Review – Silver Spoon vol. 1

art by Hiromu Arakawa

Silver Spoon vol. 1
Story & Art: Hiromu Arakawa
Translation: Amanda Haley
Lettering: Abigail Blackman
Originally Serialised in Weekly Shonen Sunday
Published by Yen Press, 2018
Copy purchased at Amazon UK

Me and the farmer get on fine
Through stormy weather and bottles of wine
If I pull my weight, he’ll treat me well
But if I’m late, he’ll give me hell
-‘Me and the Farmer‘, by The Housemartins, 1987

What is it?: Silver Spoon is a Weekly Shonen Sunday series sporadically published since 2011, about Yuugo Hachiken, a directionless city kid, moving to an agricultural high school expecting an easy time where he’ll be able to prepare for entrance exams to a ‘proper’ college. Little does he know how badly he’s underestimated the hard-working world of agriculture, facing grueling physical activity and difficult studies in areas completely unknown to him! Along the way he reassesses his views on life, finds new friends, and maybe even a new future outside of traditional academia.

Silver Spoon is also one of the more recent works of Hiromu Arakawa, celebrated creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, Hero Tales, and the current manga adaptation of The Heroic Legend of Arslan, with a successful anime under its belt from A-1 pictures, and a live-action film. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also the quickest title to ever sell a million copies for Shonen Sunday’s parent company, Shogakukan. A big deal, then.

What I think about it: In theory, Silver Spoon should be a comic right up my alley. I grew up in a small town mere minutes away from any number of farms, and have spent more school trips or family outings heading to agricultural centres, farms, parks and such than I can honestly remember. My hope going in was that my familiarity with some of the basics of the world Hachiken finds himself in would give me an edge for understanding any of his many faux pas, or at the least empathise well with the other students. This kind of worked out, with the specifics of Japanese farming (specifically in the Hokkaido region) giving me new information to absorb, but ultimately my feelings on the comic came down to the interpersonal drama, Hachiken as a character, and the unfortunate choices of humour Arakawa goes for in this first outing.

A lot of my opinions about the story of Silver Spoon were decided about four years ago, with the release of the anime,but the experience of reading it in comic form sure has brought a lot of that rushing back. Hachiken is the perfect viewpoint character for your average comic reader, coming into the world of agricultural education without much knowledge, and being able to both learn stuff from other characters and be overwhelmed by some of the more jargon-filled talk that characters endlessly spout around him, to the point of the speech not actually fitting in their word balloons. More than that though, from the outset he’s this huge reversal of what one would expect from a protagonist in a shonen magazine, best summed up in one idea; he has no dreams.

Dreams are one of the most crucial facets of a protagonist in a shonen-demographic comic. In fact, I’d call it one of the few things that is truly emblematic of the demographic entirely, everything else being either rarer or so common as to exist frequently outside of shonen. Asta in Black Clover wants to be the Wizard King. Luffy in One Piece wants to be king of the pirates. Shinichi/Conan in Detective Conan starts out his series as a wunderkind out to be the best detective the world has ever seen. Even in a romance title like We Never Learn we have Yuiga dreaming of getting a college scholarship and providing for his family. Dreams are important, and so to see someone as frankly devoid of motivation as Hachiken in the early stages of this comic is shocking, unusual, and a little refreshing.

Of course this can’t and won’t last, else the comic have nowhere to go for the next 13 or so volumes, and we see the seeds of hope for Hachiken’s future begin to bloom in this first volume. Characters like potential love interest Mikage, stern baseball boy Komaba, the mathematically impaired chicken-rearing Tokiwa, and unfortunate weight-joke Tamako (LIKE TAMAGO. EGG. LIKE EGG, BECAUSE SHE IS EGG-SHAPED. HA.) all do their parts to expose Hachiken to the world he has stepped into, pulling him out of his shell, working and studying alongside him at the school and showing him just what he could do going down this path in life. This supporting cast is really the selling point of the series, writing-wise, and each of them has their own complexities, passions, and dreams, no two characters really feeling the same. I appreciate this deeply, even when having such a variety means a few bad eggs turn up.

Which brings us back to Tamako. Without going past the story covered in this first volume, Tamako is a train wreck, a comedy character with two core traits; she is fat, and she likes money. If the characters aren’t commenting on these aspects, they become part of a sight gag, such as a quick gag of her being the only character being blown about in the wind, remarked upon with shock by the other students because, you know… She’s overweight. This sucks. It completely and utterly disheartened me, not just as a person who is overweight myself, but also as someone aware of the societal prejudice against overweight people in Japan. A part of me always hopes that every author I enjoy is a flawless being, and I am aware how naive that is, but it really does just feel crappy to see a prominent author lean on such an unfortunate crutch for a character, when they could instead adjust their tactics ever so slightly to make said character a positive.

I don’t really want to just descend into negativity here, so let’s move on to the real appeal of a Hiromu Arakawa comic for me; the art. Arakawa is an instantly recognisable artist, and she really has no stylistic match. The characters are soft-faced (except for the ones that are very deliberately not), with an insane range of expressions and body-acting, that’s only slightly toned down in the transition from Fullmetal Alchemist and The Heroic Legend of Arslan’s monthly(ish) schedules to Silver Spoon’s weekly(ish) pace. The same can be said for the backgrounds, which are somewhat sparser than in Arakawa’s other works, but look pleasant when they do pay an appearance.

This is all before we come to the animals, of course. Animals are notoriously hard to draw, as I’m sure anyone who’s had to see JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure author Hirohiko Araki‘s unfortunate dogs would agree, but Arakawa is almost universally perfect in this series, able to give us both realistic and more expressive animals with great care put into them, to the point that you can have two horses, drawn completely differently, in the same chapter, and not even blink. Pigs, cows, horses, every animal is fantastically handled, and they’re a real highlight of the art through. The goofiest-looking white horse that Hachiken ends up forming a bond of sorts with is a particular highlight, but genuinely if you ever have an interest in seeing how a professional comic artist can competently handle drawing animals, you can do a lot worse than reading Silver Spoon.

The sequential storytelling itself can be a little unusual though, at least in one specific way. By and large with manga you can see that vertical gutters between panels are thinner than the horizontal ones, usually as part of how the author wants to lead your eye across the page, but in Silver Spoon I couldn’t help but feel that these vertical gutters are so thin as to be almost non-existent, giving each row of panels in a page the feel of a newspaper strip more than that of an actual part of a full page, or even a chapter. It’s an odd thing to have picked up on, and I think only really went noticed because of Yen Press’ larger print size for this volume in comparison to the Japanese release. If they seem small at a significant increase in size, I can only imagine how they look in the original dimensions (or even in the much larger Weekly Shonen Sunday anthology).

Yen Press do a decent job with their adaptation. It avoids much if any dabbling with unpleasant ‘country-style’ accents, and lettering is both functional and pleasant for the most part, with the information overload in some speech bubbles fitting very well as text too big to actually all fit inside the panel. There’s a couple of instances of words escaping their balloons, but it’s rare enough to not really be an issue. The sound effects are a bit of a mess though. Yen Press have opted to maintain the original lettering for sound effects on the page, either as a cost-cutting measure or to preserve the original intent of the art, with smaller text to the side or outside the panel both literally translating the sound effect (i.e. れろ becoming rero), with additional parentheses to explain what that particular noise is representing (i.e. rero being ‘lick’). This ends up giving us some incredibly clumsy pages, where any effect repeated enough, or any large variety of sound effects, causing gutters to become uncomfortably full of context. If I were being cruel I’d say it was comparable to the sort of stuff you’d see in a pirated work, but in all honesty it isn’t nearly that bad, just a move that overcompensated something fierce.

Overall I think I enjoyed Silver Spoon volume 1. At the least I want to continue to follow Yen Press’ releases of the series, to see how it changes and grows, and if the flaws that stick in my craw change at all over time. It’s not perfect, and has one huge sore spot to it, but there’s a reason why it’s Shonen Sunday’s fastest selling title of all time. It’s warm, funny (usually, anyway), inviting and intelligent, with an art style that is never anything less than fantastic. It just falls short of what I personally wanted from it.

Silver Spoon is for fans of: Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture, Fullmetal Alchemist

If you enjoyed this review consider dropping me a few pennies over at Ko-Fi. Comics ain’t cheap, but I am.

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