Iyashikei and Worlds That Heal

Sometimes we need a break:

Curling up under the covers and watching a movie when we’re sick.

Reading a book in the bath with a glass of wine after a long day at work.

Listening to a podcast in the dark after an anxiety attack.

Binge-watching a favourite show with a carton of ice cream and a broken heart.

Whenever we find ourselves struggling to cope, fiction is a quick and accessible release from the chaos of our lives.

But my question to you is this: what type of fiction do you find relaxing? What stories do you seek out to warm your heart and heal your soul?

I certainly don’t expect anyone to have a single answer — personally, I crave different genres, aesthetics, or atmospheres depending on my mood. But there is one genre, something I discovered recently, that I know I can look to on the worst of days. When my depression and anxiety have left me more puddle than human. When I’m shaking with anger and hopelessness after sifting through my news feed. When I’m too raw to face even fictional conflict and injustice.

Iyashikei.

If you’re not an anime fan you’ve probably never heard this term before. TV Tropes defines Iyashikei as:

“a term used for anime and manga created with the specific purpose of having a healing or soothing effect on the audience. Works of this kind often involve alternative realities with little to no conflict, emphasizing nature and the little delights in life.”

Iyashikei includes titles such as: K!-On, Mushishi, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Aria, and Flying Witch.

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Mushishi is as beautiful as it is melancholic. It’s darker tone sets it apart from other Iyashikei titles.

If you’re not familiar with Iyashikei or anime, the best way I can explain it is like this: Imagine the most comfortable scenes in your favourite stories. The ones that make you feel warm. Safe. Maybe a little melancholic, but not unpleasantly so. The ones where nothing really happens, but you’re captivated anyway. To use Harry Potter as an example (since it’s so widely known), try to recall the moments when Harry, Hermione, and Ron weren’t in immediate danger. Remove the overarching antagonists and conflicts — Voldemort, the Dursleys, bloodline prejudices — leaving behind the warmth and charm of the wizarding world and its inhabitants.

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Playful moments like this help make up the plot of an Iyashikei narrative.

What I’m describing are typically low-key moments where the camaraderie, beauty, and fantasy draw you in and act as the motivating force of the scene. They are often intended to offer the viewer/reader reprieve in between moments of high-tension. Except, in Iyashikei, these moments constitute the entirety of the plot.

Overlapping with the slice-of-life genre, Iyashikei depicts brief moments in the cast’s lives. The focus is on the minutiae — the making of a meal, a small discovery, a minor conflict that you knew would be resolved all along. Sometimes these conflicts are enough to draw the reader/viewer in, or sometimes the story relies on the beauty of the scene (these are typically visual stories) and the fantastical nature of its setting. You aren’t torn through the story with suspense or drama, but rather float along comfortably, enjoying the scenery as you pass.

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Speaking of scenery… Iyashikei tales are often brimming with gorgeous artwork.

Until I discovered Iyashikei several months ago (while simultaneously watching Flying Witch and reading Natsume), I usually resorted to easy-reading/ young-adult fiction when I was struggling to cope. Reading fiction aimed at a younger audience, it was easier to avoid triggering material or anything that would exacerbate my anxiety. But at the end of the day, these books revolved around (usually violent) conflicts. There were still overly complicated and frustrating love triangles. My heart still pounded as I turned the pages desperate to know what was going to happen next. They were great stories, but not ideal for my needs at that time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to read/watch content that challenges us on multiple levels, but sometimes we need an emotional break. In a world where bad news bombards us on all sides, it’s crucial we find a space where we can breathe and regroup.

Flying Witch, Natsume, Sweetness and Lightning… these stories give me peace. The experience isn’t quite the same as the escapist feeling that comes from more traditional fiction, but one nearer to meditation. An emphasis on natural beauty and tiny pleasures amplifies the peace that already exists in our own lives.

sweetness4

Sweetness and Lightning may not fall entirely in the Iyashikei genre, but many of the aspects are there. Plus: FOOD!

I am certain many people find this genre boring. Even my husband and I, who both love Iyashikei, constantly question what we find appealing. We have had many in-depth discussions about how anime and manga with no tension or overarching conflict keep us coming back for more. And yet, they do.

We are still struggling to find a parallel in non-visual story-telling mediums and Western genres. (The closest I’ve discovered so far are some Charles De Lint stories.) And so, my husband challenged me. Can I write a short story that aims to heal, to be relaxing, and meditative? One without any meaningful, long-lasting conflict that still manages to be engrossing and engaging? Can this be done without the appeal of beautiful artwork? I don’t know, but I love a challenge!

So what do you think? Are you a fan of Iyashikei, or would you be interested in checking it out? Do you think it’s possible to have a story that is immersive without significant conflict or antagonists? What genres do you find relaxing? And have you ever encountered a story that you think is similar to Iyashikei that is not manga or anime?

I’d love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments below.

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