“When you stand in the present moment, you are timeless.” –Rodney Yee
Renge struggles to play a C on her recorder while practising on the way to school. After music lessons and lunch, she crafts some dolls out of toothpicks and clear tape to pass the time as Hotaru and Komari work on their class duties. Natsumi only manages to annoy Komari, and as they finish, they make a log in the notebooks that their instructor is too lazy. When Akane Shinoda, a first year high school student in the concert band club, struggles to play with confidence in front of her classmates, Konomi suggests that they practise together, Renge goes to pick her up from the bus stop, before getting distracted by cockleburs and a toad on the roadside. Once they arrive at Konomi’s place, Konomi notes that Akane has no trouble conversing with Renge, and Akane notices that Renge’s not properly using the fingering for the C note. After Renge masters this note, she plays the Frog Song along with Akane and Konomi. Akane is thrilled and asks if she can come practise at Konomi’s house again in the future. Later, Renge impresses Natsumi, Komari and Hotaru with her improved skill with the recorder. This is Non Non Biyori Nonstop, the third season to a story about life in the peaceful and remote village of Asahigaoka, a place where time seems to stand still, and one where adventure is seemingly around every corner. Non Non Biyori originally ran as a manga that began serialisation in 2009, and continues to this day. Earlier chapters were adapted into an anime in 2013, and a second season aired two years later. During its earlier run, Non Non Biyori captured audiences with its unique charm and portrayal of a tranquil, rural life away from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s urban centres. Striking a balance between comedy and life lessons about everyday experiences, Non Non Biyori quickly established a reputation for being immensely calming and relaxing, an iyashikei series. It’s been six years since the second season, but Non Non Biyori‘s continued to endure, and in this third season, Non Non Biyori continues with its excellent portrayal of Renge, Hotaru, Natsumi and Komari’s experiences in Asahigaoka.
Non Non Biyori Nonstop (Nonstop from here on out for brevity) continues in the same vein as its predecessors, opening with Renge playing the recorder on her way to school. The first half of the episode sees familiar faces return for familiar misadventures in their one-teacher class at Asahigaoka Branch School: Komari’s attempts to be a proper older sibling and Natsumi’s immature (but amusing) antics, as well as Renge’s endless sense of curiosity immediately re-establish what Non Non Biyori had been about; this time around, rather than using rulers for desktop games, the students fashion dolls out of common everyday objects in boredom after class draws to a close. This typifies the idea that even in a setting where things are laid-back and languid, there is rarely a dull moment. Where things are quiet, Natsumi and Renge always seem to find a way to liven things up, and as Nonstop continues, finding the extraordinary in the mundane will yield numerous moments of discovery and reflection. Nonstop shifts gears in its second half, introducing Akane to Renge and setting the table for new friendship. Through a fateful meeting, Akane discovers that she can indeed play flute in front of others and warms up to Renge, while Renge becomes excited about the sorts of things Akane knows: she and Konomi help her to properly play a new note on her recorder. With this first episode of Nonstop in the books, the precedence for the remainder of the season is set, and I look forwards to seeing what sorts of adventures await Akane: it is inevitable that she will eventually meet Hotaru, Natsumi and Komari at some point in the future.
Screenshots and Commentary
- To be precise, the last time Non Non Biyori graced this blog was two years ago, when I wrote about Non Non Biyori Vacation. The film premièred in Japanese theatres in August 2018, and the home release became available in February 2019. Non Non Biyori Repeat, the second season, ran during the summer of 2015, right during the middle of my graduate studies. At the time, my research project had been well under way, and I was gearing up to write the thesis paper itself. I still remember that when Repeat began airing, I struggled to write a talk for the first episode and ended up going for a quarterly review.
- For Nonstop, I’ve chosen to take the quarterly review approach because, even though Non Non Biyori has been structured so that episodes are thematically self-contained, the series’ emphasis on the mundane, and appreciation for moments of quiet, means that it can be a little challenging to find something meaningful to say for each and every moment. I’ve found that the quarterly approach I took with Repeat to have worked reasonably well, allowing me to explore themes and messages to a reasonable depth.
- Renge playing the recorder on her way to school is a callback to how the first season had started; this was my magic moment, and immediately convinced me that the series was worth watching. Here, Renge accompanies Konomi for a short moment as the pair head to their respective schools. Asahigaoka is a small enough village such that younger students can be taught in a single classroom, and for high school, students must travel to the town over.
- There is something immensely reassuring and calming about the Japanese countryside that I struggle to find the words to describe: of all the places I’ve seen and read about, it seems that rural Japan best exemplifies how humanity can harmoniously exist with nature. These landscapes are known as the satoyama (里山), the interface between villages and forests. Consisting of rice paddies and ponds, satoyama is the result of centuries of a coexistence between Japan’s rural communities and their environment to create a sustainable ecosystem. The European equivalent of the satoyama is the Bocage, which consists of mixed woodlands and pastures.
- Despite being an older building, Asahigaoka Branch School still has an occupied, well looked-after air about it. There is a charm about traditional, wooden Japanese schools: these dot the Japanese countryside, and many of the wooden buildings were built between the Meiji Restoration and World War Two. Today, as more people move into urban areas, an increasing number of these schools are abandoned. Filled with life and vigour during their operation, the abandoned schools have a drastically different vibe to them.
- To this day, I cannot help but smile in the knowledge that Natsumi is voiced by Ayane Sakura, whereas Rie Murakawa plays Hotaru. Folks fond of GochiUsa will know Sakura for playing Cocoa, and Murakawa is Megu Natsu. Sakura’s performance of Natsumi is completely different than for Cocoa: unlike Cocoa, Natsumi is mischievous and carefree, preferring to live life on her own terms. Conversely, Hotaru sounds a great deal like Megu.
- Renge’s concerns about being unable to play a C note stem from worry that she’ll stick out like a sore thumb during music class. It would appear that beyond this, she’s reasonably well-versed in playing a recorder, a woodwind instrument that dates back to the Middle Ages, being used by shepherds. It’s a common instrument that primary school students pick up, and I remember that back in my time as a primary student, I had my own recorder. Once I reached middle school, I ended up playing the Clarinet because it was similar to the recorder. The classroom is the only time Suguru shows up this episode: a recurring joke in Non Non Biyori is that Suguru silently comes and goes, having very little presence.
- Lunch on today’s menu for Renge, Hotaru, Komari and Natsumi is curry rice. In many ways, Non Non Biyori brings to life the scenes described in Jordy Meow’s Abandoned Japan: in his chapter about derelict schools, his text describe energetic young students learning to read and write for the first time before breaking to handmade obento lunches. The teacher’s instructions and student chatter would’ve filled the hallways to buildings that now lay empty. The scenes that Meow describes are captured in Non Non Biyori perfectly: now-musty and dank classrooms were once lively, happy places of learning.
- After classes come to an end, Renge breaks out the toothpicks she’d brought from home earlier and fashions homemade dolls with them. Natsumi joins in, and even Suguru can be seen making a doll in the background. Such moments speaks to Renge’s creativity, and for the next few minutes, Natsumi annoys the living daylights out of Komari, until the latter’s limit is reached and she swats the doll from Natsumi’s hands, leaving it in separate pieces. As Komari and Hotaru focus on their remaining task of logging the day, they start running out of things to write about.
- Eventually, the students craft a range of dolls out of tape and toothpicks to prank Kazuho, who’s fallen fast asleep. Her lethargic and lazy manner at school is apparent, but this is not her entire personality: during the events of Non Non Biyori Vacation, she looks after her students well and frees Komari and Hotaru from a branch during a kayaking trip. My conclusions about Kazuho’s character are therefore simple enough; she’s lazy and lacks motivation where the humour requires it, but otherwise, is a competent teacher.
- Nonstop‘s episode is broken up into two halves: the first half is set entirely in the classroom, while the second introduces Akane to the cast. Her blank stare after disembarking the bus suggests shock at the setting and what circumstances led her here to the sticks. The phrase “the sticks” appears to have originated from 1800s Chicago as a way of referring to places in the middle of nowhere, likely on the assumption that remote places are remotely forested. These days, the phrase generically refers to somewhere backwater and remote. While there’s a bit of a negative connotation with this phrase, Non Non Biyori does a fine job of showing a different side of rural areas, and this is one of the strongest points about the series.
- In a flashback, Akane is seen speaking with Konomi; after expressing her doubts about being able to participate in the concert band on account of nerves, Konomi suggests heading to her place for some practise. This is the first time I’ve seen Konomi’s high school, which is likely located over the hill and across the water – rural high schools in Japan often serve students from different small towns and villages, but with dwindling populations, even these schools might be on the verge of being closed.
- The amount of detail in Asahigaoka is always impressive. Everything from blades of grass in a recently-drained rice paddy to reflections in an adjacent canal are portrayed in great detail. Like the first two seasons and the film, Nonstop is produced by Silver Link (Brave Witches, Bofuri and Kokoro Connect) – among their repertoire of works, Non Non Biyori stands as being one of the most visually impressive, as stills of the countryside in and surrounding Asahigaoka can attest.
- After meeting Renge, Akane initially is struck by nerves and doesn’t know what to say to her, but she declines Renge’s suggestion of calling her Aka-chan (赤ちゃん is an affectionate way of referring to babies, since babies have redder complexions). However, while running down a road she frequents, Renge soon finds cockleburs (genus Xanthium) and names them a mortal enemy for getting stuck in her clothing. These plants are a member of the sunflower tribe, but are also counted as a weed; the seeds are toxic, and some animals will refuse to graze in areas where cockleburs are present. After finding some, Renge gifts one to Akane, before trying to give her a toad, as well. In the ensuing chaos, Renge and Akane end up at Konomi’s house.
- Konomi’s room is very clean and organised – Konomi had only made a few appearances in Non Non Biyori and had a more prominent role in the movie, so it was good to see Nonstop gave her a bit more screentime. The oldest of the students, Konomi is mature and composed; until recently, I would mistake her for being Hotaru. The two begin practising, and Renge soon takes an interest in Akane’s flute, calling it an octo-corder on account of the fact that the complex mechanisms on the flute resemble an octopus’ tentacles and grippers.
- While Akane might be shy and cannot play too well in front of others, she is sufficiently knowledgeable with woodwind instruments. After helping Renge to properly play a C note (she refers to them by the Solfège syllable “do”), Renge is ecstatic and she subsequently asks to play alongside the others. This simple session helps Akane to realise that playing in front of and communicating with others isn’t as terrifying as she’d thought. For Renge, she’s met someone who she can befriend and look up to.
- This moment is what lends the first episode its title: Konomi, Akane and Renge play a song together on their instruments. Non Non Biyori episodes are typically named for the episode’s main event, and one has a good idea of what’s upcoming in each episode, although seeing which characters experience the event described by the title is always exciting. On the topic of music, Nonstop‘s opening and ending songs are both excellent, and the album with these tracks will be titled Non Non Biyori Days. Retailing for 2970 Yen (around 36.32 CAD), this album releases on February 24 and is a best-of album, with the opening songs for the first and second seasons, as well as the film.
- With the day drawing to a close, Akane prepares to head home, thanking Konomi for having her over and asking if it’s cool for her to come over again. Because Akane figured prominently in the key visuals for Nonstop, she’ll definitely be returning: Akane is voiced by Aimi Tanaka (Himouto! Umaru-chan‘s Umaru Doma and Akane Sawatari from Anima Yell!). The main advantage about long-running series is that they can slowly introduce relevant characters, which balances keeping things fresh for viewers without disrupting existing dynamics. GochiUsa is an excellent example of a series that does this well.
- Akane is positively thrilled with how the day turned out, jumping for joy under a warm sunset. While the cocklebur might be counted a weed, for Akane, it’s also come to be a tangible representation of the day that she’d taken a step forwards towards being able to play her flute in front of others. While Renge’s non-sequitur way of thinking can be confusing, I imagine that this is done deliberately, both to viscerally show that a six-year-old has a very different view of the world than youth do, and further to this, the idea that symbols and objects take their meaning based on what people choose to attach to them.
- Each episode in Non Non Biyori does have a standalone theme or messages that makes the series worth writing about, and Nonstop is no different: even just an episode in, I’ve managed to cover quite a bit of turf here. However, my schedule means that I can only focus on one series episodically this season (Yuru Camp△ 2 takes this slot), and previously, I’ve found that Non Non Biyori was a series that works best when I consider several episodes together in a sort of big-picture style talk. Thus, I’ll be writing about Nonstop in a quarterly fashion, and will return to write about this one after the third episode. Having said this, I anticipate that Nonstop will be every bit as enjoyable as Yuru Camp△ 2 in its own right, and with this post in the books, the winter 2021 season looking to be off to a very solid start, one that will give slice-of-life fans much to smile about.
When Non Non Biyori Repeat began airing, I had been surprised that the story had actually been set in between episodes of the first season. The second season continued to impress with its subtle incorporation of life lessons into a gentle and humourous story, leaving a decidedly positive impression on its conclusion. Upon watching Nonstop, my initial question was whether or not this third season would be similar to the second, being set in the same time-frame as the first and second seasons. As this first episode continued, it became apparent that Nonstop is a proper continuation, set after the events of the first and second season. Renge is accustomed to life at school, and Akane is introduced, indicating that this third season is ready to keep things rolling. With this being said, the time-frames in Non Non Biyori seem to hardly matter, speaking to the sense of timelessness in Non Non Biyori; Asahigaoka is so far removed from major population centres that going to a department store is a big deal, and here in Asahigaoka, things like smartphones and tablets are non-existent. The end result is that time does seem to stand still here, and without the pressures of an urban setting, each of Renge, Hotaru, Komari, Natsumi, and now, Akane, are each able to really appreciate the sights and sounds of home. Moreover, the timelessness of Non Non Biyori‘s setting means that, despite a six year gap between the second and third season, Asahigaoka has not aged a day. It only feels like yesterday that Renge and the others met up on a hill with a blossoming cherry tree to welcome a new spring: Nonstop picks up where things have left off, ready to take viewers on another relaxing, cathartic journey alongside Renge and her friends. If it were not apparent, I’m definitely excited about Nonstop: the lovable cast and breathtaking scenery that brought me into this series has only continued to find new ways to impress with time, and I’m confident that viewers will be treated to another wonderful season with Nonstop.