If the slice-of-life genre has taught us anything, it’s that reading about or watching people go about their daily lives can be surprisingly enthralling. Unfortunately, Binbou Shimai Monogatari’s lesson is quite the opposite- there are equally times when a story about day-to-day life can be just plain tedious.
Split into seventeen brief chapters, the first volume of the manga introduces us to fifteen year old Kyo and nine year old Asu, two girls living together on the very edge of absolute poverty. Practically every chapter wastes precious panels reminding of us their plight, reiterating in negligibly different wording how their mother died and their debt stricken father disappeared, until even the most kind-hearted of readers can barely bring themselves to care anymore. The leftover pages tell of the day to day adventures of the girls, stories that neither go anywhere nor accomplish anything, ending almost before they began without leaving any impression whatsoever.
Where other slice-of-life series try to win us over with their sense of wonder or likable cast, Binbou’s only strength seems to be in highlighting the utter tedium of the girls’ existence. Every story seems to be a case of going through the motions; the girls go to the bathhouse (despite being poor), the girls go to the summer festival, the girls spend Christmas together…everything feels more like a case of going through the motions and ticking a set of checkboxes than any attempt to weave a proper story.
Worst of all is the level of angst that permeates every level of the series. Despite playing such a prominent part in each others’ lives, the two sisters seem to barely know each other; Kyo, the dedicated and protective elder sister, spends most of her time agonising over whether she is doing the right thing for Asu, whilst Asu merely seems desperate to ensure that her sister never leaves her. It is a recipe for angst and misunderstandings, concluded with the inevitable apology and making-up phase so that everything is reset in readiness for the next cycle.
The supporting cast seems equally insipid at this point, consisting of such original personalities as the landlord, an old man whose gruff exterior hides a more kindly heart, and a friendly neighbour who conveniently appears at a couple of key story points. Towards the end of the volume, a couple of new characters are introduced in the form of a contrasting rich pair of sisters (one annoying, one featureless); in a predictable turn of events, Kyo hands over the meat she bought for dinner to them because the younger sister seemed in desperate need of it, only to watch as it good fed to the rich pair’s pet alligator. Presumably the rich sisters will feature heavily from now on as they make friends with their poor counterparts, but it is hard to see how this will offer anything that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.
Anime: a new tedium medium
For all its faults, the manga was only ever intended to be a warm-up in preparation for the main event; the first episode of the anime. Primarily based on the ninth chapter of the manga (with a couple of earlier negligible chapters thrown in to fill time), our story begins just before the summer festival. Asu is understandably excited about this event, even going so far as to visit the stalls as they are being set up so that she can best plan which ones to visit and how to spend the precious monies that she has carefully scrimped and saved.
So far, so average, but unfortunately, the angst is not far behind, and all because Kyo decides that she must buy Asu a special gift. Now, common sense would seem to dictate that if you want to buy someone a gift, you do so with your own money, or at worst, money temporarily borrowed from a third party, but it seems that Kyo’s logic works on entirely different principles. Having determined that Asu must absolutely have the same sort of yukata as her sister, Kyo resolves to buy one- using Asu’s savings. Understanadably, Asu is not too happy to see her precious piggy bank emptied out because of her sister’s whim, and soon departs on a journey to take it back, leaving Kyo to agonise for endless minutes about what a bad sister she is.
Meanwhile, through rain and storm, Asu finally makes it to the yukata shop, but even as she tries to return the offending object, the shopkeeper sways her by relating how happy Kyo was to finally be able to buy a matching kimono for her sister. In that one exchange, Asu’s entire outlook is changed- realising that her sister was acting out of love, she immediately forgives her, dons the yukata, and heads out to enjoy the festival (albeit with no money to buy any of things she wanted). Yes, everything is fine and happy again, all reset and ready for the next instalment of sister angst.
So then, aside from the character designs, which are solid in both versions of the series, the anime manages to do everything that much worse than the already uninspiring manga. A handful of manga pages are easily read in a matter of minutes, but the anime transform these simple stories into lengthy stretches of tedium that subjectively feel more like twenty-five hours than twenty-five minutes. Even the music only serves to make things worse- the OP and in-episode bgm range from tedious to unmemorable, whilst the ED is little more than a distillation of every annoyingly saccharine ending theme that ever existed.
And thus, in the space of a day, Binbou Shimai Monogatari is weighed and found wanting, and so it is that my brief relationship with the series’ dubious delights must come to an end here. In the barren wasteland of the summer anime season, it seemed set to become a rare oasis, but on closer inspection, it reveals itself to be nothing more than a disappointing mirage.