A crisis is exhausting on every level, emotional especially, so following up on Jo Walton’s great post on Books in Which No Bad Things Happen, here are some good manga and anime where no bad things happen, to lighten your spirits without the risk of getting them down…
Yotsuba&c! (manga, usually pronounced “Yotsuba etcetera”): A charming energetic five-year-old girl has been adopted and brought to Japan by her new dad. As she explores the excitements of a new neighborhood, her loving father, his friends, and neighbors including several older girls of different ages (middle school, high school) enjoy her delight in exploring the world and getting to do the kinds of playful things that you do with little kids, like ride a hot air balloon or make cardboard toys. It’s an absolutely charming exploration of how friendships across age groups can be so rewarding to all.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? (manga): Lovely middle-aged gay men and their friends eat delicious food, talk about their delicious food, and love each other very much. Some of the younger ones have a little relationship drama occasionally, so their more mature friends help them with it, and then cook more delicious food. They worry about how best to take care of their aging parents, and handle it well. <3 <3 <3 Brilliantly written and illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga, author of the Tiptree-winning Ōoku and definitely one of the best mangaka working today.
A Man and His Cat (manga): A cat in a pet shop is sad because it isn’t very cute and no one buys it for a long time, but then a very nice man comes and buys it and gives it a great home! The man is sad because he recently lost his family, but his wife had wanted a cat so he follows her suggestion and gets the cat, and the man and the cat make each other very happy. Touches of melancholy around the edges resolve into simple vignettes of love and cuddles.
Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu (manga): Some lovely Japanese people have discovered a portal to a Medieval-like vaguely-German fantasy planet, so they decide to use the portal to open a Japanese Izakaya (pub restaurant) to let the poor Medieval people taste delicious amazing Japanese food! Loving detail on how different Japanese dishes are cooked, combined with good food helping people bond and overcome minor social friction, like a man being nervous marrying his beloved because her dad is a squid fisherman and he hates squid.
Even better, the presence of this new food establishment in the town eventually starts to actually have second-order consequences! It’s technically an isekai (portal-to-another-world fantasy) but so different from most of them, filled with human kindness and fried burdock root instead of elf girlfriends and ancient demons.
Venice, by Jiro Taniguchi (single volume manga): Renowned manga author Jiro Taniguchi walks around Venice and draws beautiful pictures of Venice. That’s it. It’s just walking through Venice. It’s sort of like his earlier work The Walking Man, which is a man taking a walk through his neighborhood just looking at things, only this time it’s Venice. And Venice is just lovely.
Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu (single-volume manga): Like “A Man and His Cat,” this is just vignettes of life with cats, but drawn by horror master Jiro Taniguchi who loves to hilariously exaggerate the ways in which cats are creepy: cats move like liquids, leap out at you unexpectedly, stare at you with their glowing eyes from the dark, inexplicably won’t play with you when you want to but insist on playing when you don’t want to—they’re soooooo creeeepy! And you know how when cats yawn their heads turn inside-out and look like aliens? A purely whimsical cat reflection reveling in using the visual techniques of horror to explore why people love such strange creatures as cats!
Oishinbo (manga): Food manga can be a great go-to for nothing-bad-happens, though not all food manga are that way since some of the more competitive ones (like Drops of God or Food Wars) have moments of crushing defeat, villainous opponents, or characters with dire backstories. Oishinbo is an older classic food manga, whose main character is a food critic journalist who fights like cat and dog with his father, who’s a world-famous gourmet. In pretty much every story our hero is visiting some restaurant or other discussing miso soup when his father bursts in declaring “YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND THE TRUE MEANING OF MISO SOUP!!!!” and there ensues a miso soup battle, or rice ball battle, or sushi battle between father and son, but with no stakes, just “will he understand the true nature of miso soup or not?!”
Lots of great detail (often hilariously over-the-top or propagandistic) about Japanese food culture is mixed with low-stakes challenges like trying to figure out why this one ramen shop’s ramen isn’t as good as it used to be. To make the drama even lower and sillier, the US release is only excerpts from the very long original, and they’ve reorganized the individual issues into volumes themed by food (a rice volume, a fish volume), and the stories appear sequentially within each volume, so each volume starts with the hero vaguely flirting with the girl he likes, then dating her, then engaged, then planning the wedding, and in the next volume it starts over with flirting, then dating, so the slightly-suspenseful romance is transformed into simply repeating the happy process of two people who love food getting together.
Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars (anime): This is a mecha (giant robot) series, and while it has the usual dramatic attacks where our pilot must defend the world from aliens, imagine Evangelion except Gendo is the best dad ever and comes home to cook curry for his family every time he can take a break from his job defending Earth from aliens, and the whole village is so supportive and wonderful even the space aliens care deeply about rooting for the kids in the school sports festival, and it’s all about the supportive loving community with no real suspense about the fights, and the giant robot is made of origami paper and is so Japanese that when it defeats the monsters cherry petals blow by even if they’re in the vacuum of space!
Even at its most tense, it feels like lying in a hammock in summer sipping lemonade watching kids play. Bonus points for the wide variety of excellent aliens, and the character called Aloha-san is especially awesome.
Hare+Guu, aka Everything was Fine in the Jungle then Along Came Guu, aka Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu (anime): This surrealist wacky comedy is either stressful or stress-free depending on your perspective. Everything was fine in young Hale’s Hawaii-like jungle paradise home until his carefree mother adopts Guu, a pink-haired little girl exactly Hale’s age who is OBVIOUSLY A SINISTER GODLIKE SPACE ALIEN!!!!…but no one believes Hale when he points this out.
Guu uses her mysterious reality-warping powers to create all sorts of bizarre situations with the pure goal of teasing Hale, and everyone else pretty much just chills out and doesn’t mind. While Hale’s life is an endless series of stressful situations, it’s clear that Guu really just wants to play and would never actually hurt him or anyone, and just takes delight in the ridiculous. Thus while it involves watching a little boy run around in a panic a lot, there’s never for a moment the feeling that anything genuinely bad can or would happen when our playful sister can rewind time with a thought.
In the same spirit as Guu, i.e. series where there are episodic threats but the overall mood and structure makes it clear that all will be well so you never actually fear anything genuinely bad will happen, I’ve often found times of stress are perfect for revisiting classics like Ranma ½ (martial arts gender-switching comedy so ridiculous that one time they were trapped on Watermelon Island which is populated only by savage! wild! watermelons! and I realized I was in actual suspense despite it being the third watermelon-related story arc!), the hilarious and rarely-dark competitive bread-baking comedy masterpiece Yakitate! Japan (is your bread delicious enough to let you travel through TIME?!), and-or feel-good classics like Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO) (anime in which warm-hearted ex-punk teacher makes sad kids happier, manga also even better but out of print), the mecha Gundam/Evangelion parody Martian Successor Nadesico (“Get in the giant robot.” “But I just want to be a chef!”), or Satoshi Kon’s heartwarming standalone film Tokyo Godfathers.
On the subject of manga/anime and self-care, this is a good moment to remember that what we usually read isn’t necessarily the best for these interesting times. VIZ just published Junji Ito’s magnificent manga adaptation of Osamu Desai’s 1948 semi-autobiographical novel No Longer Human, a detailed depiction of an artistic life destroyed by depression and mental illness. It’s a magnificent adaptation which I’ve been looking forward to for ages, and I love Junji Ito, but it’s a perfect example of how NOW IS NOT A GOOD TIME TO READ IT! I READ THE FIRST HALF AND IT’S SO GOOD BUT SO NOT THE RIGHT THING TO READ NOW!!
It will remain on the shelf for cheerier days. Now is the time for things a little more cheering! Though if you’re interested in uplifting manga depicting mental illness or neuroatypical characters, consider this a strong recommendation for Komi Can’t Communicate (girl with communications disorder working on making friends with help from supportive classmates) and Genkaku Picasso (boy with depression uses his magical ability to draw mindscape portraits of his friends to help them with their depression and troubles too, with brilliant art plus an extremely uplifting chapter about a trans kid coming out.)
And finally something a little weirder, but useful to reflect on…
It’s a strange thing to put on this (or any) list, but in many ways the happiest anime I’ve ever seen is the street-fighting anime Air Master. It was made by some of the Dragonball Z crew when they were given a late night slot, a big budget, and permission to do whatever they wanted, and what they wanted was lovingly animated fight scenes with absolutely no plot. I first started watching it ironically, because the first four episodes are filled with such intolerably annoying characters that one professional reviewer began his review “I would rather pour burning hot acid into my eyes than watch another episode of Air Master!” and the character Renge was nominated the Most Annoying Character in All of Anime. But if you’re patient with it, it turns suddenly into a bizarrely happy story where a bunch of people who love street fighting get to do what they love.
You know how in a lot of fighting anime the hero wants to fight the bad guy but first they have to chase him all the way across the continent, and fight a whole series of other people to get there, and there’s this huge long drama just to get to the fight? Here people meet each other and say “Hey, you wanna fight?” and the other says “Sure!” and then they do it RIGHT AWAY and they really enjoy it. That’s it. There’s no stakes, no motive…it’s fighting for pure love of fighting. There are some weird and annoying characters (the school friends especially) and some with sad backstories, but they’re all made happier by getting to fight! And they just do it! And do it again! With great fight animation and some deeply weird but strangely engaging characters (notably Sakiyama Kaori and Sakamoto Julietta) it’s somehow one of the happiest shows I’ve ever seen. Everyone actually spends their time doing what they want to do.
You can also feel the creators enjoying the liberty of fast-paced fluffy action after years animating DBZ. There’s even (no exaggeration) an episode where some of the characters are having Korean BBQ and talking about how much they love it, and a man we’ve never met overhears and comes in to talk about how much he loves Korean BBQ and THE ENTIRE EPISODE IS JUST PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT HOW MUCH THEY LOVE KOREAN BBQ! THAT’S IT! NO PLOT! NO FIGHTING! JUST BBQ PHILOSOPHY FOR 20 STRAIGHT MINUTES! It’s a little bit like the brilliant samurai manga Vagabond, another story where people fight for the joy of fighting, a stark contrast to other samurai-era works like Lone Wolf and Cub which is equally brilliant but less joyous, since there are deep matters of honor and revenge structuring all.
Air Master, and lots of stories on this list, are great examples of how sometimes what’s most emotionally exciting about fiction isn’t a high-stakes plot but rich, passionate characters, and how what can often be distressing in fiction is not necessarily success or failure but long stretches of characters not getting to do what they want to do.
Another neat recent example of this is Ran and the Gray World, a stunningly-illustrated fantasy about a girl from a magic family that defends Japan from demonic magic, but while there are threats and crises, the story is much more about supportiveness and love, and spends fewer pages on the giant magic battle than on everyone from the magic village cooking and sharing a banquet afterward to feel better, and meeting with the magic therapist to take care of their magic mental health. It even manages to deal with the issue of little girl crushing on an older man (something many manga treat very problematically) in a carefully examined & emotionally affirming way that keeps coming back to family and friendship.
So as you think about which fiction to plunge into during this exhausting crisis, and as you make your own recommendations to friends, this is a good time to ask yourself how much of the story is characters being stressed or unsatisfied vs. how much of the story people doing things that bring them joy, whether that joy comes from street fighting or sharing ice cream.
Because for the moment, I think it’s time for ice cream…
Originally published in March 2020.
Ada Palmer is a novelist and historian. Her first novel “Too Like the Lightning” (book 1 of Terra Ignota) came out in 2016 and was a Hugo finalist; Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle came out in 2017 and the series finale, Perhaps the Stars is due out in early summer 2021. She studies the history of censorship, radical thought, atheism, science, books and printing, and heresy, well as manga, anime and Japanese pop culture. She teaches at the University of Chicago, writes the blog ExUrbe.com, and composes SF & Mythology-themed music for the a cappella group Sassafrass.