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Whether Something Is Boring Is All About How You Look at It Hiromu ARAKAWA's Creative Inspiration from Her Own Life

Whether Something Is Boring Is All About How You Look at It Hiromu ARAKAWA's Creative Inspiration from Her Own Life

My friend's personal collection of one of ARAKAWA's most iconic works, Silver Spoon.


By Arya.SH, editor-in-chief of Weiwuying's Benshi issues 13-20

A freelance editor, writer who has worked in the art/culture and design sectors for years, she has held positions in design and lifestyle media firms and currently writes for publications and press releases, telling unforgettable stories about people and life through text. 

In part one of this article (How Behind-the-scenes Work on Benshi Pulls on the Heart), I talked about looking at ordinary things in a different way, and here I want to continue with that in discussing an interesting comic, Fullmetal Alchemist. I can still feel how it moved me when I read it in high school. The protagonists, brothers Edward and Alphonse, who are almost the same age as me, try to bring their mother back to life (which is forbidden in the world of alchemy) and consequently pay hefty prices – the removal of portions of their bodies* – as demanded by the god Truth.


Edward, the elder of the two, has his left leg and right arm taken away, and Alphonse loses his whole body, his soul remaining in a huge suit of armor. Their mother, whom they worked so hard to save, is unable to take proper human form, her head and legs reversed so that all she can do is crawl like a worm (I definitely had more than one nightmare about that imagery). Also unforgettable are the evil Shou Tucker, who turns his own daughter into a chimera, the Philosopher's Stones (made at the cost of hundreds of thousands of souls), and the immortal homunculi.


Having read thus far, you might be thinking this is a horror comic, but incorporating a humorous narrative style into such serious material is one of Hiromu ARAKAWA's strengths. The storyline begins from the viewpoint of the childlike-innocent brothers, smoothly bringing readers into their world. Balancing the serious with playfulness, the impact of the heavy plot aspects of ethnic war and biochemical experiments is softened. The author also brings some manzai into the vivid personalities of the characters, such as Edward's extraordinary alchemy skill but complete lack of aesthetic, and how he goes ballistic whenever he hears anything related to the concept of"short”; or how his brother has a tough appearance (after all, he's in a suit of armor) but is a sucker for stray cats who need to be rescued. One plays the fool while the other mocks, bundling their friendship, love, and comradeship in a fun way. In the appendix, the author, always portrayed as a cow in her picture, shares her feelings, a mixture of pain and joy, about drawing in a way that makes me laugh my head off.  


With the meticulous structure and storyline drawn during an era when the styles of men and women were still quite distinct, my ideas on gender were overturned when I found out ARAKAWA is a woman who loves the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and who, before moving to Tokyo to pursue her dream of drawing comics, worked for seven years on her family's farm and had earned a black belt in karate in high school. I also greatly admire how she has used her life experiences in her work. For instance, in her family, if you didn't work, you couldn't eat, and in martial arts, she showed us how to respond to flows based on how they come. The female characters in her comics are always more spirited and brave than the males, this being inspired by her origins from a farming family, in which women are just as an important source of labor as men. Also, the"automail"prostheses, steel substitutes for lost limbs in the story, were inspired by what she saw while working in a rehabilitation center. She has taken so much from her life experiences in creating that fantasy universe, and it truly nurtured my growth.


We're coming upon the 20th anniversary since the release of the story, which means I've hit mid-life, and that cow has recently re-emerged. The Noble Farmer, a series that started being published in 2006, has been released as an anime TV series. ARAKAWA, in cow form (as is her whole family), narrates what went on in her home in a hilarious way, with inspiration coming from such things as potatoes, bears, and vegetable thieves. The super-funny five-minute shows also offer bits of farm trivia to viewers and show us that it takes a lot of work to produce the food we eat.


ARAKAWA long ago said that she would enjoy the chance to draw an illustrated story about her experiences in farming, though she was doubtful about whether anyone would be interested. The editor working with her was quite supportive, saying that common knowledge in farming is by no means something most people know about; thus, her confidence to draw about it was born. Her 2011 iconic manga series Silver Spoon relates her experiences studying at an agricultural high school through the story of a young boy who goes to study at such a school in a rural area to avoid the pressure of having failed to test into a good high school in the city. He is surprised by how physically demanding this new world is and how studying hard is useless – 80% of the knowledge is acquired through a hands-on approach. Besides doing farm work, he has to train horses and clean the chicken coop. Through much frustration, he gains confidence and independence.     


The story lucidly conveys what ARAKAWA has seen and experienced, depicting through the medium of humor a non-mainstream school life that incorporates a lot of valuable knowledge on farming, raising animals, and food processing. For instance, the protagonist becomes vehemently opposed to eating eggs upon finding out they come out through the hen's cloaca (the excretory tract), but hunger wins in the end with the temptation of hot eggs prepared with soy sauce. Another time, he has arranged to watch a baseball game with his classmates but is called away to come help with the birth of a calf – a stinky, bloody operation – which wears him out and causes him to miss the best part of the game.


That year, it is said that the comic caused more teens to choose to study at agricultural high schools and more of the general population to pay greater attention to the state of the agriculture industry. The comic also discusses how the children of farmers become caught between pursuing their dreams and taking on the family business. ARAKAWA has said that since most of the readers are teens, she looked to encourage sincerity and honesty through her work, that is, to embolden readers to have the guts to take action even when faced with something unpleasant. Her gentle yet strong method of creating a set of diverse values and channels for life reflection shows readers that there are numerous possibilities in life and art.    


These three works are inspired by real events and focus on everyday life. I really like how it says at the end of The Noble Farmer, "Whether something is boring is all about how you look at it. "Some of the people with restrained radiance I have interviewed in the past ask me, "There's nothing special about my life (job). Why are you so interested in it? "Well, what is ordinary to one person can be quite intriguing to someone else. It's all about your angle. How do you perceive life? Are you looking for inspiration? Like ARAKAWA, maybe you can find something in the "ordinary."After all, there are no limits when it comes to art. It just takes a spark to set off a beautiful firework. 

*Alchemy must comply with the law of conservation of mass – when creating something, the alchemist must pay with an amount of material equal in value to that which is created.


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