The Small Pleasures of Slice of Life

The Small Pleasures of Slice of Life
On Naoko Yamada's Tamako Market

The idea of a ‘hang-out movie’ has long been misapplied beyond any meaning, I’ve seen Big Trouble in Little China (1986)—a movie where the joke is that it’s so incredibly densely plotted— labelled as one. But even more fitting examples seem dense compared to the genre of Anime called Slice of Life. It’s been around in some form for most of the medium’s history, in part due to the grind of weekly production schedules, though it only became a more formalised, recognised genre in the mid-2000’s with shows like Azumanga Daioh (2002) and K-On! (2009). It’s a genre with a genuine commitment to spending time with characters, they’re slow paced and lack a driving plot, if not one altogether, and Tamako Market (2013) is a lovely little addition to it.

There’s this teasing of plot as Tamako, a high school girl who works with her family in their mochi shop, meets a bird that can talk and claims to be of some kind of nobility; he’s looking for a bride for his Prince. But after an episode of light hijinks—he peaks on some girls in a bathhouse changing room who aren’t even changing—he admits that it “looks like it might be a while” before he makes any progress. The biggest drama in the episode is that in all the hustle and bustle of New Years Day, people forgot to give Tamako her birthday presents, including her childhood friend from across the street, Mochizou, whose been too shy to give her any of the gifts he’s bought her over the years; they’re all stuffed in his bedside drawer.

That bird, Dela, is often mocked (very amusingly by Tamako’s younger sister, Anko) or ignored, though eventually another emissary of the Prince shows up, Choi, but she’s soon staying with Tamako and somehow joining her school as a transfer student. She forgets about her royal plans as she falls asleep to the delicate sounds of a wind chime. That’s what the show is really interested in, it takes seriously small things and all these seemingly insignificant moments in young women’s lives. There is even a trans character that goes un-noted upon, after all, she’s just another woman, just another person in this little community: the market where most of the characters work.

Tamako finds much fulfilment in her job of making mochi, she’s comically obsessed with it, but unlike in Miyazaki’s films, the show isn’t fetishistic about work; his characters find meaning through the toil of honourable work, Tamako just likes mochi, it tastes good. In one episode, her father is the de-facto villain for not wanting to make cute heart-shaped Valentine’s mochi, he doesn’t have sufficient appreciation for the little things; he takes it all too seriously.

In the final few episodes, that Prince does show up, and Choi convinces herself that Tamako is destined to be his bride because of some mole on her neck. But she isn’t interested, she’s just excited about the reward she’s earned from getting enough market loyalty points; she, we, value the little excitements of daily life more than any plot(1), it’s all beside the point and she refuses.  In the end, maybe it was just a mole, or even a lie. We see a close-up of Choi’s neck, covered up; maybe she has some unspoken feelings.

The characters don’t live idealistic lives by any means, they all have these unspoken things; teenagers are as shy as they are carefree. Whether it’s Shiori who has to practice saying ‘thank you’ in the mirror so she can join Tamako’s friend group, or whether it’s one of those friends, Midori, who clearly has a crush on Tamako but knows it can’t be, not just because Tamako is presumably straight, but because she knows that the boy-across-the-street feels the same way. Even the adults are awkward, when Tamako’s father and teacher meet, neither know how to move beyond stiff formality. As the market’s record store / café owner says, “everyone has feelings they can’t put into words”, and at the end of the show, after a whole year has passed, most of them still aren’t.

That comfortable middle-ground between escapism and melancholy that the show sits in is what makes it so perfect for introverts and cinephiles (so often one and the same), as with all art, it’s a way of engaging with life, finding it’s profundities and sadnesses from a slightly safe distance. Tamako tries to drink her coffee black, but it’s too bitter; she needs a bit of milk to help it go down.


Notes:

1 — If this suggests a kind of conservatism, a desire for things to remain the same—the mystic foreigner doesn’t bring change, a new perspective, but is integrated into their world—this is complicated by the sequel movie Tamako Love Story (2014) which both directly contradicts the shows ending where Dela stays with Tamako in the market, but focuses on the inevitability of change as college looms.


Originally published on Substack on Feburary 10th 2022