Listening to Arthur Hnatek’s album ‘Melismetiq’ drove me to sleep one afternoon. The pianist’s fingers tenderly brushing the ivory keys. The trumpet beaming a yawning melody, gliding weightlessly above the warm pop and crackle of bass, drums and sprinkled electronics.
I didn’t fall asleep because I was bored to tears. The album silenced the haphazard noise in my brain. It calmed every fibre of my body. It was perhaps the first hour I spent doing nothing in months. It was perhaps the best nap I had in years.
I’d imagine that the first paragraph might’ve provoked you to let escape a yawn as well.
The ambience of a calming, comforting environment has its own rhythm, a sense of poetry in its delicate balance. And it is this balance that I’ve hoped to understand as I began my search for answers, having experienced another similar but extended effect from a TV show just a few weeks ago. Except this time, I didn’t fall asleep. I wept in quiet contentment, a wave of sentiment and overwhelming joy awashed over as the end credits rolled for the final time when episode 12 finished its run.
‘Laid-Back Camp’s’ title spoke for itself: there is something unassuming yet deliberate in how it flaunts its laid-backness. The show places all its effort in building a sensory landscape that oozes with effortlessness and wasted time. There exists no villain for the heroes to defeat. No drama for the characters to resolve. No reason for the characters to engage in self-improvement or catharsis.
It is a TV show with no story-driven purpose.
We are taught by our contemporary urban lives to avoid ‘having nothing to do’. Having ‘something’ to work towards, to work on, to wake up for, is our reason to live. An hour doing nothing is an hour wasted, and another hour towards our inevitable death. The contemporary life of a city-dwelling person is defined by goals. A drive.
‘Laid-Back Camp’ spent its entire run bastardising this goal-driven worldview. And…well, you already know how I responded to that.
The Healing Manifesto
(Disclaimer: admittedly, the next two sections function more or less like a condensed summary of Roquet’s paper on Ambient Literature. I added in my own interpretations of the concepts and excerpts, but I intended for these sections to act as an introduction for readers who don’t know his thesis.)
(Also: Laid-back Camp will be referred to as Yuru Camp from now on.)
Market trends have a very amusing way of guiding us through the lives of a cultural collective. Patterns, sometimes self-serving but no less insightful details that allow us to examine what brings certain trends into relevance.
In a paper written as part of The Journal for Japanese Studies, titled ‘Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm’, Paul Roquet explicitly underlined his intentions in trying to make sense a trend in post-90s Japanese literature: a style of prose and writing in novels whose primary marketable function is of ambient mood-regulating and healing (Iyashi). Roquet identified that the seeds of a ‘Healing Boom’ were already planted within Japanese society decades before the 90s, albiet even in completely different forms and intentions (he correctly made comparisons with texts that also had sensory cues to affect mood, such as propaganda.) (2009, p.89). What eventually set off the widely cited Boom of the 90s were a stream of high-profile disasters that dominated the collective Japanese mindset: The 1995 Kobe Earthquake, the terrorist gas attack by the doomsday cult ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ barely two months later, and the intensive media coverage of brutal homicides, compensated dating (enjo kosai), bullying and chronic absenteeism from school (Leheny, 2006, pp.27-48). It would certainly make a convincing case that such widespread effects of societal panic provided a fitting emotional context for the exponential growth of a market dedicated to healing and ‘calm’ as a lucrative and marketable feeling.
Along with the more significant cultural products of ambient music (a concept invented much earlier, which I won’t be getting into detail here, but a fitting example can be found in the affect I described listening to ‘Melismetiq’) and healing novels, the market became saturated with iyashi goods, everything from iyashi-themed magazines, aromatherapy, pet therapy to iyashi-style television shows (i.e. the now widely known Iyashikei anime genre) in post-90s Japan.
Of course, the abundance of novels written with a goal of ambient healing during this time can be diagnosed as an industry responding to demand, but what we are interested in here is HOW novelists achieve such an effect on their readers.
In the late 70s, the slowly brewing culture of mood regulation seamlessly infiltrated the Japanese fiction market, with Haruki Murakami publishing his first novel, ‘Kaze no uta o kike’ (‘Hear the wind sing’), which is cited by literacy critics as the first major example of a dominant thread within Japanese literature in the 80s and 90s: the ‘healing novel’ (‘iyashikei shosetsu’). In considering that the novel explores depression, apathy and suicide, one would hardly be faulted to hesitate in considering such a novel ‘healing’. Critic Akio Nakamata in his 2002 book on ‘post-Murakami’ literature, elaborated on his assumptions regarding ‘Kaze no uta o kike’:
“Haruki Murakami starts writing as a ‘small attempt to heal himself,’ but at the same time he also heals (iyasu) many of his readers. It is well known that Murakami managed a jazz bar during his student years. It might be too much to imagine Murakami as a barkeep, soothing the souls of his customers by listening to their worries. But in fact, Murakami’s writing can be read as one kind of ‘healing-style’ fiction” (2002, p.32).
Now, the curious consistency of this subtly romantic urban myth across cultures, one with a history stretching thousands of years of taverns, roadside inns, alcohol and weary travellers, remains one of the most interesting narrative frameworks that I’ve come across, and forms the basis of my personal understanding and appreciation of what healing novels strives to achieve. The reason I brought up ‘Kaze no uta o kike’ here isn’t to analyse its inner workings, to illustrate the aesthetic of the healing novel: that honour will go to another novel later. The connecting tissue of Murakami’s jazz bar, his novel as a source of healing for himself and his readers on a basic cultural level, is what I’m interested in here.
In order to understand ambient literature and healing novels as a subset of its aesthetic, one must first appreciate the essence of what I outlined above: a wary barkeep, who always stood at the counter, a cabinet of alcohol behind him, listening to a lone, slightly intoxicated patron, as he recounted his recent life story, knowing that the barkeep will always lend an ear to his struggles, and will offer worldly advice, if needed.
Now, imagine this as an environment you are currently observing, and the atmosphere is radiant with heat from the crackling fire and mutters of conversations. In front of you: the slow prose of the drunken patron as he struggled through his story, the occasional low-pitched “Hmm” from the barkeep, as he absent-mindedly wiped clean the mug in his hands. Behind you: a trio of musicians. Piano. Double bass. Drum set.
How would you describe such an environment? Intimate? Warm? Melancholic? Sleep-inducing? Timeless?
The Familiarity of the Unfamiliar: Mysterious Hotels and The Ambience of Texture
Consider the following lines printed on the back of Yuki Kurita’s 2005 novel ‘Oteru Moru’:
‘Every night, people in search of sleep gather at Hotel Mole.
A mysterious hotel that offers happy sleep.
A story taking place in a world just a little separated from everyday life.’
Common, garden-variety word choice. The vocabulary doesn’t leave room for miscommunication, pause or confusion for the reader. The words are chosen to express exactly what they are intended to express. There exists also a paradox in how atmosphere is achieved and maintained here. The hotel’s mysterious disposition is described with the straightforward ‘mysterious’, and yet, this atmosphere of mystery is achieved simply because what’s mysterious ABOUT the hotel is left to the imagination. The reader’s attention is maintained but also allowed to linger in a dispersed, amorphous state of ambience. This can also be observed by the word choice of ‘happy sleep’ and the third line ‘A story taking place in a world just a little separated from everyday life.’ Straightforward prose, with nothing to hide. But again, the ambience of such narration brings the reader just slightly towards a state of contemplative calm. The story they are reading is about a certain mysterious hotel, existing on a plane of existence just beyond reality, where they can find happy sleep. The curiosity of a hotel of happy sleep promises a thematic space for the mind to wander.
Such ambient approach to mystery continues this pattern of the paradox. In the afterword of Kurita’s earlier novel ‘Hamizabesu’, Shinji Ishii describes a fundamental difference in how mystery is expressed ambiently. Unlike the dramatic sublime, where the subject is confronted with the enormity of the unknown in a moment of shock, ambient mystery simply leaves it as mystery, transmuting the unknown not by attempting to assign personality to it through language, but through an evocation of the familiar qualities beyond which hides the unfamiliar (2002).
Now consider the following excerpt from the novel:
‘The chair was nice. Tall enough to support the back of the head, with armrests as well. The surface had a velvety feel, making me want to keep stroking it. I reached out my hand to touch the back of the chair. My fingers felt something hard. Taking a closer look, I saw a plastic plate about the size of my little finger. It said “Cowhide.” Was this to explain what the chair was made of? I tried sitting down. Even through my clothes, my skin could sense the suppleness of the leather. I closed my eyes and soon felt my body yielding to the softness. A moan of comfort began to bubble up from deep within my throat.’ (p.13)
Nothing about these descriptions of a single armchair exists to advance the story. The main character isn’t motivated by it, nor does the chair compel change by being a secret mechanism that opens a passage behind the desk. Instead, this useless, mundane feature was given extended word count to advance the ambience of the narrative headspace the author wants their readers to be in. It should also be noted HOW this sensory imagery is transmitted to the reader. Instead of stating how the chair felt as Kiri (the main character) touched the chair, the narration guides the reader through an alluring series of tactile ‘feelings’ that is felt as Kiri comes into contact with the various materials. As a result, the physical space she now resides feels…physical to the reader. The reader is now in a mental space capable of direct sensual empathy with what Kiri experiences throughout the story.
Sensory Invocation. A technique of bringing tactile connection between the reader and the narrative world, by describing the sensual conditions of materials that give rise to the senses’ perception. The soothingness of sound, texture, colour, temperature. Ambiance. (Still remember the barkeep with the drunken patron?)
There is a rhythm to this manner of storytelling. The story of the mysterious hotel will repeat sequences like this: sensory experiences described in detail, and how it induces calm. Ambient literature is defined by finding the calming rhythm within the mundane every day. Sure, rules of reality can be broken, a story can take place just slightly out of sync with reality, but the universal sensory experience of the world around the characters is always maintained, and the reader is invited to become a ripple in the pond, letting their thoughts melt into the ambiance of calm.
Yuru Camp: Communal and Secluded Comfort & the Mystical After-School Clubroom
Contentment is the antithesis of drive. As I have written above: contemporary life is defined by drive; a purpose defined by achieving what’s not yet achieved.
‘Yuru Camp’ is defined by paradoxes, as are its characters. And it is within these paradoxes that we can truly understand what allows this show to achieve a level of resonance that can literally inspire a Japanese market boom in Winter outdoor camping, all the while maintaining an atmosphere of utter contentment, of humble pleasures and effortless celebration of the simple things in life.
In ‘Yuru Camp’ we are first introduced two main characters, Nadeshiko and Rin, with whom the audience will be circulated through a mirroring, sometimes coinciding narrative that sees them navigating the hobby of outdoor camping. Throughout the show’s run time, they visit different camping sites and explore a multitude of geographical settings, either as a solo trip or as a group. As explored in the previous section regarding sensory invocation, ‘Yuru Camp’ relies on achieving a sense of clarity in its depiction of physical space, taking great care in painting into the cinematic frame shades of evocative and calming ambiance, so the characters can occupy and experience the space, all the while telegraphing the sensory affect to the audience. It must also be noted that the amount of character interaction and the show deliberately varying it during each camping trip was also a very resonant feature of the narrative, one that presents unique modifications to the slice of life anime formula it utilizes, of which the western anime community has labelled the ‘cute girls doing cute things’ genre.
This idea of each campsite being its own clubroom is evocative of a larger implication within Japanese manga and anime storytelling, that heavily features the high school as a setting of youthful curiosity and discovery, while the clubroom itself offers a compressed space of character interaction that invites nostalgia in its familiarity: spatial interaction and sensory recall is paramount in a show’s ability to achieve a space of character narrative that feels sentimental and significant.
But ‘Yuru Camp‘ doesn’t give itself such luxury. Instead, the show demonstrates an almost obsessive attention to the detail of spatial experiences; a trait that immediately betrays the nature of its intent. The opening episode’s (literal) cold open sees a warmly dressed Rin lightly panting as she biked her way towards the campsite, surrounded by mountain ranges, a lake and Mount Fuji. The juxtaposition of ambiance is demonstrated here by the cold weather (signaled by a shot of a temperature sign showing ‘two degrees’) being instead atmospherically transmitted through Rin’s visible breaths, her luxuriously warm clothing, complete with a beanie and scarf: elements of sensory reinforcement that is warm and cozy. Again, paradoxes and contrasts.
Later into the episode, when Rin is introduced to Nadeshiko, we are treated to the first of a reoccurring rhyme in the entire show’s narrative, which I mentioned before is a defining trait of ambient literature. As Nadeshiko was treated to cup ramen by Rin, since she was stranded without her phone, the show establishes the comedic beats that will accompany this character pairing across the entire twelve-episode run: the former’s love of food, and the latter’s snarky (but affectionate) commentary on said love. The sensory detailing of the experience of slurping piping hot cup ramen next to a campfire is not described with complex narrative devices, nor was it merely described by the character in dialogue: instead, the camera shifts between Nadeshiko’s loud slurping, rushed pants that imply a burnt tongue, her continuing to eat despite that, and Rin’s comment ‘She makes it look so delicious’. The combination of the sensory invocation in watching and listening to Nadeshiko gleefully slurping down food and Rin’s straightforward commentary combines to create a simple atmosphere of comfort, not unlike sipping hot tea on a cold day.
Perhaps the most evocative and subtly magnificent aspect of ‘Yuru Camp’s ambient narrative style, is how it demonstrates the dualistic but equally comforting experience of communal and solo camping, the comfort of community and seclusion. This feature of the narrative is perhaps best demonstrated by episodes in which Rin and Nadeshiko are on separate camping trips. The former’s character trait of a committed solo camp who enjoys the comfort of calming freedom of camping by herself is treated by the cinematic frame with wide shots of atmospheric beauty and scenic magnificence. Sequences following Rin are light on dialogue, and instead relies on sound design to evoke that aspect of sensory connections. In contrast, Nadeshiko always camps with members of the outdoor activities club members, and the show compensates this different communal energy by foregrounding character humour and relational contrasts: the background music is energized by prancing flutes, energetic percussion and a playful fiddle, the dialogue more descriptive and gag-driven. Neither camping experience is privileged in the show’s exploration, both are given ample exploration to delivery a comforting viewing experience that soothes and calms the viewer.
There is meaning in mundanity. Meaning and value are not relative to productivity. Such is the lesson if one were to listen to an album filled with music that entices oneself to an afternoon nap, or is affected by the seemingly effortless stories of fictional characters enjoying their time camping. Ambient literature is one such approach to storytelling that I see a certain…unobtainable elegance in that can never be truly appreciated by the contemporary masses. After all, tailored boredom (or the lack of drive) is one such feeling that can only heal the wary when it is not noticed.
Kurita, Y. (2005). Oteru Moru. Shueisha, Tokyo.
Kurita, Y. (2002). Hamizabesu. Shueisha, Tokyo.
Leheny, D. R. (2006). Think Global, Fear Local: Sex, Violence, and Anxiety in Contemporary Japan. Cornell University Press.
Matsui, T. (2008). The Social Construction of Consumer Needs: A Case Analysis of the ‘Healing Boom’ in Japan. Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo
Roquet, P. (2009). Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction. From The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1. The Society for Japanese Studies
Roquet, P. (2012). Atmosphere as Culture: Ambient Media and Postindustrial Japan. University of California, Berkeley
Tsunehiro, U. Translation by Guarneri, J. C. (2015). Imagination after the Earthquake: Japan’s Otaku Culture in the 2010s. From Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Vol. 1, No. 1. University of Minnesota Press.
Yoshiaki, K (2018). Laid-Back Camp. Legal Streaming from Crunchyroll. http://www.crunchyroll.com/laid-back-camp