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Let me tell you about one of my older and one of my newer favorite shows. The older one is Hidamari Sketch, a slice-of-life show about four girls in an art curriculum basically just going about their day-to-day interactions. The newer one is Let’s Drown Out, which is like a combination let’s play and podcast run by Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame. While these shows are pretty different in presentation, I watch both of them for the same basic reason–to listen in on a friendly conversation.
In recent years, there’s been a rise in podcasts and let’s play shows which are less driven around a central topic, and more resemble a guided conversation between two or more good friends. This format became explosively popular after the success of Game Grumps, which was a let’s play series that turned the focus away from the gameplay, with the hosts often playing a game for only a few episodes before getting bored of it and moving on, and far more on the natural chemistry and humor of Egoraptor and JonTron, both of whom were well-known internet personalities who were hilarious to listen to together.
Game Grumps was my introduction to that kind of show and I enjoyed it a lot, but thanks to its ludicrous update schedule I eventually gave up on watching it. In its place, I started listening to the Hello Internet podcast with CGPGrey and Brady from Numberphile, as well as watching Let’s Drown Out, hosted by Yahtzee and his friend Gabriel. Both of these shows are not comedy-centric, though neither is without its funny moments, and are really just very intelligent conversations on various topics between a couple of well-spoken, intellectual friends.
People who watch or listen to these shows, including myself, often say that it’s not really about the game being played (and in Let’s Drown Out they make a point to play the most boring games possible in the most boring way possible) or even really about being interested in the subject matter, so much as it is about getting to vicariously experience an interesting, friendly conversation. You’ll often see comments on these videos that people wish they could be friends with the hosts, or are happy to hear the kind of conversations that they don’t get to have with their friends in real life.
That certainly has to do with it for me, as someone who relishes in conversation, and in fact am a co-host of two shows that are exactly like this. I co-host the Pub Crawl radio show every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 1 AM EST for the sole reason that it’s an excuse to talk to my friends and co-hosts, who are among the best conversation partners I could ask for. We’ve run the show to a tiny audience for over a year just on that basis. I’ve continually made the Horsecast with Drowning In Horseshoes for the same reason–I like talking to him. Both of these shows are even less formulated than the ones that I’m a fan of, but the resemblance between the attitudes and ideas presented in Let’s Drown Out are often so similar to those expressed on the Pub Crawl that I sometimes feel like I’m just listening to my own show.
Slice-of-life anime is a little bit more complex, because you aren’t listening to the conversations of real people, but watching the interactions of a group of fictional friends. Even in the most laid-back slice-of-life shows like Hidamari Sketch, there tends to be little hints of narrative and situational humor, and there isn’t a natural flow to the written conversation the way that there is in an unscripted podcast. Plus, there’s the added textural elements that come with watching a fully produced TV show, and the aesthetics of the art and characters that add a lot to the experience. But on the most basic level, I think that the appeal of a show like Hidamari Sketch is very similar to that of Let’s Drown Out–again, vicariously experiencing a friendly conversation.
For me personally, there’s a pretty big difference in the kind of vicarious experience I’m getting. With Let’s Drown Out, I almost feel like a ghost participant in the conversation, nodding as I agree with things that the hosts say, or quietly adding my two cents to the conversation in my head. However, with Hidamari Sketch, there’s a bigger element of projection, as none of the characters are really like me, or talk like me, or interact like I do. This isn’t a show about deep or intellectual conversation so much as it is about cute, funny, often aimless casual conversation between friends. In fact, in many ways it would make a great comparison to Game Grumps instead, if I didn’t also see so much of myself in the way that Egoraptor talks.
Hidamari Sketch doesn’t give me conversations I can imagine myself having, or feature characters I could see myself being friends with, but it offers a sort of observational escapism. That is to say that I don’t need to see myself having those conversations in order to find them interesting or entertaining. In the end though, the entertainment value still comes down to the chemistry of the people talking, and how much fun it is to watch them interact, even on the most casual, natural level. Even though I know that the dialog has been written by someone, the characters are written with enough individuality and in enough of a detailed, comprehensive world that I can suspend my disbelief to feel like I’m witnessing a casual conversation between four friends who are really fun to watch.
It’s a shame that I can’t understand Japanese well enough to watch Hidamari Sketch without subtitles, because it would be perfect to watch in the same way I do Let’s Drown Out–while falling asleep in bed, often repeatedly. I tried with Hidamari, which I have indeed watched bits of an uncharacteristically high number of times over the years, but couldn’t get to sleep while reading the subtitles. There’s something relaxing and comforting to me about just sort of feeling like a fun conversation is happening in the room around me, and I don’t have to worry about thinking or entertaining myself. I can just lay back and let others do the talking for me even if I’m really hearing the same old, casual, normal stuff that friends talk about.