I realized that dreams always go hand-in-hand with reality.
In his paper “Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm,” Paul Roquet writes that the main foundation for the relaxing ambience of iyashikei literature lies in a combination of familiarity and mystery. From its wordings to its narratives, he argues that the genre on the one hand is marked by a straightforward simplicity, yet on the other contains a notable degree of mysterious ambiguity. The latter is not a “mystery” in a sublime sense, but rather a “touch of mystery” that is breezily evoked through the translucency of the former (Roquet, 95-97).
In the anime domain of iyashikei, one can see how this familiarity-mystery-equation particularly takes its form in a slice of life mundanity vis à vis a fantastical exoticism. Aria and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou both frame the peaceful daily lives of their ensemble casts within a future sci-fi setting marked by an underlying ambiguity, while Flying Witch similarly juxtaposes the idyllic everyday on a countryside with an element of magic. Amanchu! on the other hand has always been notably absent of any fantastical mystery. Sure, the underwater sea is through the scuba diving premise centrally framed as an exotic other, but only insofar as being a point of exploratory wonder – not mystery or ambiguity and certainly not fantasy. But during the series’ currently airing second season, such an element has suddenly gotten introduced – and in a highly explicit form at that, namely dreams.
The first dream sequence that we see our protagonist Futaba engage in occurs in episode four, when she during an autumn afternoon is sitting at a café. After a couple of accurate predictions of smaller surrounding occurrences – the girl next to her dropping her bag, a strolling kitten falling over, the look of the next person walking out of the café – she deduces that she must be dreaming, and proceeds to pick up a nearby broom and fly away. When she returns, the young girl with the bag stares at her flabbergasted. After acquainting with each other, the two take off with the support of their imagination, flying through the air and spending the afternoon at the “Village of Cherry Blossoms.” The second dream sequence occurs in episode six, as a finale to the episode’s Halloween festival storyline. It begins with a couple of indicators; Kokoro has suddenly turned into the stuffed crab that she won at the competition, while Hikari is being kidnapped by a group of ghosts. Futaba concludes that they at some point must have “entered a fantasy,” as she and Hikari drift away into a colorful array of Halloween-themed and other fantastical imagery; carved pumpkins, a flying half moon boat, bats that turn into candy, a fairytale-like castle paired with prince and princess costumes, among other things.
In their stark contrasts to the series’ otherwise exclusively realist setting, these dream sequences are not just fantastical but surreal. But what’s even more interesting than the dreams themselves is their ambiguous narrative relation to the waking reality. Consider the shift from Futaba’s state of wakefulness to her state of sleep. In both cases, no explicit transition is present to mark the definitive end of one and beginning of the other. Instead, the fact that she somewhen has begun dreaming is gradually revealed through a series of indicators that appear in the space of her (prior) wakefulness – implying that the dream enters her waking reality rather than her entering the dream. This is especially true for the second dream; whereas the first at least has a signifier for sleep with Futaba dozing off at the beginning, the second appears to enter a state of total wakefulness.
Another element to the ambiguity is that of the dreams being shared between Futaba and someone else. The first dream she shares with the young girl next to her at the café. Upon the girl’s shock over Futaba’s flight, she explains to her the state of the dream before the two engage in their dreaming activities. By the end of it, the girl expresses worry over whether they will remember each other when they wake up. She therefore asks to exchange names with Futaba, but wakes up before she can give hers. While no confirmation is ever given that the dream is actually shared between them – the girl might as well be a mere figment within Futaba’s solely own dream – the sequence does nothing but approach it as such. To give this a firmer standing, the second dream – which is shared between Futaba and Hikari – is a lot more explicit about it. When the two wake up next to each other, there is no uncertainty between them that the dream was shared. Not only do they matter-of-factly state that this is the case, but further confirm it by bringing up various details from the dream recognized by both of them.
Finally, let’s examine the narrative continuity between dream and wakefulness in the second dream sequence. As aforementioned, the dream is initiated via the Halloween festival, beginning with a series of indicators before evolving into a full fantasy land. When it subsequently ends, it is via a match cut of Futaba and Hikari from that they’re dancing as prince and princess to that they’re asleep inside a public bathtub during the evening. The contrast between these respective pre- and post-dream scenes sparks several questions. First of all, while the former suggests the entering of the dream in (as aforementioned) a state of total wakefulness, the latter seems to imply that the dream takes place in a sleeping state. Moreover, there is a more than evident spatiotemporal shift between the two, yet the dream appears to progress in real time without any indication of a time skip – and even then, the question remains of how Futaba and Hikari got from the Halloween festival to the bathhouse. Is their act of waking up in the latter perhaps meant to suggest that the entire episode up to this point is a dream? No, Futaba is quick to disprove this at the start of the episode by trying to summon a broom through her imagination and failing. If anything, the dream appears to literally transport them from one waking moment to another.
What all of these factors indicate is an extreme ambiguity as to where dream is situated in relation to waking reality. Not only are the two connected in several ways, but the line where one ends and the other begins is uncertain at most. The dreams of Amanchu! Advance go beyond the merely psychological – they even go beyond the confines of non-reality. They are situated at a metaphysical ambivalence between reality and fantasy, between familiar and mystical.
This ambivalence goes both ways. Consider the opening scene of episode six. As Futaba observes all the lively festival activity, with people in extravagant halloween costumes left and right, she asks herself if she is in a dream. After having failed to summon a broom in her hand, she concludes that it must be reality – yet at an experiential level the ambivalence is no less prominent. “It’s real life, but it feels like fantasy. It feels like fantasy, but it’s real life,” Futaba says, to which Hikari replies: “We could stray into a fantasy at some point, though.” Not only does the opening scene foreshadow the dream that is to come, but establishes the festival in between as having a dreamlike quality in and of itself.
Herein lies the series’ main thematic motif. In typical iyashikei-slice-of-life-fashion, Amanchu! frequently indulges in sentimental celebrations of the little wonders within mundanity. Minuscule everyday things like autumn leaves or an afternoon coffee are treated like treasures to be cherished, to deliver the message that the ordinary contains extraordinary experiences if you just look. What better way then to convey this extraordinary-within-the-ordinary than by framing it within the fantastical quality of dreams? Amanchu! ultimately employs the exotic mystery element of iyashikei not as a form of mystery itself, but in its thematic celebration of the everyday.
Roquet, Paul, “Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction”, The Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2009, pp. 87-111