What is iyashikei and where to start with ‘healing anime’: Give your soul a treat

Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi manga PV. Pic credit: Mushishi official manga website

In the last three decades or so, iyashikei has emerged as a stand-alone genre in Japanese works, particularly manga and anime. Works falling under this genre are, as a rule, slow-paced and relaxing but, admittedly, that’s not much to go on.

So, what exactly is iyashikei?

The term “iyashikei” (癒し系) describes works that can “heal” the audience. The word root being “iyashi” (癒し, healing), the allusion shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp. When you see this tag, you may expect that the anime it refers to is intended to have a calming effect on the viewer.  

Simple, right?

Not exactly. For starters, different people have different preferences when it comes to unwinding, so it would be unrealistic to pin fixed expectations on the entire vague genre. It’s exactly this point that brings us to the usual conundrum: sometimes, iyashikei is considered to be a sub-genre of slice-of-life, but only among the non-Japanese.

Iyashikei vs. slice-of-life

First of all, cross-cultural subtleties are often lost in translation, especially when the culture of origin is being perceived as “exotic.” Any anthropologist will tell you it’s commonplace: the less one knows or understands about a culture, the greater the chance of it coming across as either “exotic” or “barbaric” (ironically enough, sometimes even as a combination of both).

Another issue is that the overwhelming majority of non-Japanese manga and anime fans don’t speak Japanese. A language is an integral part of the culture of its speakers, so when the two are being observed separately, profundity is customarily lost.

To understand iyashikei properly, we need to look deeper into East-Asian philosophies — Zen and Taoism in particular. Both deal with self-development through personal efforts and living in harmony with the world. Add to that the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence and you’ll get a fairly good idea of what iyashikei is all about.

Understandably, if you need to study East-Asian philosophy before even getting to see a “healing anime,” you may give up along the way. Instead, think in terms of Lao Tzu’s famous saying:  

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

…Or in terms of wabi-sabi, which is rooted in the acceptance of transience and finding beauty in every aspect of imperfection in nature (which also draws on the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence — impermanence, suffering, and absence of self-nature).

Wabi-sabi-style earthenware bowl with black raku glaze, Kyoto Kenzan II, Smithsonian. Pic credit: JapanObjects

In that sense, anything from fishing to meditation to self-cultivation may fall under iyashikei as long as the focus is on personal reflection and appreciation of small things that make life wholesome. As a rule, iyashikei manga and anime are conflict-free (or almost conflict-free) and don’t deal with the illusion of perfection — a welcome change for once.

Slice of life, on the other hand, may unfold in more diverse directions, not necessarily peaceful ones. More often than not, these are coming-of-age manga and anime that convey different messages. They can be either tragic or comedic, whereas iyashikei’s predominant emotion is melancholy. The entire purpose of the genre is to make the viewer feel good in one way or another.

Hence, if you’re up to some anime healing spells, wrap yourself in a soft blanket, bring your favorite snacks, and give iyashikei anime a chance.

Here are some recommendations on where to get started.

Top 5 iyashikei anime recommendations for newbies to the genre

5. Aharen-san wa Hakarenai (阿波連さんははかれない)

Aharen-san wa Hakarenai (roughly translated as “Aharen-san is Indecipherable”) is a TV anime series inspired by the manga of the same name by Asato Mizu. The plot follows high schooler Raidō who has difficulties making friends.

When he tries to approach Reina Aharen, a classmate of his, he gets ignored… or so it seems at first. It turns out that Rena had difficult past experiences with her classmates so she has clammed up. Raidō makes it his mission to befriend her no matter the cost.

The Aharen-san wa Hakarenai TV anime series is ongoing. It is produced by Felix Film (MF Ghost), directed by Tomoe Makino, written by Takao Yoshioka (Hori-san to Miyamura-kun), with Yūko Yahiro in charge of character design.

4. Slow Loop (スローループ)

Slow Loop is as easygoing as it gets. The TV anime follows Hiyori Yamakawa, a girl who used to fly fish with her father. After her father suddenly passes away, Hiyori finds herself going to the seaside to fly fish on her own, reminiscing of the days she enjoyed with her father. Three years after her father’s death, Hiyori’s mother decides to remarry to a man with a daughter who is also interested in the hobby.

The anime is based on the manga of the same name by Maiko Uchino which was serialized in Houbunsha’s Manga Time Kirara Forward magazine since 2018. The TV anime series is relatively new: it aired from January to March 2022.

Slow Loop was animated by Connect (Strike the Blood), directed by Noriaki Akitaya, with Shoko Takimoto in charge of character design.

3. 3-gatsu no Raion/March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン)

March Comes in Like a Lion follows Rei Kiriyama, a 17 year old high school student who excels at shōgi (Japanese chess). Feeling pressured both by the shōgi community and his traumatic past, Rei moves into an apartment in Tokyo. At first, he has difficulties coping because of his introverted personality, but he soon meets three sisters (Akari, Hinata, and Momo Kawamoto) who live with their grandfather. The sisters have a difficult past and can relate to Rei. They’re determined to help him open up.

The March Comes in Like a Lion TV anime series has two seasons; the first aired from October 2016 to March 2017 and the second — from October 2017 to March 2018. The series was produced by Shaft (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Kenjirou Okada, with Nobuhiro Sugiyama in charge of character design.

2. Natsume’s Book of Friends/Natsume Yūjin-chō (夏目友人帳)

Natsume’s Book of Friends follows Takashi Natsume, a youth who can see spirits just like his grandmother Reiko. This not being an exactly innovative plot, you can probably guess what happens next. Takashi suffers a solitary childhood, being ostracized as a weirdo.

Then a twist comes up. Namely, before passing away, his grandmother Reiko passes onto Takashi her “Book of Friends” — a book listing the names of spirits she has forced into servitude. Takashi sets off to release all of them, all the while being hunted by spirits who want to lay their hands on the book.

The TV anime series features one of the most likable sidekicks ever — cat Nyanko-sensei (Madara) who serves as Natsume’s guide, spiritual advisor, and bodyguard all at once.

The Natsume’s Book of Friends anime series is based on the manga of the same name by Yuki Midorikawa. It was serialized in Hakusensha’s LaLa DX magazine from 2005 to 2008 and in LaLa since 2008 (it’s still ongoing). The TV anime series has six seasons (74 episodes in total); the first four were produced by Brain’s Base (To Your Eternity) and the last two by Shuka.

1. Mushishi/Mushi-Shi (蟲師)

If one word was to be used to describe Mushishi, “relaxed” would be prompt. The anime is slow-paced, beautifully animated, and episodic, leaving the viewers at liberty to watch it at their own pace (which is a pretty good definition of iyashikei if you ask me).

Mushishi follows a man called Ginko who can see “mushi.” Mushi are the most basic forms of life that exist without any purpose — they simply are. Ginko travels from place to place, employing himself as a “Mushi Master” (literally: Mushi-Shi), and aids people suffering from various problems caused by Mushi. He also follows hints on Mushi, trying to unravel their purpose, which he thinks is closely linked to the meaning of life.

The Mushishi TV anime series was produced by Artland and directed by Hiroshi Nagahama (Uzumaki). The first 20 episodes aired from October 2005 to March 2006. In 2013, a side story titled Mushishi Tokubetsu-hen: Hihamukage was aired. Another season, titled Mushishi: Zoku-Shō, aired from April 2014 to December 2014.

A sequel anime film (Mushishi Zoku-Shō: Suzu no Shizuku) was released in May 2015.

The two animated series and the film are inspired by the Mushishi manga by Yuki Urushibara, which was serialized from November 1999 to August 2008 (in Afternoon Season Zōkan from 1999 to 2002 and in Monthly Afternoon from December 2002 to August 2008).

And there you have it — five perfectly “healing” anime series, with a zest for variety to suit different preferences. Take your time unwinding and forget about the hectic world for a while. Everyone deserves a break and plenty of time to self-reflect. Iyashikei anime is exactly what you need during such precious moments.

Iyashikei: An afterthought

And there you have it — five perfectly “healing” anime series, with a zest for variety to suit different preferences. Take your time unwinding and forget about the hectic world for a while. Everyone deserves a break and plenty of time to self-reflect.

And don’t forget:

“Perfection is the willingness to be imperfect.”

Lao Tzu

You’re fine just as you are. Iyashikei will help you realize that, easily.

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