it?

    Also, I don’t know if you know, but Ishikawa did another short piece on transgender topics, the first chapter in Shuukan Ishikawa Masayuki – which is the kind of farce I think might suffer from translation issues in addition to complete ludicrousness, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a bit heartwarming in parts. In any case, I think Ishikawa might have a vested interest in this topic, even apart from Kei-chan.

    Best wishes~

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