Monk and Robot and the Spirit of Iyashikei
Welcome, weebs, to Animated Observations
It has been a while since I properly rambled about a niche topic…well, actually, no it has not, since that happens two times every week. Rather, it has been a while since doing so in a purely opinion piece/essay style format. Call it a lack of motivation or maybe even a moderation of my stronger, more out there opinions, but I have not had that much to say.
However, today is different. After recently finishing both halves of Becky Chamber’s Monk and Robot series “A Psalm for the Wild Built” and “A Prayer for the Crown Shy,” a lot of things ran through my mind. Most of them were about how damn good the novella actually was. Which is true, definitely go read it. However, a few of those thoughts drifted towards series like Yokohama Shopping Trip and one I started recently: Aria the animation.
The sub genre of Iyashikei is not one that gets talked particularly often, usually drowned out by discussion of the latest one piece arc or whatever seasonal powerhouse has ahold of people’s attention. This is not to say these conversations cannot exist simultaneously, only that they usually do not. Which, in my eyes, is a real shame.
For those unaware, Iyashikei (literally “healing type” or “healing”) refers more specifically to shows intended to have a calming effect on its audience. This is usually done with more laidback storylines, either by focusing on characters’ individual journeys, their connection with their immediate environment, or a combination of both. This often results in less overarching story and more of a focus on episodic or segmented story beats.
In anime and manga, Iyashikei tends to overlap quite a bit with the concept of slice of life, since many stories focus on one or just a few characters. Additionally, there is often a sense of intimacy within that focus, both from the characters’ previously mentioned connections with their environment, but also in their self-discovery-oriented journeys, regardless of whether they realize that is happening.
Pretty much all of what I have just described as Iyashikei is represented and celebrated within Monk and Robot, a series about a traveling tea monk who gets bored of their everyday routine, only to travel off-road into woods set aside for the Robots that gained consciousness and left society several generations ago. Said tea monk Dex then meets Mosscap, a robot who’s mission involves reconnecting with human society and finding out what it is people “need.”
It’s a big question for what feels like a relatively short series. Still, despite the sci-fi, solar-punk aesthetic that frames a large portion of the story’s setting, Monk and Robot is arguably one of the most Iyashikei stories to be released in a long time. This is because, rather than turning into some kind of big action adventure story about a society that rejects and becomes afraid of technology that has “turned against them,” the premise is very much taken at face value.
We are instead dropped into a much more understanding society. Humans in Monk and Robot, while clearly having some differences in opinion on the nature of the robot awakening, as well as on matters of ethics and religious philosophy, seem to by and large accept the idea that their abuse and exploitation of these now sentient creatures was and is wrong.
This is even true of Dex. Despite being well-traveled and seemingly enlightened, their knowledge of how Robots work is basically zero. This is probably true of most others in modern human society (the novellas are less focused on “expert scientific opinion” than it is on the nature and implications of human and robot sentience) but, of course, the main focus is Dex’s relationship with Mosscap.
Speaking of, Mosscap comes across as a classic non-human mannerism adjusted robot, an entity whose curiosity directs them just as much as their stereotypically logic infused personality. As such, they serve as a great foil to the occasionally hot-headed and distraught Dex, who finds the robot right around the time they begin asking the same question Mosscap hopes to answer.
What starts as an incredibly awkward meeting with Dex naked in a forest quickly turns into a mutually enjoyable journey in which the two find purpose in each other. Every chapter lends itself a new adventure worth pursuing, even at the expense of some immediate comfort, which is saying a lot considering Dex’s entire religion basically revolves around small comforts like the tea they serve.
Regardless of whatever town or long stretch of road they happen to be arriving at or treading through, Mosscap manages to find something worth appreciating in a way Dex never could, at least not in their current mental state. The teachings of Allalae say that, as long it is not hurting the land or any people, that engaging in comforts is ok. However, it seems that lost in those teachings were the idea that the land and people themselves could also be those comforts.
The end of their journey feels representative of this. During the final chapter of book two, rather than going back towards the city where Dex trained to be a monk, the two instead take a detour to the beach. They eat, sleep, play, until the weight of their final journey forces them to have a candid conversation. The two ultimately conclude that, while everyone might have a purpose or something they feel like they need to do, that purpose is not something that needs to be figured out right away.
The story of Monk and Robot certainly is not always immediately feel good. It does throw out a lot of big questions with very little in the way of warning. Questions about what it means for things other than humans to be as intelligent as them. Questions about the nature of belief and its effects on our lives as people. Questions especially about human purpose.
However, most Iyashikei stories, even most stories period, operate on this principle of self-reflection before significant change or decisions. Yokohama Shopping Trip, set in the distance future and with a considerably lower human population, sees Alpha deal with extreme loneliness before she sets off on her trip in search of her boss. Though I have not seen it myself, one of the more popular anime that draws on ideas of Iyashikei is Yuru Camp. The series revolves around four teens who go camping in various locations around Japan. Despite the difficulty involved in said process, there is a joy at the end when they can wake up the next day to a beautiful sunrise.
There are certainly elements of the story that someone could nit pick at and find problems in. The beginning does border on being a little bit info-dumpy, especially when it comes to lore that feels less consequential than it really should. On top of that, while the non-binary representation is greatly appreciated, there is some really awkward sentence construction around gender neutral pronouns which could have been done a bit better.
However, none of these minor problems really take away from the point of Monk and Robot. It is a story about a transformational journey, sure, but it is also a story about enjoying life’s comfort and finding one’s place. Peace in the truest sense is hard to come by nowadays, especially in a post pandemic landscape where the general social attitude feels continually pessimistic in a way that’s hard to escape. This is not to say the correct response is throwing hands up at social ills and ignoring real problems. However, in between these battles for equality and better living conditions, there should be time for finding moments of real happiness and relaxation.
This turned out…ok. In all seriousness, I had the idea for this post a month ago when I started reading Monk and Robot’s first book. However, I also read The Afictionado’s post about cozy sci-fi during the pandemic and that inspired it even more, so shout out to them. Have you all ready this series? What do you think? Let me know down the comments.
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