Tadayasu Sawaki has a gift: he can see all kinds of microbes, from the ones that ferment sake to everyday bathroom mold. Not only that, but they're not scientifically accurate but instead cute chibi creatures. When he enters an agricultural university and a professor finds out about his gift, he begins to meet new people that help him discover more about his abilities and himself.
Moyashimon is a manga about fermentation. Sounds weird, right? It’s hard to concisely pitch this manga, which is why I’m going the alternate route and just writing an epic. Moyashimon is a character-driven college slice of life about some students and their professor brewing sake and learning a LOT. Seriously, by finishing this manga, I feel like I’ve absorbed a whole semester’s worth of knowledge on microbes, alcohol, and the sake industry. I wonder if that was the intent and rationale behind the college setting? Anyways, the educational slant of this manga is really cool. The author, Masayuki Ishikawa, clearly knows his stuff and is
quite passionate about it. One of the signs of a good writer is that they can make anything sound interesting, and Moyashimon largely succeeds at that. The lectures on the sake industry get a bit too layered and confusing, but otherwise the material is presented enjoyably, be it through chibi-style microbes or extensive flowcharts and diagrams. The professor character in particular goes wild with the infodumps, comically filling up entire pages with scores of text. In that regard he’s kind of a conduit for the author. The professor is also kind of a pervert, which alas also reflects the author.
The author proudly wears his fetishes on his sleeves. His frilly, laced sleeves. A normal review would talk about the characters after going over the basic plot. But this not a normal review, and this is not a normal manga. I’m talking about the author’s fetishes before his characters because I believe that he creates characters not to develop the plot, but to indulge himself. Pretty much all of the female characters seem to have been created on a whim of “I want to dress someone up in a maid outfit / bondage gear / a cheerleader outfit” and any plot purpose they serve is patched in retroactively. It’s not like the author is naïve or trying to hide this, though. He gets in fights with his editor in the margins over things like which girl is the best and whether glasses are hot or not and how you should always have at least one girl with droopy eyes. Things break down even further when, near the end of the manga, the main story grinds to a halt so all the female characters can take part in a beauty pageant. It’s a ridiculous diversion that only seeks to further degrade these characters which don’t have much going on in the first place.
I’m not against fanservice as a concept, but it frustrates me when fanservice is allowed to take the wheel over everything else. The ensemble cast for Moyashimon is quite impressive – there’s over a dozen relevant characters that weave their way in and out of the story. The protagonist, a boy with the power to see microbes, is surprisingly unimportant to the plot once it gets rolling. With so much space dedicated to the rest of the cast, there’s a lot of possibilities. It’s also rare to see this many female characters in a non-harem setting as well, something Moyashimon could really use to its advantage if it ever decided to unveil an empowering message about women in science. Because of all this, it’s frustrating to see characters so often reduced to eye candy, left at the mercy of the author’s dick. There even seems to be a moment when one of the female characters realizes how uselessly she’s been written, and vows to have a purpose-filled dutiful campus life. A few volumes later and she’s dressed as a bunny girl for the rest of the story. Hurrah. This all sucks, but these are problems that occur in most media to some degree. Moyashimon also has a much more specific situation on its hands. Let’s talk about how it handles Kei Yukki.
But first, let's go on some tangents.
Admit it: you love Japan. You’re entranced by their aesthetics that are minimalist yet deeply beautiful. You weave up airy plans of travelling to Tokyo one day - riding the Yamanote line, visiting dozens of quirky shops, maybe even seeing Mount Fuji. You spend hours of your weeks engaging people online about Japanese culture, specifically their media. And sometimes, when you’re watching a really good episode of anime, you think to yourself “Maybe there really is something special about the Japanese, something that makes them a cut above the rest of us.”
If you strongly relate to all of these statements, you might need to do some soul-searching. Not that there’s anything inherently bad about being a weaboo! But if you really want to love something, you need to approach it critically. That’s where I am with Japanese culture right now, and Moyashimon has helped me evaluate that further.
Let’s start with the unfortunate reality: Japan is a very conservative country. I don’t just mean that with regards to their politics. Their social climate is by far the most traditional of any first-world country. The collectivist pressure to work hard in school, become a businessman, and start a family is immense like no other country. For better or for worse, adulthood in Japan means the death of the individual self.
Ever wonder why the bulk of all anime are about high schoolers and not older people? Demographic reasons aside, high school is the last time for many Japanese teens to truly express themselves. Once they graduate, their life’s expectations are perfectly plotted out for them, and they’re expected to take them all on without complaint. Graduation ceremonies in anime are often treated rather sadly, as if the characters are going away forever. In a sense, they are, facing an inevitable death of self. This style of thinking only leads to further fetishization of youth, which is why so many anime seem to worship high school.
With social conservatism comes intolerance for those who deviate from traditional expectations. What I’m trying to say is, Japan is really bigoted, especially when you compare them to similarly-developed countries. There’s no same-sex unions, no LGBT workplace protections, gay people can’t adopt or donate blood, and there are extreme barriers for transgender people (more on that later). But that’s just the legal side of things. Socially, LGBT rights are a rather taboo topic and simply aren’t discussed. You might be saying “b-but my yaoi and yuri” but generally those aren’t valid for a multitude of reasons. The primary demographics for yaoi are straight women – it’s not created to be representation, it’s created to be fetishization. So much of yaoi and yuri also feature uncomfortable power imbalances and sometimes, even rape. The mild popularity of these genres doesn’t signify public acceptance of gay individuals – in some ways they exist as parodies and mockeries rather than progressivism. If you’re interested in truly representative queer Japanese media then I strongly recommend the manga Shimanami Tasogare (which I hope to review one of these days), but for now I have to move on. So what does any of this have to do with the manga at hand? Well, I just want you to have all this fresh in your head while I talk about Kei.
Kei is the childhood friend of the main character Sawaki, showing up alongside him as early on as the very first chapter. However, very early on in the manga Kei decides to drop out of college. He completely vanishes from the plot for 2 volumes, which genuinely surprised me. That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do as a writer, just letting go of a character that early for so long. When Kei does return to the plot, he’s now presenting as female, decked out in a full gothic lolita outfit all the time, and he all but confesses his romantic feelings for Sawaki. That’s a lot going on all at once. When asked about crossdressing, Kei responds with something along the lines of “When I started college, I decided to try out a whole bunch of things that are as extreme as possible for me, so I can experience as much as I can before I finish college.” I mean, maybe that’s true, but come on, the easy answer is that Kei is transgender.
Gender-nonconforming characters show up all the time in Japanese media, except it’s almost exclusively played off as a joke or a kink, instead of valid trans representation. Think about all the times an anime throws in a crossdressing character so that all the other characters can make fun of them. Or even worse, they’re characterized as a predator – a wolf in sheep’s clothing desiring nothing but to ruin the protagonist. The whole culture around “traps” in anime is shrouded in erotic doublespeak as well, with viewers being sexually attracted to them yet also condemning their identity. This applies on a cultural level as well. Going back to the earlier paragraphs about Japan’s social conservatism, actual trans people are virtually invisible. Of course there’s a nonzero amount of trans people in Japan, but they’re societally pressured and legally forced to blend in. In Japan, you can’t change your birth certificate until you’ve gotten the corresponding sex reassignment surgery and displayed that you’ve already fully biologically and socially transitioned. In other words, in order to be recognized as trans in Japan, you have to be able to pass as cis. That’s a whole order of messed up, and these high legal and social barriers prevent trans communities from organizing and celebrating their individuality. All they can do is just hope that nobody notices.
Back to Kei. The author is very quick to remind us of Kei’s sex. In every one of Kei’s character bios in the margins, at some point it reminds us, “He’s a guy.” (From here on out I’ll be using she/her pronouns). Characters who didn’t know Kei before she dropped out consistently identify her as a girl, a label which she never objects to. Kei doesn’t really care about how other people view her (god, I wish that were me). She really has one big goal throughout the series, and that’s to save and take over her dad’s shop by brewing the best sake possible. She takes so much initiative that she might as well be the actual protagonist of the manga. However, the author and the rest of the cast team up to consistently misgender and belittle her, an act of violence against trans people all too common in media and in real life.
Here’s a disclaimer that I probably should have dropped at the start of the review, but it feels especially important here: I’m trans. I fully came to terms with my female identity and started coming out to people around the same time as I was reading through this manga. One of the things you do when you’re trans (or really any marginalized group) is that you seek out representation wherever you can find it. As such, whenever I find trans characters in media, I cling onto them with all my strength, desperately trying to relate them to my own life. If you’ve read my Himegoto review then I suppose my fixation on Kaito makes a little more sense now. Since there’s so few legitimately canonically trans characters in media I also have to bend the rules a little sometimes to accommodate for other nonconforming characters. BMO from Adventure Time? Yeah, they’re trans. Kuranosuke from Princess Jellyfish? Traaaaaans. Kei from Moyashimon? Yeah, she’s trans.
There is an extra layer of futility in trying to pinpoint and identify with trans characters from Japanese media, and that’s that Japan doesn’t want you to. Most of the gender-nonconforming characters they throw onto the screen are intended to be both objects of sexual desire and ridicule. I don’t want to identify with a joke! This is why I’m not keen on “trap” characters. Every once and a while, you’ll run into something a little different though. In the case of Moyashimon (and a few other mangas such as Himegoto and Princess Jellyfish) it feels as if the author is legitimately trying to write a trans character, but they lack the experience and knowledge to do so, generally due to cultural constraints. If you subscribe to that perspective, then my role is a virtuous one, helping them actualize their trans characters through in-depth analysis and identifying with them. That’s right, the real protagonist is ME.
There’s one part of Kei’s arc that really bothers me. When Sawaki and some others travel to the United States to meet up with a friend, Kei and the professor track them down, travelling halfway across the country before finally meeting up with everyone in New Orleans. Upon encountering her, Sawaki expresses his admiration of Kei’s self-expression and vows to face things head-on as well. Kei takes this as a confession of love, and despite a) being a girl and b) very clearly harboring feelings for Sawaki throughout the manga, she yells at Sawaki that “Two boys shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff!” Whoa, whoa, whoa. That chapter is so out of character that it genuinely baffles me. While I’ve given the author the benefit of the doubt on some dubious handling of queer characters, this is literally a gay panic situation. Coming from a queer character, no less. Everyone else is quick to address the absurdity and hypocrisy of Kei’s outburst, but it still left a terrible taste in my mouth. First off, the concept of gay panic is rooted in centuries of abuse and murder, and it’s a shitty thing to make light of. But beyond that, it made me feel like the author really was playing every single aspect of Kei as a joke, even the parts that felt more genuine. Thankfully, nothing like that ever happens again, but it still sticks out so strangely. There’s a lot of random panels where characters will express their support of Sawaki and Kei as a romantic couple. However, it doesn’t feel legitimate nor does it feel like queerbaiting, it feels like it’s always just done in jest. Because that’s what Kei’s identity is to the author. A joke.
Kei’s arc ends exactly how you’d expect it to. Tired of being so dependent on Sawaki, she decides to live as a woman, in order to distance herself from him and also force her to make her own decisions. However, she just keeps coming back to him, romantically and platonically, so she resolves to try to make friends on her own while preserving her relationship with Sawaki. I really don’t see how the ‘dress up in girl’s clothing and present as female’ part is super necessary in order to become independent, so I still treat it as a separate thing that Kei was doing around the same time. To all prospective authors out there: trans characters don’t have to be metaphors for other things, they can just be trans.
So let me sum up the whole situation. Kei is written very inconsistently, but I love her nonetheless. Trans characters are important. It’s futile to seek out positive queer representation in Japanese media due to their societal conservatism, but damned if I won’t try. Support your queer friends, if you’re a boy and you think about wanting to be a girl then you’re probably trans, etc. etc.
Going into this manga almost blind, only knowing it’s about microbes, I was surprised by how many directions it takes. It starts off as a fairly straightforward college manga, with the focus on campus events, eccentric clubs, and brewing sake. However, around the halfway mark it turns into a travelogue for a while. The cast travels to Okinawa, France, and America, and the focus changes from sake to different alcohols, like wine and beer. That’s awesome! While I wasn’t a fan of all the plot development they tried to cram into these trips, the change of setting and studies was great. Hearing the author’s comments on America was fun. At one point the characters point out that the American flag isn’t really flown everywhere, only certain regions, and the division is essentially on party lines (conservatives are visually patriotic, liberals are not). This is the kind of thing that’s really easy to miss if you’ve lived in the US for all your life, so I sure appreciated its inclusion.
It’s a shame that the overarching plot and themes are rather uninteresting. The drama is predictable and isn’t very exciting (oh no, rich girl’s rich parents are trying to arrange a marriage!!!) and sometimes they just seem to repeat the same situations (oh no, the parents of wine girl/sake girl/Kei are all worried that they’ll hurt the legacy of their brewery!!!). Sometimes the drama allows them to travel somewhere, which is a plus, but then actually resolving the problems feels like a chore compared to the fish-out-of-water interactions a new setting brings.
The author waits until the last stretch of the manga to throw in a legitimate romantic interest for the protagonist. This is a bold move! Introducing a romantic interest near the end has the potential to throw everything off in a romance anime where there are already multiple established characters sizing up the protagonist. But this is Moyashimon, and before her there were somehow no girls interested in our main character (I can’t say I blame them), so it’s not as controversial as it might otherwise have been. When she was first introduced, I wasn’t pleased with her character, especially since her problems were unoriginal and she was rather immature compared to the cast of adults. Of course, her intense romantic overbearingness also shot off red flags everywhere. I was worried she’d completely derail the plot that had finally begun to pick up. But over time she started to grow on me, and I appreciate her search for genuineness in a world of already-jaded college students. I don’t think she’s particularly compatible with Sawaki, but overall she’s an alright character.
With the introduction of the high school girl as well as Sawaki's deadbeat brother, the last quarter of the manga takes a turn for the "let's talk about youth and growing up". This is stuff we've all read and seen a thousand times, so I wasn't really interested in those topics. However, Sawaki's brother does have some interesting thoughts about being a savant versus trying to accumulate wide breadths of knowledge, as well as accepting or rejecting your family legacy. It's a shame that these themes never really get properly concluded, they fizzle out once the gang leaves America and never return.
Even though this is only a 13-volume manga, it’s VERY wordy, so I recommend taking it at a relaxed pace. Take all the time you need to absorb the information, and don’t worry about losing the plot, the margins usually brief you on what each character is trying to do. So with all of these discussions out of the way, let’s get to the review!
Here’s the problem. I have no idea if Moyashimon is actually any good.
It’s clear that I’m very personally compromised on the subject, due to my fascination with Kei. However, it’s that fascination in particular that makes me hesitate on recommending this manga. For starters, this is a technically competent, informative manga with a wide cast of characters and a good mix of drama, education, and humor. But anyone could tell you that. What I’ve been doing throughout this essay is telling you my emotional connection to the material, because I think that’s more interesting and valuable than just a formal analysis. The drawback to this style of review is that nobody will be able to have the exact same emotional response as the reviewer. Therefore, the main takeaway isn’t “you will surely feel X,Y, and Z from reading this” but is rather “this manga made me feel X, Y, and Z and it might inspire similar emotion in you too,” the notion being that the reader can connect in a similar, but unique way, and that’s the true value of the work. However, I know that I’m twisting Moyashimon to fulfill my personal narrative. This isn’t a progressive manga, and if anything, a lot of its moments are downright degrading. I’m just doing my best to reclaim and reshape them, cataloguing my efforts in this essay.
So take of that what you will. Moyashimon is far from perfect, and might not even be good, but it’s not the kind of work that made me go “this is problematic” and discard it. This is the certain kind of problematic that motivated me to further engage with the source material, to work in and around it until I made it something I could truly identify with. Clearly, there’s some value in that. I just don’t think it’s the kind of value that makes you want to recommend something to others. Still, if you’ve been on my wavelength throughout this essay, if you’ve understood this messy dysphoric word salad, then I have a feeling you can get a lot out of Moyashimon, just like I did. I believe in you.
I have no idea how to conclude a review this long, so I’m going to make it a choose-your-own adventure. You decide which one of these conclusions is valid:
A. “Though Moyashimon has severe flaws and isn’t for everyone, it’s been so formative on me and I’ve been so formative on it that I have to recommend it. While you surely won’t get the same emotional response out of it that I did, you might get even better ones, so you should definitely check it out.”
B. “It doesn’t matter whether Moyashimon is good or not, and it doesn’t even matter whether you should read it or not. The point is, you should seek out manga that allows you to have the strongest, most personal responses, regardless of they’re good or not. Of course, you can never know until you try, but once you get invested in a work like this, it’s your imperative to make yourself heard. Write long-winded, passionate reviews of it. Tell all your friends your thoughts. Make a video essay. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, just that you flexed your critical analysis muscles on your own accord and let the world know.”
Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture (or Moyasimon as Del Ray chooses to spell it for the North American release) is a slice-of-life manga with a strong informative slant and comedic character-based interactions. The highlight, of course, being the super cute happy microbes who just want to ~brew.
Moyashimon is ongoing, with 11 volumes at present, though only 2 have been translated and released officially and only the first one is floating around the Internet. The first two volumes coincide with the anime.
Despite the "super power" nature of Tadayasu's ability to see and interact with microbes, the manga doesn't dwell on that point and simply follow Sawaki Tadayasu's
life with his friends and colleagues at agricultural university. If you're looking for a sci-fi backstory or angsty protagonist, you should probably turn back now.
As usual for slice of life, the characters are key. The cast are unique in both personality and outward appearance, including Hasegawa, who would probably fit in with a genderswitched Detroit Metal City, to Tadayasu's senpai Takuma, who is obsessed with bugs and almost looks like a bobblehead doll. Our protagonist, Tadayasu, is relatable without sacrificing his personality, and seeing his obvious reluctance to go to university after being ostracised for his "gift" melt away as he interacts with the cast has all my d'awws forever. Enjoyably, the microbes are not devoid of character, whether it be all that the Japanese L. yoghurti have a chonmage or that L. fructivorans (the microbe that turns sake bad) look super drunk.
The set-up of every chapter makes it easy for anyone to jump right in, with notes in the margin informing the reader of key facts about the situation or characters in question, though, notably, the author uses these to surreptiously add tidbits of humour - such as the rumour that Misato has a liquids fetish - to otherwise dull summaries and introductions of the microbes in question. Each volume also has omake material, which is mostly just of the microbes being cute, which is fine by me (why isn't there a microbe-only K-On, is what the world should be asking).
The art is consistently pretty, with big almond shaped eyes and expressive faces for most of the cast (except Takuma), that don't go the easy way out with chibi effects. Most of the cuteness is saved for the microbes, especially A. oryzae's huge grin.
The setting of university is pretty familiar but a surprisingly nice change from high-school fare, and the backgrounds are adequate but not really notable.
Though set in a relatively specialist area, the manga never makes you feel stupid or throws information in your face, and instead you learn along with Tadayasu and the other first-year students. The goings-on at an agricultural university are surprisingly compelling, whether focused on bizarre fermented foods from around the world or being forced to shove your arm up a cow's butt.
To conclude, Moyashimon is one of the rare manga that simultaneously made me laugh and feel a little smarter than I did before I picked it up. The cast and antics are hard not to like and harder not to recommend; I can only hope Del Ray release further volumes and for this series to gain the popularity it deserves.