I recently watched Yuru Camp, all too late, because my boyfriend insisted that he wanted to rewatch it in my company. I did him the honor, and although sharing reactions and impressions with him took my focus away from a purely analytic point of view (hence why this is merely a blog post, which may however develop into a full-fledged article later on), I came back with some thoughts.
In many anime, especially those of the Kirara-kei type, repetition is central. The original state is re-established on a higher plane of harmony: a function of the narrative is often to reach that conclusion. But Yuru Camp had an interesting take on this. The ending, while indeed repeating the starting situation, has a different character execute it. It seems quite obvious at the start that Nadeshiko is in like something of the donor position: I’d written myself that repression is a quintessential Kirara-kei theme, the genre often functioning on a dualism between a repressed and an unrepressed character (which is why, for convenience, I’d taken K-On! and YoriMoi as two terminals, the first ‘starting’ with the unrepressed arm of the duo, the second with the repressed one). The structure of the narrative can go in different ways based on the starting position.
Here we do start with Rin: the typical scenario would be for her to meet her donor and eventually realize that being in groups is what she really desires. Now there are some nods to this (it is all too usual a Kirara-kei theme for any work to be quite free from it), but Rin is hardly ‘repressed’ in any strong sense of the term: she is found out to have different preferences is all. In fact, it’s hard to say which arm of the duo is the most important, insofar as they end up having more or less the same amount of screen time.
So, while after their meeting, Nadeshiko does ‘gift’ Rin with some energy and desire to do things in group (this is especially evident when her sleeping bag touches Rin’s when they camp together toward the show’s midpoint), here we end with something surprising: Nadeshiko reproduces Rin’s movements. It’s not quite clear when (maybe from the beginning), but Rin too had donated something to Nadeshiko, who now explores the joys of solo camping; the animation there is excellent, the scene being directed in largely the same way, but the rhythm of the cuts and character animation adjusted to reflect Nadeshiko’s livelier personality.
Of further interest is the way this ending doesn’t merely repeat the opening scene; it also echoes different moments of their journey.
Yuru Camp is really well structured as a narrative. We have a first episode, something of an announcement that a journey is starting. The next two episodes drive the character system home quite convincingly. Episodes four and five are the first striking pair in this narrative: the former ends on a failed encounter, where Rin and Nadeshiko’s group see each other, but are unable to communicate this to each other. Thus they cannot share anything. But this is corrected in the next episode, when Rin and Nadeshiko, from a distance, share the different views they see from their camping spots: here something has finally been communicated, exchanged, in a way that concretizes their difference and makes it appreciable for the other. (This is different from the first encounter, where difference is established but not made available as an object of sympathy quite yet). Episode six and seven form another pair, where Nadeshiko and Rin camp together; episode eight focuses on Nadeshiko and the rest of the Outdoor Activities Club, and those three form something like Nadeshiko’s Gifting Arc. Episode nine and ten are a bit different, announcing the union of everyone in the last two episodes for the Christmas camp; they permit a sort of pre-union, where Nadeshiko and Rin effectively collaborate from a distance.
This organization, largely in pairs of episodes, is mirrored in the structure of the episodes themselves: they function by parallels. The effect here is always double: difference is established, and in a second moment, revealed to stem from a fundamental sameness. The fourth and fifth episodes, which are echoed in the ending, are here relevant: at first, the failed meeting involves communicating that Nadeshiko and friends are seeing Rin through a camera. The successful meeting, however, occurs not when they see each other, but when they look at scenery. So indeed, while they have different manners of enjoying camping (the asymmetric character system I’ll touch on in a bit), what they share is an appreciation for the scenery behind which they are: not the portrait, and the Faciality that comes with it, but the landscape, with its depersonalizing effect of identification with a subject-less nature, is what allows communication. The parallel structure allows to establish difference, only to reverse it, or rather reveal its origin in oneness, later on.
At the level of the episode, the parallels occur between the Club and Rin. The character system, as I’ve said, is thus asymmetrical, because the dualism is in the end between trio and one girl. This allows to establish difference, as Nadeshiko likes being with friends, while Rin prefers solo camping. But the constant communication (both direct as they exchange LINE messages and indirect as the show goes back and forth between them) gives the sense that they are, ultimately, very much together. And in this way, they cannot be brought together. The typical Kirara-kei character system may be said to center around two individuals who form a set of opposition (repressed-unrepressed or else); the other characters are like satellites, orbiting around the main duo, influencing it various ways, independentizing themselves in others. But in Yuru Camp, the dualism is more thoroughgoing, as a whole group is one of its terms (the Club): as a result, there is no one galaxy to reunite, though they orbit close to each other. Now there are such characters, mainly Saitō, who operate in such a way that they are relatively independent (she never quite becomes a camper like the other characters), but help provide bridges (she changes Rin’s mind and gets her to participate in the Christmas camp).
This also complexifies the purpose of the Club’s members, who do not merely help reconcile Nadeshiko and Rin, but in fact can be considered as divisions and repartitions of the role Nadeshiko would have in the typical Kirara-kei character system: in the operation of reconciliation with Rin, the three of them play the same role, but this narrative role is divided into three, let’s say discursive ones: Nadeshiko being the joybringer, Aki being the goofy leader, and Aoi being the relaxer. Now these roles are hardly more than archetypal in Kirara-kei, but that they in fact fulfill the same narrative role is quite fresh, and reinforces the sense of unity found in difference.
To come back to my two poles, let’s do a quick comparison: in YoriMoi the discursive roles have parallels (Rin (Shima)=Shirase; Nadeshiko=Rin (Tamaki); Aki=Hinata; Aoi=Yuzuki), but they have distinct roles, and while the basic dualism is Shirase-Rin, Hinata and Yuzuki cannot be considered to exist in a unit with Rin like Aki and Aoi do with Nadeshiko. In K-On! things are somewhat different, with five characters, and the appearance of the second arm of the dualism coming a little later; but similarly, it cannot be said of Ritsu, Mio and Mugi that they form a unit with Yui, ready to embrace and convert Azusa, as they come from different places and behave with the rest of the group in always unique ways.
This is the sense in which, for me, Yuru Camp was something of a negotiation between these two (imperfect) poles: a character system which, while having relatively analogous actors, organizes its discursive parts in such a way that they are absolutely different yet absolutely together; beyond the repression-based narrative of YoriMoi or the freedom-based one of K-On! (and I know this is hugely simplifying, but those descriptions will have to do for now).
So, we come back to the ending: this time, Nadeshiko and Rin meet, Nadeshiko seeing herself in the picture that Rin has sent her of the camp she is about to spend the day at. They end up in the same place, able to see each other clearly this time around. Thus the narrative is complete, and sameness has emerged from difference.
This final repetition, as well as the meeting in the same place (the place of the beginning, moreover), adds another aspect to the comparison with my two poles, which I may call their relation to the outside. K-On! chose the inside very clearly; YoriMoi colonized the Outside. Yuru Camp here too negotiates a third way: that Nadeshiko goes camping on her sister’s car is telling enough that the connection with the inside isn’t broken (and while Rin’s solo explorations may come off as the opposite, they are re-familiarized thanks to her grandpa’s influence); at the same time, there is a desire to go toward nature, to melt with the landscape, and a preference for little-populated places. That we still see buildings all along the way helps make it clear that we remain, in some sense, inside, never thrown in the cold and lonely outside; at the same time, it is, under the auspices of this comfortably human structure, an exploration and a confrontation with the whims of nature (wind, cold…) In this sense the inside, the clearly defined spatial unit, may be said to work like a radio signal: it extends outside, but weakened, which is the area Yuru Camp cares to explore.
Yuru Camp, as a result of all this, cannot be considered a mere ‘evolution’, but in fact an attempt to reconcile two antinomic approaches due to an ideological necessity it powerfully identifies: beyond resentment against what keeps us bound to one place, beyond free development which can only occur for a limited time in a limited space, it attempts to find a way which is not self-defeating (whether it’s because one can only come back to an alienated life after having conquered the object of resentment, or whether it’s because a liberated life cannot be maintained if it that which guarantees it is bound to disappear), and can be maintained into the future (as seen with Nadeshiko’s fantasy of the group camping as adults at the start of the last episode, and hinted at when a new camping starts at the end of the last episode): between two poles which cannot really maintain their Utopian implications, Yuru Camp has found a more stable solution, which certainly contains and represses some of the bolder implications of the two poles, but keeps its own Utopian impulse alive past the high school years. Furthermore, by emphasizing differences beyond narrative necessity, by transmitting the act of repetition onto other characters, camping also provides a possibility of continuity beyond the mere repetition found in comedies which reestablish the existing order.
And so, camping is revealed as an ideological necessity, to resolve problems of earlier Kirara-kei narratives (especially the relation with time), while keeping the connection with the Utopian outside alive. It is a powerful watch in its modifications of pre-existing generic systems: a landmark in the history of Kirara-kei, whose artistry fuses with an impressive awareness of its situation; in fact, its stylistic beauty (how relaxing it is, the patient depictions of camping that are full of life in a way only anime can be) comes as the only possible form for its thematic aims.