Growing up, I'm sure many of us have consumed one too many sugary sweets during our childhoods. We gouge down, smacking our lips, lapping up the remaining sticky stains that pepper our face, slurping the sweet syrup that coats our fingertips, savoring every last drop like sweet-tooth bandits. But after a while, that sugary delight leads to an unwelcome stomach ache, where we're left bloated and forced to endure the rightfully earned scorn of our parents:
"I told you not to eat all those sweets at once!"
Their words a guilty sentence we don't even bother fighting against, as they march us off to the restroom to brush away the very thought of potential cavities taking refuge between the crevices of our underdeveloped molars. It's the right of passage for us kids, for us mischievous sweet-tooth bandits. And if not for the proper guidance by our parents to keep us in line, we'd more than likely be sporting a smile with teeth weathered by decay.
Sweets are good, but overindulging in them tend to lead to this inevitable end result. And as you've undoubtedly figured out what's being alluded to by now, Sweetness and Lightning suffers a similar fate. A show that barrages you with all the cuteness that the namesake would imply—and on that end, it certainly delivers—but doesn't offer enough levity to let any of it settle in. It's all dessert without dinner, every child's wildest dream in theory, but in practice, a very tiresome endeavor that turns sweet-tooths rotten and palates too soaked to ask for more. Sweetness and Lightning shares in our delight for all things sugar-laced, but unlike the reprimanding we received as kids growing up, when this show overindulges, there aren't any parents around to scold it. And for an anime that centers around parenting, this becomes an issue that even the smile of a bubbly little girl couldn't dissuade you from taking notice of.
There really isn't much here to talk about, despite what the premise would have you believe: a man left to cope with the pain of losing a loved one while also raising a daughter, taking on all the motherly duties that he had once taken for granted. And during this adjustment period of serving both parental roles in his daughter's life, Sweetness used food as a catalyst to catalog his parental growth, as well as a common means for the father and daughter to become closer. With a premise that could serve multifaceted purposes—parental bonding and culinary infotainment—Sweetness and Lightning was practically gift wrapped for the creators. It wouldn't have had to do much in order to foster a lighthearted show with sobering life lessons sprinkled throughout it. Just simply display the culinary aspect as a vehicle to showcase the parental bonding; it's almost foolproof. And yet, even with this hand-delivered premise placed right in their laps, very little of it went beyond the occasional reminder of a motherless household and dishes reminiscent of a happier time in the father and daughter's life. Parenting was placed on the back-burner for food montages, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if that's all you came looking for, but when you take into consideration what ingredients the anime had at its disposal, the decision to divert from that path felt like an act of complacency than any intentional artistic statement.
But there's also something else that the show's setup alluded to. Something that isn't as important as the themes it skipped over but still a desirable promise nonetheless. And that promise was a cute mascot. And boy, did this anime ever deliver! Tsumugi is, with little dispute, one of the most adorable kid characters to have been conceived in the 2010s since the likes of Naru from Barakamon. She's cuteness that transcends regulatory standards. Cuteness that bursts past the stratosphere. Cuteness that almost hurts. Tsumugi is cuteness incarnate. And dear I say it, the sole reason for this show's existence. Without Tsumugi, there wouldn't be a Sweetness and Lightning worth discussing. Which, quite frankly, became a double-edged sword if you were watching the show for any other reason beyond its flagship character. Because when it comes to everything else that this anime attempted to offer, the act of slouching in disinterest became far too common of a practice.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, there's really no other character worth mentioning beside Tsumugi. Everyone else was simply introduced to feed off her energy. To say she's the star attraction would be an understatement. The very foundation of this show's existences is made impossible without her inclusion. She's the poster-child of Sweetness and Lightning. The very thing people will remember the show for long after they forget the events of the show itself. It's the kind of character whose reputation would outlast the source material it's attached to. She's the Yuno Gasai, the Haruhi Suzumiya, the Holo, the Major Kusanagi; the very legacy that the source material will leave behind.
This isn't to say that the cooked meals and other characters introduced weren't interesting, just that in the backdrop of a show that's taking things slow and steady, all its efforts are lost in translation to the little girl twerking on the floor, practicing her cooking dance charms to make the food delicious. And when you pair that eccentric personality to that of an unkempt, mild-mannered man lost behind the bushy top hairdo and frame of his glasses that hide his soft-spoken expression... well, what you ended up getting was a recipe for amnesia-inducing content.
If I was placed on the spot to recall the events of any given episode, the best I could come up with would be: "They cooked food, Tsumugi was being cute, they ate, and went back home." Not really the lasting legacy any creator would want now, is it? Whether premeditated or not, the show became one big blur when it effectively repeated the same scenario every single episode. Which brings us back to the pestering question: why was there no focus on parenting?
It's an aspect the show seems to hint at on several occasions, but whenever it gets too close to crossing that line between happy-go-lucky to something sobering, it skittishly pulls back and retreats to the kitchen to avoid confronting the elephant in the room. For what I could only surmise as the creators making decision to keep the same bubbly tone throughout, we're forced to only stand at the edge of parental responsibility. We could see the themes just lying there at the bottom but could never make the plunge due to the show's refusal to make that leap of faith.
But I guess for those that do love this carefree disposition, that isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. And if you're one who likes this more syrupy type of storytelling, then Sweetness and Lightning will certainly deliver.
This routine cycle I spoke of sees Kouhei, the soft-spoken father and full-time teacher, befriend one of his pupils named Kotori, a girl who's constantly on pins and needles with a mannerism that's best described as a series of micro-personality ticks and perpetual flustering. Together these two form a mutual friendship centered around their need to cook different kinds of dishes, as well as a means to keep each other company. And the source of influence that they both gravitate towards is, of course, our poster-child Tsumugi. And as the synopsis states, the rest of their time was spent cooking tasty treats while Tsumugi entrances the viewer with a barrage of cute antics.
And as if the point wasn't made clear already, even the moments that don't focus on Tsumugi just ends up surrounding her anyways. The creative team behind Sweetness and Lightning are simply obsessed with their gooey gumdrop of a mascot. And by the looks of it, so am I at this point.
Tsumugi is adorable, but perhaps more important than that, she isn't sexualized; which to any outsider of the anime medium may seem like an odd thing to say about a child, but let's face it, Japan's obsession with sexualized lolis isn't something that just magically disappears when we don't pay attention to it. In the absence of World Masterpiece Theater's praiseworthy depiction of children, the "moe" boom of the early 2000s had created a paradigm shift that brought with it this current dilemma. So in that sense, Tsumugi is a HUGE breath of fresh air when the only other option for kid characters these days tend to be morphing them into moeblobs or letting a gust of wind expose their pantsu for purposes I think Jared from Subway would take far too much satisfaction in viewing. So until the current social norm for children characters changes in anime, Tsumugi stands as an example of one done right.
And I'm sorry if I'm droning on and on about Tsumugi, but that's literally all the show leaves you to talk about. What was initially described by many as "Barakamon meet Usagi Drop," simply became one facet of that idea when all aspects of parenting (or progression for that matter), had quickly abandoned ship. And so, with nothing else worth addressing, it's time for us to part ways as well, as I bring this review to its final stop.
"Too much of a good thing" is the phrase that comes to mind when I reflect on this show. With a cute tyrant running rampant and a timid father trailing behind her, Sweetness and Lightning mostly became Sweetness and Pushover. Despite wanting the anime to take a leap into the parental aspect that it kept hinting at, I can't say I was displeased with what I got instead. If I had known that parenting wouldn't be an important aspect beforehand, I would have still watched the show for the sheer enjoyment of its meditative programming. Yes, it got a bit underwhelming and tedious at times. Yes, it could have done more to change up the formula. But, when all things were said and done, I still walked away with an adorable pint-sized bundle of joy that left me with a smile on my face. And at the end of the day, that sweet treat was good enough for me.