This Touching Anime Nails Growing Up with a Single Parent

I saw myself and my relationship with my mother in the anime series 'sweetness and lightning.'

|
Oct 4 2018, 3:26pm

Screenshots via Crunchyroll

The slice-of-life anime and manga series sweetness and lightning follows the endearing, food-filled story of Kohei Inuzuka and his daughter Tsumugi. It begins with a scene that could be cribbed from any family’s morning routine. A father gets his daughter ready for her day by tracking down her favorite shirt, helping her brush her teeth, and preparing her lunch. The food isn’t anything fancy. He places small meat patties from a microwavable package next to side dishes of beans and pickled veggies neatly tucked into cupcake liners. He realizes he’s prepared this exact meal, made of mostly processed food from the convenience store, many times before.

As the phrase “slice of life” implies, the series depicts routine, everyday stuff. But I was struck by how perfectly sweetness and lightning mirrored my own experience growing up in a single-parent household.

Though single parent households are becoming more common, my family structure still puts me in the minority in America. According to the US Census Bureau, 27 percent of children lived with only one parent in 2017. But families like mine are even rarer in Japan, where just 6.67 percent of households are run by a single parent, according to the 2015 Japanese census. The challenges faced by single mothers there, in particular, can be monumental. In light of these stats, it’s incredible to see anime that captures my own experience growing up with a single mom so vividly.

The story centers on Kohei, a high school math teacher and widower. In the first episode of sweetness and lightning, he comes home one night and finds Tsumugi glued to the television. As he offers her the take-out he’s brought home for dinner, she cuts him off and says they ought to write to her mother and ask her to cook a real dinner, like the one Tsumugi sees on TV.

Heartbroken, Kohei drops everything to find somewhere for them to share a freshly prepared meal. They wind up at a restaurant run by the mother of one of his math students, Kotori Iida, and the three of them bond over the meals they share there.

If you still dream about the steamed buns from Spirited Away or the bacon and eggs from Howl’s Moving Castle, you’ll understand the appeal of seeing Kohei make okonomiyaki—a savory pancake loaded with crisp cabbage, pork belly, and squid, topped by a sweet, dark sauce.

I was immediately enamored with the bright, cheerful art style of sweetness and lightning. But the moment when Tsumugi asks for a home cooked meal brought me to tears. I was caught off-guard by the earnest emotion and sentimental nature of the story and struck by the unassuming way Tsumugi points out something her father let fall by the wayside: She hasn’t shared a proper meal with him in ages. This forces Kohei to slow down and recognize that he’s neglected one of the most basic ways to bond with his daughter.

My tears were surprising, because they weren’t just about what was happening on screen, but what the series made me recall about my own upbringing. As Kohei fretted over getting home later than his babysitter could stay, I remembered the times I was alone in my apartment when a sitter had to leave before my mother could get home from a late shift at work. For me, this just meant more TV time, but for my mother, it was another momentous hurdle of single parenthood.

“It was never 100 percent peace—where you’re so comfortable, where you have another adult in the home, so you can relax,” my mother, Catherine, told me when I called her to talk about the series. “Instead you have a five, six, seven-year-old by themselves, alone. So, it was never peace. There was this fear.”

The series captures the unease of constantly wondering, “Am I doing this right?” Kohei’s student Kotori is the daughter of a constantly-working divorcee. She becomes Kohei’s sounding board for his fears of being a bad parent. While prepping for one of their shared dinners, Kotori admits to wondering if she matters to her mother. Kohei responds by talking about how hard it can be to show a child exactly how much they mean to their parent. Then he decides it may be better that children not know exactly how much stress and care goes into being a parent, because then they’d worry as well.

My mother, who also grew up with one parent, echoed the sentiment. “I worried because I went through it. Even though I was with my dad, I felt like I wasn’t with him because he was always gone,” she said. “I think that’s why I was so overprotective, because stuff that I went through, I didn’t want you guys to experience. So I tried to play that role. I’m not sure I played it well, but I know I tried my best.”

This series is part of a huge anime boom in Japan. Despite major concerns over piracy, anime generated $17.7 billion (2.01 trillion yen) in 2016 according to the Hollywood Reporter—the first time the market has exceeded 2 trillion yen.

When I talk to friends (or anyone who’ll listen) about anime, they often imagine explosions, hard to understand inside jokes, and gratuitous violence. But anime titles like Your Name, which was a massive box office success, are specifically interested in the intimate, internal stories of their characters, with the backdrop of stunning fantasy elements. As the market for anime grows internationally, audiences are getting more diverse stories.

The sweetness and lightning series is an example of the multiplicity of the genre and its ability to tell stories that are seemingly small but deeply human. They depict life as a day-to-day effort to make the most of the time we're given with those we love.

This is a huge contrast to mainstream titles, where single parenthood is relegated to a minor detail. The caring parent in the background is an archetype that’s rarely the driving force of primary or secondary plot lines. In Pokémon, for instance, Ash Ketchum’s single mother is always reliably waiting for him to return to Pallet Town but doesn’t take up much narrative space.

When single parenthood is given a story’s full attention, it often lacks substantial reckoning with the realities of that family structure. Movies like About a Boy, The Lucky One, or The Parent Trap use single parenthood primarily as a vehicle for romance, rather than a worthwhile storyline to investigate on its own. The characters are single parents, but this is just the framing rather than the focus.

There are anime, movies, and TV series that deal with the topics that sweetness and lightning depicts, but what sets this show apart from others is its pointed concentration on what a single parent household is really like for both adults and their children. Sweetness and lightning presents the profound as well as the mundane details of life. There are tense moments, but they don’t culminate in over-the-top climaxes. They resolve the same way my family qualms would—through frustration, an emotional conversation, and a freshly cooked dinner.

In Tsumugi, I recognized the struggle to comprehend why my family seemed different from others. I saw my current, more mature relationship with my mother embodied in Kotori when she cooks her mother’s recipes. I feel the same way whenever I make childhood dishes, like attieke poisson or cassava leaf and rice.

Growing up with one parent meant I adapted to a certain way of living that was difficult at times. But single parents find brilliant and unique ways to be there for their children, and sweetness and lightning reminded me of the effort my mother made to ensure my childhood never felt second-rate.

The manga that sweetness and lightning is based on ended August 7, wrapping up a five-year run that includes 11 paperback volumes. The final, 12-volume set will be released in English early next year. The first 12 episodes of the anime are available on Crunchyroll.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Arimeta Diop on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels