In Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (1998) Alpha runs a café that no one ever seems to come to. The owner entrusted it to her and went away “somewhere”, she wonders if he’ll ever come back but it’s not a question we take seriously—of course he won’t—the OVA (Original Video Animation) is much more concerned with the texture of daily life than with any dramatic movement, the quiet rattling of a tram or a kettle and the beauty of the sky; often the sky is given more space in the frame than the characters. The sun is intermittently blocked by the clouds not to make any narrative or emotional point but simply because that’s what happens.
Alpha is a robot and as is often the case in Anime, it’s not taken very literally, as with the recent series Violent Evergarden (2018), it’s a metaphor for someone who doesn’t know how to live in the world, someone who doesn’t understand themselves or their feelings. When her hair is messed up by a lightning strike, Alpha starts to cry but claims it’s only to keep the “optical tissue moist” but soon enough she’s crying because her neighbour, seemingly her only one, Ojisan says that she’s like family, or because she’s playing the lute alone.
She is sent a camera to go out and see the world with, it has three hundred shots which seems like a lot but is still finite, every photo is one less you can take, and so she really has to look. But this freezes her, she struggles to press the button, to choose to take a photo and use up a shot; she tries over and over to find the right angle of Ojisan but she can’t. It’s that she doesn’t see beauty, there isn’t “one superfluous scene” she says, but there is this other pull inside her, she’s “really after one picture.” In a way beauty is a kind of submission, letting it find you rather than forcing it. When she finally finds that picture, a city submerged in water at sunset, the half-sunken street lights flickering on, she is so overwhelmed she forgets about the camera altogether and ends the day having only taken one photo first thing in the morning, but everything she saw she remembers so much more vividly.
This world is beautiful and peaceful but also ravaged, one of the first images we see is the sun light pouring gently through Alpha’s bedroom window and lying on her bedside is a saucer, a sugar pot, a radio and a realistically drawn gun. Even if the danger seems to have mostly faded, she carries the camera in her gun holster, it’s not a world Alpha has much power in, but at least here it’s because there doesn’t seem to be much power to have. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is a part of the Iyashikei genre, a more radical variant on Slice of Life with an even greater focus on the mundane and procedural for the explicit purpose of being healing. It’s interesting then that this and Girls’ Last Tour (2017), two of the genres most well liked and respected series, are set in post-apocalyptic worlds.
To be healed requires the world to be destroyed—even more so than in Girls’ Last Tour which is darker and more intriguing, a collection of little fables framed around the mystery of the world—here, the huge storms that seem to have been responsible for all this destruction are still rendered with such texture and beauty. Maybe its vision is a little limited, ultimately society still exists in a very reduced form, Alpha still finds her purpose by working in this café, though with it’s lack of any customers it could be read very bleakly as someone emptily reciting the rituals of capitalism after its structures are mostly gone if it wasn’t played as blissfully as most everything else.
Submission is maybe too strong a word, really it’s a vision of co-existence, of equality. It finds beauty not in nature or ruins—even if peppy music over images of broken windows may make you think otherwise—but in their intermingling. At the end of episode 2 Alpha watches another set of submerged lights turn on at night, moved because “lights that once shone so brightly with purpose, now shine for the sole purpose of shinning.” Beauty is not in doing but being, capitalism inflicts us with such purpose, but we really find ourselves, we really become human by wandering, by looking, in the spaces in-between; in the grass that grows up through the cracks in the road.
1 — I wrote about Tamako Market (2013) and the Slice of Life genre here.