Western screenwriting tradition says that conflict is the heart of all storytelling, but after a hard day you may not want to watch something stressful. Some people turn to “slow TV” – meditative footage of scenic train rides or people knitting that can go for 10-plus hours – but my preference is for what I’ll call “slow anime”, known in Japan as iyashikei or “healing-type” anime: stories that are designed to be as comfy and mellow as can be.
Perhaps the best-known iyashikei anime outside Japan is Studio Ghibli’s 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro, a story in which nothing much happens until the last 20 minutes – despite the presence of soot spirits, a set of tanuki raccoons and a flying cat that is also a bus. Totoro contains many elements common to slow anime: an optimistic sense of wonder at the natural world, often explored through the prism of youth; some lush background art; and wonderfully tranquil music. Unlike other Ghibli films like Spirited Away or even the similarly chill (though more narratively focused) Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro revels in small joys: sharing time with family, cleaning a dusty old house together, or enjoying the fresh air while rambling through forests and fields. It all adds up to evoke the sort of feeling you might experience while doing those things yourself.
It’s not that these slow anime shows and films don’t have plots, but the stories they tell tend to be simple and grounded, even if they contain fantastical elements. Episodes might be about picking apples, or going to the beach, or getting a (usually chill) part-time job, even visiting a cafe for (extremely chill) ghosts. If there’s any drama in them, it is equally mundane: someone forgot something, someone got a bit lost, it’s raining and you didn’t bring an umbrella.
Despite such unexciting fare, these shows don’t feel boring so much as they do soothing. You might nod off to sleep, but it’s the sleep of someone who has had a hot chocolate under a warm weighted blanket. It’s simply nice.
The genre does have its criticisms. The academic Paul Roquet traced the genre’s rise in Japan to the after-effects of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and sarin gas attacks on the Japanese underground , in an essay on the literary equivalent of iyashikei, which he calls “ambient literature”. Roquet argued that Japanese authors like Haruki Murukami and Banana Yoshimoto had created a genre that amounted to the avoidance of real problems, constituting “the ideological manipulation of those needs [healing and soothing] for commercial and political ends”. Soothing as they may be, iyashikei anime have launched merchandising empires selling anything from branded trinkets to straight-up camping gear, just like regular anime.
But as Roquet also says, these criticisms apply more when the practice “slips from a form of temporary escape to a habit of perpetual withdrawal”. To my mind, iyashikei anime is like most other forms of media – if you don’t overindulge, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll even feel better for watching it. On that, here’s some of my best picks:
Most Ghibli movies contain elements of iyashikei, but they’re often intermingled with a coming-of-age story, a romance or an adventure. Totoro is probably the purest in terms of just letting the wonders of the world wash over you.
A group of high schoolers go camping in the mountains. That’s it. There’s two seasons so far and an upcoming movie I am absolutely dying to see later this year even though, inevitably, nothing much will happen.
A witch moves in with her cousins in the Japanese countryside. Similar to Totoro, despite the presence of magic, most episodes are about pleasantly mundane tasks like following a cat around town or harvesting crops (screaming mandrakes, in this case).
The first season of this comedy about a high school band was more traditionally structured, only in the second season does the show slow down and stop to smell the roses. The result is a joyful, somewhat nostalgic look at the everyday life of a handful of students as graduation approaches.