“Normal day, let me not pass you by in the quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow” –Mary Jean Irion
After gaining admittance to Shirozume Girls High School, Wakaba Kohashi yearns to live the life of the stylish gyaru. On her first day of classes, Wakaba befriends the spirited Mao Kurokawa, taciturn and serious Nao Mashiba and pure-hearted Moeko Tokita. She learns that her impression of a gyaru was mistaken, but takes an immediate liking to her new friends: they take her out for ice cream, swap games and spend summer together by going to the pool at watching the fireworks. When term resumes, Wakaba becomes excited about her school’s culture festival, eventually standing in for Nao during a beauty pageant, and also helps Moeko to become a little more versed with sports. As the year draws to a close, Wakaba has a sleepover with Nao and Mao and Moeko’s place, and in the new year, Wakaba is relieved to learn that she’ll get to stay in Japan with her new friends after overhearing her mother’s phone conversation and assuming they were moving again. This is Wakaba Girl (stylised Wakaba*Girl), a short anime based off Yui Hara’s 4-koma manga that originally aired in 2015. Longtime readers will be familiar with Hara’s other work, Kiniro Mosaic – Wakaba Girl is very similar to Kiniro Mosaic in that both series feature a kind, but air-headed protagonist who’s a bit out of touch with the world, and in spite of this, does her best for the sake of those around her. Similar to Shinobu, Wakaba marches to the beat of her own drum, but also deeply loves the people around her. Although misunderstandings occasionally result, things are swiftly resolved, and humour typically results, giving both Kiniro Mosaic and Wakaba Girl a cheerful, light-hearted portrayal of the carefree world of students from a more peaceable time. Although Wakaba Girl is not going to earn any accolades for a moving storyline, meaningful character development or gorgeous visuals, the anime does succeed in creating a relaxing and cathartic aesthetic in an anime that provides amusing vignettes into a tale of how Wakaba finds joy and excitement in things that ordinary high school girls regard as unremarkable.
The premise of individuals hailing from a wealthy background finding commoner life remarkable is nothing new in anime – one of the best-known examples is K-On!, where keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki found curiosity in most everything from arcades to ordering fast food. In both K-On! and Wakaba Girl, Tsumugi and Wakaba have both lived sheltered lives as a result of their socioeconomic status, and extraordinary wealth precludes both Wakaba and Tsumugi from common things in society. These elements are utilised in K-On! and Wakaba Girl to help their respective stories celebrate the ordinary from a perspective that is still somewhat familiar: by using the wealthy ojō-sama archetype, a story can showcase things that people often take for granted without presenting it from the perspective of someone who is completely unaccustomed to Japanese customs. Regardless of the choice of perspective, the outcomes are the same – a given story is now able to celebrate the mundane. Shortly after meeting Mao, Nao and Moeko, Wakaba ends up accompanying her new friends for ice cream and finds the experience remarkable. Moeko, Nao and Mao find this unexpected, and when Wakaba expresses a desire to do this every day, her friends remind her that having an occasional treat is precisely what makes things so special. In this way, Wakaba Girl lovingly portrays things like sharing games with friends, enjoying a summer festival together and making the first shrine visit to accentuate the idea that, in a world where things become increasingly fast-paced, there is merit in slowing down and appreciating what one’s got. This message is not novel, but the combination of gentle moments of comedy and adorable mannerisms mean that Wakaba Girl represents an entertaining series, one that’s also short enough to provide one with an oasis of tranquility amidst a sea of activity.
Screenshots and Commentary
- As memory serves, I first watched Wakaba Girl during my ALIFE Conference in Cancún almost seven years ago – to keep my travels light, I only brought an iPad to do my presentations on, and back then, Wakaba Girl seemed like the perfect anime to bring with me because it was a shorter series. Episodes only run for seven minutes, and the opening song takes up almost a fifth of each episode, making it the perfect thing for unwinding to prior to turning in for that evening. I had intended to write about the series when I returned from the conference, but between being too excited about being in a conference and forgetting what Wakaba Girl was about, I ended up procrastinating because I hadn’t been sure of what precisely I’d gotten out of the series.
- Compounded with the fact that I was just starting out work with my first start-up and wrapping up my graduate thesis, things became quite busy, so Wakaba Girl fell to the back of my mind. Because Wakaba Girl and Kiniro Mosaic are both authored by Yui Hara, both series have a light, fluffy and cheerful aesthetic about them, and after a re-watch of this series, I believe I’ve got a much better measure of what Hara sought to convey. Here, Wakaba expresses pure excitement at getting ice cream with her newfound friends, Nao, Mao and Moeko.
- Wakaba had longed to become a gyaru, someone who is very fashion-conscious, and in Wakaba Girl, although she never reaches this goal, her friendship allows her to experience a side of life that would be quite far removed from what someone from money would experience. Things like going for ice cream are unremarkable for ordinary folks, but it’s a dream come true for Wakaba: early on, it’s established that Wakaba is air-headed and prone to misunderstandings. In a manner of speaking, she’s Wakaba Girl‘s equivalent of Shinobu Ōmiya. Wakaba’s friends are all built on familiar archetypes: Nao is similar to Aya, Mao resembles to Yōko, and Moeko shares traits with Alice.
- For me, Wakaba Girl‘s intentions became clear as the second episode drew to a close: as soon as Wakaba expresses a desire to go out for ice cream every day (and even offers to pay for everyone every time they do go out), Moeko slams the brakes and reminds Wakaba that the joy about doing things like these is precisely they’re uncommon, which makes them worth remembering. This message hit me like a freight train, and I realised that the me of seven years earlier hadn’t been keeping an eye out for this detail – this is ultimately what Wakaba Girl is about, and by having Wakaba coming from a wealthy background, the series is able to present ordinary activities as extraordinary from Wakaba’s perspective.
- This in turn forces the viewer to take a moment and see how the thing one takes for granted are actually more enjoyable and significant than one might otherwise think, and in doing so, Wakaba Girl suggests that smaller, everyday joys should not be taken for granted. Thanks to social media, people have come to view the extraordinary and glamorous as being commonplace, and this in turn leads to the belief that anything ordinary is insufficient. For instance, if one’s Instagram feed was filled with photos of people having what appeared to be the time of their life at a tropical resort or some exotic location, one might be compelled to experience the same for themselves even if it might not be financially prudent to do so.
- In reality, a weekend drive out to the local provincial or state park, or even a walk to a nearby café, could provide just as relaxing and enjoyable a break without placing a burden on one’s wallet. In Wakaba Girl, Moeko, Nao and Mao are quick to retort whenever Wakaba suggests doing something in France: the series is set entirely in Japan, but despite this, Wakaba always finds joy in the moments she spends with the others: for her first outing with friends, Wakaba and the others end up visiting Moeko, where they read books and bake cupcakes together. Although nowhere nearly as extravagant and glamourous as a trip to France, it’s the time spent with friends that truly counts for something.
- Wakaba’s mother and older sister are happy that she’s become very sociable. The cuddly art style in Wakaba Girl is similar enough to that of Kiniro Mosaic, but the series was animated by Nexus, a studio that was founded in 2012 and also produced Comic Girls. To my great surprise, the soundtrack in Wakaba Girl was composed by Kenji Kawai, who has previously worked on music in Ip Man, Higurashi and Gundam 00 – although Kawai has a very distinct style, it is worth noting that his use of percussion and strings is largely absent in Wakaba Girl.
- With summer fast arriving, Moeko invites Wakaba out to shop for swimsuits after learning that Wakaba doesn’t have anything more than her old school swimsuit from primary, but eventually ends up borrowing one that Moeko didn’t have a use for. Here, I remark that Nao is voiced by Rie Murakawa, whom I know best as GochiUsa‘s Megu Natsu: this is quite surprising, since Murakawa’s roles are usually squeaky voices, but Nao’s voice sounds more similar to Yōko’s, as she’s fond of delivering snappy retorts. On the other hand, Mikako Izawa voices Moeko. Izawa’s roles are limited: she’d previously played Locodol‘s Satsuki Kashiba and Anima Yell!‘s Uki Sawatari. Mao, on the other hand, is played by M・A・O, a renowned voice actress who’ve played characters in a variety of anime.
- To round things out, Wakaba is voiced by Ari Ozawa (Fai Fai of Endro!, YU-NO‘s Yuno, Lise Kohinata of Extreme Hearts, This Art Club Has a Problem!‘s Mizuki Usami and The Rolling Girls‘ Nozomi Moritomo). Going to the pool is a rite of passage for summer, a commonplace event in many anime; there are certainly merits for hitting the water as soon as the thermometer rises, and on the day of their pool visit, everyone is all smiles. Wakaba isn’t a swimmer, and Moeko ends up tutoring Wakaba; the pair subsequently hit a waterslide together and memorable times result.
- The emphasis on what people can do in their own backyards is ultimately what makes Wakaba Girl meaningful – this is the same theme that numerous slice-of-life anime accentuate, and this pattern does suggest that in Japan, there is a healthy respect for a normal life. Anime like these are generally shunned in North America, as people have grown up with stories of heroes achieving incredible feats through skill, swagger and sometimes, sheer force of will alone. These stories have their origins with tales of explorers to the Old West, and being an ingrained part of culture here, people generally prefer stories with adventure and excitement over more pedestrian portrayals of day-to-day life.
- However, there is merit in the slice-of-life genre because it presents two things to viewers: it is a reminder to slow down and enjoy things that we otherwise take for granted, and if one is watching slice-of-life from another culture, these works can offer a modicum of insight into said culture. In anime, slice-of-life is extremely varied, ranging from shows that faithfully depict everyday life in Japan, to highly stylised portrayals of life in different worlds. Wakaba Girl is a little less realistic than most slice-of-life series, using Wakaba’s incredible wealth as the driving point for its stories, but these elements are primarily used for humour, and there aren’t very many instances where Wakaba actually ends up using her wealth to accelerate something.
- As the summer wears on, Nao, Mao and Moeko try to invite Wakaba to a summer festival, only to learn that after an incident in her childhood, Wakaba’s curfew is set at 1800. They swing by Wakaba’s place to convince her mother and sister that things will be okay, and the pair quickly agree. This marks the first time Wakaba’s friends have visited her home, and the three are warmly treated – Nao, Mao and Moeko sit down to finger sandwiches and afternoon tea, and here, one of the Kohashi’s maids are visible. She looks like Kiniro Mosaic‘s Shinobu. Because Wakaba Girl isn’t a drama, going the direct route and talking to Wakaba’s sister and mother clears things up.
- In the end, Wakaba is permitted to go out with her friends, and that’s the end of things. Being direct is oftentimes presented as a difficult thing in anime, and this stems from a facet of Japanese culture, where people are typically indirect about how they feel out of politeness and a desire to preserve harmony. For instance, if someone was inconvenienced in a major way, they’ll reply it was only a small problem even where it was not. This stands in contrast with other cultures like the Dutch, who are very blunt and direct about things. There isn’t a right or wrong way about things, and personally, a middle ground works best – I would say that a given inconvenience wasn’t a big deal, and leave it at that; it’s important to make it clear that something was untenable, but also handle things graciously.
- Fireworks and festivals are a classic part of a Japanese summer; they are equivalent to the state or county fairs over here, and while summer festival might not have a rodeo or agricultural exhibition, they do have food vendors and midway games. By this point in time, I’ve seen enough anime to recognise the gun game and goldfish scooping, as well as ikayaki and all manners of Japanese foods, and although the local rodeo, billed as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth™, doesn’t have goldfish scooping, the food options are incredibly diverse, and in past years, I’ve enjoyed everything from Cheetos-fried frog legs to lobster poutine, kangaroo burgers and unagi tacos.
- While Wakaba and Moeko are kitted out in traditional yukata, Mao wears one with more contemporary design, and in classic fashion, Nao’s gone with a plain one for men. Everyone in Wakaba Girl is distinct in their own way, although I did find it ironic that despite having the shapeliest figure, Nao prefers clothing that conceals her bust, which, in classic anime fashion, becomes the subject of a few jokes here and there. With everyone gathered, it’s time for Wakaba and her friends to enjoy the summer festival to the fullest extent possible.
- During the midway games, everyone demonstrates uncommon skill with at least one of the games: Moeko manages to scoop up goldfish with the efficiency of a commercial trawler, while Nao hits her target with unerring precision (lending her skills to that episode’s title and giving Wakaba a bit of a scare). Mao and Wakaba are uncommonly lucky in a string prize draw, managing to pull the string that leads to a large stuffed animal. I’ve heard that midway games are generally rigged to favour the house – subtle, but not illegal modifications to the games ensure that the odds are slightly against players so most players lose, but not so much that everyone loses, and with a bit of familiarity, one can still improve their odds of winning.
- After enjoying all of the festival games, Wakaba and her friends head up to a viewpoint to view the fireworks. Similarly to Tamayura and GochiUsa: Dear My Sister, Wakaba Girl has the characters enjoying the show from a private viewpoint. From an animation perspective, this allows the animators to save themselves the trouble of drawing all of the attendees, but this choice also is logical from a storytelling perspective – it lets the focus to remain on the characters. During the fireworks display, Wakaba is introduced to the Japanese custom of saying tamaya and kagiya. From what I was able to learn, this comes from attendees shouting out the names of two Edo-era fireworks makers as a gesture of appreciation.
- Because Wakaba Girl portrays moments in Wakaba’s life, there is no consistent timeframe, and after the summer ends, it’s onwards into the autumn and the culture festival, which Wakaba is excited for: constant moves prevented her from attending earlier, and during her final year of middle school, fell ill before she could participate. This time around, Wakaba is determined to have a good time, and surprisingly, Nao announces her intention to compete in the school beauty pageant. Traditionally, classes put on different events, but perhaps as a result of Wakaba being a first-year, her class doesn’t look like they’re doing anything.
- This leaves Wakaba and her friends free to enjoy the culture festival. Although Wakaba is initially overwhelmed by the crowds, she meets up with Moeko and spends most of the day with her. One particularly funny moment comes when Moeko and Wakaba visit a class that’s making takoyaki, a Japanese treat consisting of battered octopus. After Moeko steps aside and invites Wakaba to get started without her, she returns to find that Wakaba’s somehow eaten all of the octopus, leaving only the batter behind. Later, Nao reveals that she’s developed a fever as a result of trying to psyche herself up for the beauty pageant.
- Although the wise move would’ve been to stand down, Mao ends up encouraging Nao to push ahead upon learning first prize is a shiny new digital camera. Wakaba eventually stands in for Nao and winds up winning. Wakaba Girl‘s manga run began in 2010, a time when digital point-and-shoot cameras had reached the height of their popularity: in subsequent years, advances in optical sensors meant that smart phones would have the capability of taking photos of comparable quality, and in the present, phones like the iPhone 14 Pro and Google Pixel 7 Pro are said to have camera arrays that can almost compete with a DLSR in daytime photography. Seeing a digital camera being given as a prize, then, is a testament to the times, and even in 2015, when Wakaba Girl‘s anime aired, standalone digital cameras were already in decline.
- Watching Nao and Moeko struggle with back-hip circles brought back a thought I had a year ago: on this day last year, I’d just moved in, and I had looked forwards to finally being able to lift weights again. A year later, I’ve settled in and developed a new fitness routine. The results of a year’s worth of progress is that I’m actually lifting more than I could as a university student, and I’m at the point now where I feel like I’m in sufficiently good shape to scale Ha Ling Peak. Outside of fitness, with life settling into a comfortable pattern, my blogging’s remained mostly consistent.
- With today marking the one-year anniversary to my moving in, I decided to step out for a delicious sushi and tempura lunch from the restaurant across the way. For lunch, their maki and roll combo (salmon, tuna and shrimp nigiri plus California, Volcano and Dynamite rolls) is an excellent choice, offering a taste of everything: by this point in time, raw fish isn’t quite so intimidating for me, and I’ve come to greatly enjoy nigiri. There’s an aesthetic about Japanese food that’s remarkably pleasing; in reality, Japanese food is as wonderful to look at as it is delicious to eat, and in anime, attention is often directed towards rendering food so the characters’ enjoyment of the moment is conveyed to viewers: in Wakaba Girl, after Wakaba brings some high-end bento in, the others spend a moment appreciating its aesthetics before digging in.
- For me, staying up for New Year’s Eve to watch the countdown has always been more intuitive than watching the first sunrise of the year, and here in Wakaba Girl, Moeko and her friends do exactly this. Unfortunately for them, they miss the countdown by oversleeping, but in typical anime fashion, it’s not the event, but who one’s with, that counts, and the friends quickly celebrate with their own countdown before making their way over to the shrine for the customary visit.
- Everyone has different wishes initially, but when they give voice to things, the wishes end up being identical – to spend another wonderful year together. Anime like Wakaba Girl are pure and and wholesome, almost to a fault. In the west, slice-of-li series are often overlooked because “nothing happens”. This couldn’t be further from the truth; I’ve long held that slice-of-life anime are reminders to be appreciative of the simpler things in life. Something as simple as a gorgeous sunrise or a juicy apple can be just as enjoyable as going to a concert or a fancy Starbucks beverage.
- Autumn passes, and winter sets in. Having never seen snowfall before on account of her family moving south whenever the weather cools, Wakaba is excited for the snow and wonders what could be done. Mao rattles off a large list of suggestions, including the building of snow forts and skiing. This past winter’s been relatively mild; despite a cold and snowy March, January and February proved to be dry and relatively warm. With spring now formally here, the local weather service is forecasting lower-than-seasonal temperatures and near-normal precipitation levels.
- Wakaba and her friends end up having a snowball fight, and unprepared for the cold, Wakaba ends up catching a cold. Nao, Moeko and Mao bring her home, and Wakaba expresses her heartfelt gratitude that she’d met everyone. While Wakaba makes a speedy recovery, she overhears her mother on a phone call and assumes the worst – that her father’s work takes him everywhere in the world, and previously, the family had moved with him. Worrying that she’ll be separated from Moeka, Mao and Nao, Wakaba falls into a depression and ends up staying home for a few days.
- In the end, Mao, Nao and Moeka end up visiting Wakaba with the hopes of sorting things out; par the course for secondary students who sometimes act before they think, Mao has suggested that they allow Wakaba to live with them. However, this ends up being quite unnecessary; Wakaba’s mother had been speaking about how this time around, only their father would need to move for his next assignment, allowing the remainder of the family to stay in Japan. As such, Nao’s impassioned, if incoherent, pleas to let Wakaba remain in Japan proved quite unnecessary.
- In this way, Nao is humiliated, but beyond this, the tensest moment in Wakaba Girl comes to pass, and the status quo is preserved. In the excitement of things, everyone’s quite forgotten about the fact that with a new academic year here, classes may be shuffled around, potentially separating everyone. Different series deal with this in a different fashion: K-On!, Kiniro Mosaic and GochiUsa had everyone ending up in smaller groups in different classes to emphasise that even apart, everyone could still be together. To celebrate that Wakaba’s going to continue on with everyone, she ends up ordering twenty boxes of pizza. Assuming the average large pizza costs 24 dollars, Wakaba’s just dropped 480 bucks for pizzas. Previously, Wakaba’s mother purchased enough kotatsus for every room in their mansion, and to put things in perspective, the average kotatsu goes for around 350 CAD.
- The fact that Wakaba and her family can do this without hesitation acts as a hyperbolic show of their wealth. This is done purely for comedy, and here, I remark people who have wealth are generally quite frugal. For me, my own financial habits result from the fact that I didn’t have money when I worked with my first two companies. Back then, even a three-dollar package of tea felt too expensive for me (and in fact, I still only buy this brand of tea when it goes on sale to this day). While my finances are a little more stable now, I still prefer saving money where I can. Beyond this, how I manage my money (with regards to things like RRSPs, the Canadian equivalent of the 401(k), and other investments) is far outside the scope of this post; people don’t (and shouldn’t) read my posts to learn how to grow their wealth, and I wouldn’t begrudge readers for unfollowing me if I ever do talk about finances. With this being said, frugality and money management are relevant to this post’s messages about appreciating normality.
- I will say that finding joy in the ordinary is an important mindset to have: one doesn’t need to spend a great deal of money to be happy, and this is something that Wakaba’s friends remind her of, time and time again. When the new term starts, Wakaba is overjoyed to be in the same class as her friends (to the point of freezing up from shock), and with this, another year of experiences begins. Wakaba Girl might not be the most innovative anime around, but it remains a joyful story with a worthwhile message behind it, and adorable characters to boot. That it’s “only” taken me seven years to write about it speaks volumes to how much of a procrastinator I am, but on the flipside, the anime I watched during the ALIFE ’16 conference in Cancún finally has a post now, and in this re-watch of Wakaba Girl, it does feel that I’ve gotten more out of it this time around than I did previously.
The importance of normalcy is one that is increasingly being forgotten about: in a world dominated by TikTok videos and Instagram pictures of youth performing outrageous stunts or showing off their luxurious (and often, fabricated) lifestyles, people often become disappointed by their own ordinary, average lives. New York best-selling author refers to this as the “tyranny of exceptionalism”, where social media gives the impression that everyone leads incredibly exciting and wonderful lives, and in turn, anything less renders one a failure. In Wakaba Girl, Wakaba’s life is exceptional; her family is wealthy, and as such, Wakaba is able to have experiences that most others can only dream of. When a Christmas party approaches, she comments on how she’s narrowed her list of Christmas dresses down to fifty, and later, her mother orders enough kotatsus for every room in their mansion. However, despite all of this wealth, Wakaba ends up finding joy in things her friends find normal. Whether it’s eating pizza together at her place, or working at a family restaurant, Wakaba sees the common as being worth celebrating. Manson similarly writes that simple pleasures are what make life worth living: the mundane and ordinary are what matter because they’ll form the bulk of one’s life, and embracing these things is how one can find happiness without living in an unsustainable, unhealthy manner. It’s rare that someone of Wakaba’s station would take an interest in the everyday, so seeing anime celebrating what people would otherwise take for granted is a reminder that there’s certainly value to the things in life that are often overlooked. Anime like Wakaba Girl have irrevocably changed how I approach my own life – I vividly recall how a decade earlier, I was longing for the exceptional and extraordinary, but in time, I came to realise that it’s finding value in what is otherwise seen as unremarkable that makes life worth living.