Hidamari Sketch and Fluff Media

Hidamari Sketch is currently available on HiDive and Hulu.

Slice-of-life shows are in a weird position where they don’t truly have many equivalents in Western-based markets, or really at all, outside of anime and manga – I briefly touched on this previously in an article on Yuru Camp△, but Hidamari Sketch is a much more widely-known and archetypical example by which to illustrate this. And the most unique facet of these shows is that, in effect, they aren’t about anything.

Which I don’t mean in some hyperbolic sense or as a critique of their narrative themes or as a dig using some other lens for examining some piece of media or literature.

I mean it much more directly: slice-of-live comedies usually have the bare minimum in the way of a structured story on an episode-by-episode basis, with at most some slow development for its main characters running in the background. Most are content to let their supposed subject matter serve as a binding agent rather than explore it in depth, the settings are rarely more important than as set dressing, and it’s always a toss-up whether a conflict will carry over to the other side of the commercial break, let alone a future episode. Rather, Hidamari Sketch consists of completely standalone scenes – they’re so disconnected, in fact, that it’s entirely reasonable for people to watch through all four seasons of the show and never really notice that the majority of its content is actually presented out of its chronological order (even with the dates being in the episode titles).

It’s helpful to understand that the majority of these slice-of-life shows are based on serialized manga that are published as a part of larger magazines in chapters around 25 pages at the most, which in turn means that they’re designed by nature to be operate within a much smaller space than romantic comedies or character-focused dramas might, and with more incentive for each segment to stand independently.

Their tendency toward light interpersonal conflict is almost a necessity of their original format, and one that distinctly shapes how they approach fitting a twenty-minute TV scheduling block. In fact, Hidamari Sketch in particular is based on a running series of four-panel strips, which puts it much closer in execution to Peanuts’ various charming-but-somewhat-unfocused television adaptations than their more common point of comparison of a sitcom, which will regularly carry one or two distinct plotlines through an episode with a consistent theme and tone.

Actually, you know what? Peanuts is an all-American slice-of-life. There’s your equivalency.

Being mostly of a smattering of comedy-sketch-like scenes arranged with modest connective tissue and a minimum of a traditional story, shows like Hidamari Sketch take that extra step even further away from the dramatic than more widespread forms of episodic comedy, which is a marked enough difference in their mentality for them to not always belong in the same conversation.

And while the format is hardly new (Sazae-san’s bite-sized segments have led in this direction for over eighty years and Azumanga Daioh effectively codified the format over a decade and a half ago), the looser structure seems like something designed for the modern era. And sure enough, the web format has been even kinder to these, from recent successes like Aggretsuko’s 15-minute bundles of smaller anecdotes down to a whole host of five-minute sketch-comedy spinoffs that in an earlier era would have been no more than DVD extras to their parent shows. Breaking free of TV scheduling blocks as a mold lets the stories go even smaller, down to pick-me-up morsels that you would watch on a whim were they distributed piecemeal.

Granted, the idea of shattering a show’s continuity into three-to-ten-minute chunks seems counter-intuitive to many people, for whom fiction-based television is primarily thought of as another medium of storytelling. In fact, absent of broadcast-based time restrictions, most produced shows tend to go in the opposite direction, favoring longer running times (Netflix’s actual original dramas trend up toward an hour overwhelmingly more often than down from the cable-standard forty-three minutes). By comparison, slice-of-life anime’s jumping scene-to-scene between plots that are tangentially related at best puts it more in line with a YouTube series – and those, to be frank, aren’t considered substantial in the least by most people.

But there’s the rub – these shows aren’t trying to be substantial. And we already have wildly-successful precedents for existing shows that aren’t necessarily trying to hold more than a compulsory, manufactured plot (sorry, fans of reality TV). The strength of slice-of-life as a sub-genre is in how it embraces its purpose as “fluff media”. Not having a definite end goal to any given episode means that there’s no requirement that any given conversation be steered in a specific direction.

That freedom is liberating in its own way. Even when there’s a stronger through-line, such as Sae’s all-nighter to meet a publishing deadline, there’s a minimum of tension to speak of or pressing in-the-moment objective that the dialogue is concerned with. In a place where other series would load dialogue with express intent, for Hidamari Sketch we’re left to be in the moment. We get scenes about how workaholic tendencies and supporting your peers, but the dialogue moves freely and characters speak their mind more casually than they do to a point. It has a way of being more reflective of how people speak to each other in day-to-day life when they aren’t caught up in a three-act story structure.

It’s not like a lack of growth necessarily kills the show’s character-heavy appeal, either. The main quartet (later six) in Hidamari Sketch, as adored as they are by the show’s fans, don’t honestly have too much of an arc over the show’s four seasons (plus another season’s worth of specials). They naturally show off more facets of themselves as a side-effect of the exposure we get as an audience, but hardly any characteristics that weren’t present from the very start. In the end the main cast still fills the same shoes they did on day one – Hiro’s still the sensitive everygirl, Yuno is still (mostly) the friendly airhead, and Sae is as cool-headed and reliable she was from the start. But to the show’s credit, that also leaves them more open-ended in their way, where the show could come back with fresh content tomorrow and deliver an episode perfectly in line with the first season’s antics back in 2007.

Even further in this direction is Tzuredure Children, a recent favorite, which contains virtually no development whatsoever, being set up as a rotation of variety-show duos in set roles to tell variations on the same flavor of joke. It’s the kind of thing that would never hold up with more than a few minutes’ focus at a time (the Coneheads movie is a great illustrator as to why), but rather would lose nothing as a series of three-minute shorts aside from, perhaps, a certain audience.

And in the end, while it moves forward, anime as a medium and the forms in which it can present a situation are still a bit bound to TV scheduling, partly because the animating and editing incurs a certain up-front cost. It’s a bit like effects-heavy live-action shows in a way – the budget it normally takes to support a polished product generally kicks in at the level of a show that belongs to a longer time slot, anyway, and the exceptions tend to be either non-commercial (She and Her Cat), purely promotional (Cross Road), or an offshoot of a larger series. But even that is starting to change, with more and more shows in the five-to-ten-minute range being produced each year (even considering the general increase in series produced across the board).

After all, slots around ten minutes for TV series aren’t unheard of in any market, and a more regular episode length can give a show the space to explore a certain subject without overly segmenting itself. Both serve their purpose, and the slice-of-life genre molds itself nicely to both without by necessity conforming to either. In turn, it can shrink down even further to match the information-age trend toward bite-sized media with little fuss, when the means of production and distribution make that practical on a regular basis.

I’m delighted to see what kind of fluff we get when we make it there.


Fun tidbit: While many anime undergo visual touch-ups for their home release, Hidamari Sketch may just have the most drastic quality upgrade between the broadcast version and the Blu-ray release that I’ve ever seen:

Effectively a complete do-over.

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