Space and Time in Yuru Camp
Yuru Camp, an iyashikei about an outdoor activity that (frankly) most people who watch seasonal anime will not engage in, somehow managed to match the popularity of all its diverse seasonal contemporaries. Bearing in mind that those contemporaries included a Trigger/A-1 Pictures co-produced action series featuring a cute dinosaur (Darling in the Franxx) and a highly anticipated KyoAni adaptation (Violet Evergarden), that’s quite the accomplishment for a no-name studio and director. One naturally wonders what made Yuru Camp so successful.
The answer you’ll find throughout discussion posts and YouTube reviews is that it’s comfy–a description that’s as much of a meme is it is the truth. However, if we go a step further and try to answer why it’s comfy, we might learn something about iyashikei as a whole. Lately, every season of anime is filled up with slice of life or would-be iyashikei shows. Most of these shows come across as formulaic and wind up lost in the dustbin with the mobile game adaptations. So what makes Yuru Camp stand out as comfy when so many of its peers fall into the trap of being boring?
What separates Yuru Camp and other beloved iyashikei apart from the rest tends to be the objective of their direction. Art styles and soundtrack selections are more easily replicable from show to show, but the direction of an iyashikei is difficult to nail without a genuine vision (and a bit of talent). What Mushishi wants to achieve with its scenes will differ from Non Non Biyori, but each is beloved by fans because of how carefully it pursues and presents that unique vision. In this way, Yuru Camp has its own goals in direction: to create comfortable spaces.
“Spaces” is a somewhat vague term, but we can get a better grasp of the idea if we think in terms of “making space.” If you declutter your room, you’re making space. If you block out time in your schedule to see a friend, you’re making space. If you take a deep breath and stare out the window for a while, you’re making (mental) space. Thus, we might think of “making space” as similar to reducing informational noise and expanding available time. To create this kind of space in film/television, the director oversees a combination of editing, shot composition, sound design, music, etc. to mould the experience in their vision. Thus, it only makes sense to mirror the director’s own focus when analyzing space and time.
To get us in the right mindset, let’s look at a simple example from Episode 1. During their first shared camping experience, Rin offers Nadeshiko some instant ramen which the latter gladly accepts. As is anime tradition, we’re treated to a somewhat involved eating scene, but here Yuru Camp differentiates itself. For over half a minute, Nadeshiko eats with nothing but cheerful rustic music to accompany her before Rin finally offers some quick narration. When you consider that an episode of anime has less than 40 of those half-minute chunks to work with, that’s a substantial amount of airtime to dedicate to a single action. By the time either character actually speaks aloud, a full minute has passed. There’s less than 20 of those chunks to work with! Still, Yuru Camp is content to delay the next act or word and let the viewer simply sit with the moment.
I’ll refer to what gets delayed in this scene as “incidental momentum.” Broadly speaking, incidental momentum is the speed and frequency with which a narrative gets to the next new thing (an incident). In a comedy like Yuru Yuri, incidental momentum pushes the show towards the next joke, the next new activity the girls will participate in. In a sports anime like Haikyuu!!, it pushes towards the point in a match, the next drill in training. Incidental momentum is what makes a show become different than it was earlier. Dialogue and action are the usual (perhaps only) methods through which shows generate incidental momentum. Think of the climax to a romance anime: one character runs away, the other chases them down, one starts crying, one confesses, the other accepts, they kiss. The state of the show is rapidly changing; there is a lot of momentum. To put it another way: there isn’t a lot of space in those half-minute or minute chunks.
Coming back to Yuru Camp, we can see the incidental momentum is quite low. The activity at hand, the characters’ opinions of one another, what the viewer is thinking about…these things don’t change at all until Nadeshiko finally speaks. In fact, the whole scene only leads to that single lightweight joke! With a careful eye, we can see all the potential alternatives for directing this scene. If you’ve watched enough slice of life anime, you might have noticed a peculiar cut from a shot of Nadeshiko eating to one of Rin watching. This first cut to Rin almost begs for some reaction out of her. A dozen other similar shows would have Rin comment on Nadeshiko eating fast or not waiting for the noodles to cool off. You can feel the opportunity for a joke. Yet Yuru Camp waits, and lets Nadeshiko take three more helpings from her ramen before finally cutting back to Rin for narration.
Compare this to Koufuku Graffiti, a slice of life specifically about eating food. Narration is always barging in to describe the food; conversations constantly fly across the table; the eating is exaggerated in its animation and rapid in its cutting. Now, Koufuku Graffiti has different objectives in directing these scenes (Koufuku is more about eating with people than simply eating), but this comparison does demonstrate two dramatically different approaches to directing shows of a similar/same genre.
What Yuru Camp creates in contrast to Koufuku Graffiti is an interval that grants freedom to the viewer. Rather than moving from new exciting shot to new funny dialogue to new whatever, the viewer gets to settle their mind and let it rest wherever feels best from one moment to the next. Yuru Camp just lays the interval out in front of us. If we want to listen to Nadeshiko’s eating, or enjoy the cheerful music, or appreciate her cute faces–all these options are available to us without being thrust upon us.
With this in mind, “space” in film/TV seems most closely related to pacing. The idea of incidental momentum supports this assumption even further, but the concepts do have their differences. First, the length of shots and frequency of dialogue don’t always equate to either a film’s pacing or its ability to create space–look to Mad Max: Fury Road or The Hateful Eight for counterexamples on either side. More importantly, elements that aren’t strictly related to pacing can have a significant impact on the creation of space.
The whole of Episode 9 shows how relating “space” strictly to pacing can prove a bit inaccurate or imprecise. The episode’s structure works with the editing and storyboarding/cinematography to create space in a way that is not purely dependent on pacing by splitting up one of Rin’s camping journeys via her interactions with Nadeshiko. Sometimes this is demonstrated through cuts back to Nadeshiko in her bedroom, sometimes through various representations of text messaging. The storyworld conceit for this structure is that the girls want to share the camping experience as best they can, despite being separated. They exchange messages and pictures so that, in her own words, Nadeshiko can “feel like [they’re] going camping together.” In essence, that’s the objective of the episode as well: to tell not the story of Rin camping, but of the girls sharing this experience through communication.
This approach doesn’t necessarily slow down the pacing (and incidental momentum), as new information is rapidly presented via the girls’ text conversation and new environments are constantly explored via cuts between Nadeshiko’s room, the attractions Rin explores, and the pictures sent back and forth. A single moment in time can be captured in a photo and then expanded into a longer/larger interval of time by the girls’ text conversation about the photo and their feelings.
For example, Rin sends Nadeshiko a photo of Tsuetsuki Pass, which the two then briefly discuss before Nadeshiko proposes to be Rin’s navigator. This discussion lasts about a half-minute, notably the same chunk of time as the aforementioned ramen scene. Although this interval consists of two shots (one a still frame), quite a lot of narrative work gets done. We learn about Rin’s location and plans, we get Nadeshiko’s reactions, and we establish the method of communication that drives the episode forward. It’s difficult to quantify, but the scene also creates an element of distance that allows the viewer to more comfortably engage with the events that occur throughout the episode. For me, it’s akin to how it can sometimes feel more comfortable to text or voice chat about a show with a friend than to watch together in person. We interact while retaining the kind of nonsocial mindstate that makes staying in our pajamas acceptable. We engage some parts of our social cognition, but not all of them.
Yuru Yuri, funnily enough, provides a similar example that is worth looking at to hammer home the point. In Episode 4 of Season 3, the cast splits into two sleepover parties on the same night. The episode flips between each sleepover, with the girls occasionally messaging back and forth or talking about what must be happening at the other party. The show really starts to stretch its intervals out once Kyoko takes a “sexy” photo of Yui and sends it to Akari at the other party. The action of taking dumb photos occurs at one party, which is delayed by a cut to the other party doing something else, only to extend the “photo incident” by having Akari receive the message, which is an incident that is itself extended by a cut to Kyoko and Yui talking about the fact that Akari is probably looking at that picture now!
If that sounds confusing, it’s because it’s a surprisingly dexterous editing task for a slice-of-life anime. Well-timed cuts between direct “participation” in an action and indirect observation of an action can create the sense of a mediator between the storyworld and us as viewers–almost like a tour guide for the episode. The tour guide can stop or slow down the bus to point details out, build our expectations, replay certain events, etc. All this serves to extend the “now” of the story. To compare: a horror movie typically wants instantaneous intervals of “now”, as that helps viewers feel like the threat can pop out at any second. Every single moment has the potential for scares, and that’s why it’s thrilling. However, in these examples from Yuru Camp and Yuru Yuri, the viewer is reassured that this interval of “now” will go on a while longer. We can relax and get used to what’s happening. This has the opposite effect from the horror movie: the viewer calmly sinks into their couch.
And that chance to sink into the couch is really what creating space is all about. Watching film/TV can actually be quite an intense or complicated mental process, depending on how strongly we choose to engage with it. When we sit down to watch an iyashikei, our objective isn’t to reduce that engagement to zero (or “turn off” our brains), but to allow any wound-up mental threads to unravel as the show ebbs through our mind with a relaxing level of intensity. Like with meditation and anxiety treatment, the absence of stimulation is actually counterproductive, and success stems from engagement with manageable, contained, spacious mental tasks. Along these lines, Yuru Camp creates calm spaces, knowing that sometimes, with all the stresses of daily life, we as viewers might have trouble finding them elsewhere.