Learning about Japanese media with Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life

Koto: a wooden 13-string instrument with movable bridges that has roots in China, later brought over to Japan.

One of my many hobbies—if you consider it a hobby—is watching anime, and I sure do watch a lot of it. I especially enjoy watching slice-of-life shows that get into the more niche aspects of Japanese culture. Some may argue that anime could never truly teach you anything about Japan and that the content of the shows are too far removed from actual Japanese culture. Still, after watching more than 300 different anime, I can’t help but disagree. Yes, many shows, especially popular shonen anime like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, are unrealistic and nothing like reality. Even the more grounded slice-of-life shows are not going to always be a one-for-one copy of reality, which could get boring easily. After all, anime is meant to be entertainment. However, this doesn’t mean the shows don’t reference aspects of authentic Japanese culture at all.

Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life is a 26-episode anime created by Platinum Vision that ran in two cours during 2019. It follows the story of the grandson of a Koto maker, Chika Kudo, and his time at Tokise High School. At the beginning of the show, Chika is seen as your typical troubled teen and a delinquent with no future ahead of him, at least by all the adults around him. With the passing of his grandfather Gen, Chika had very little going for him. Still, he was determined to understand the lessons his grandfather was trying to teach him, and to make up for his past actions, he joined Tokise’s koto club. The club is in complete disarray, however, since all the members of the club except the current president, Takezou Kurata, have graduated. After much trial and tribulation, Chika joins the club, and eventually, they have enough members to attend koto competitions.

Kono Oto Tomare! is truly a wonderful show with a heartwarming message that follows a similar structure to typical sports anime like Haikyuu!!. I heavily recommend checking it out for yourself. Though I could rant and rave about the greatness of this show for pages upon pages, that’s not quite the main focus here. Sure, not all of the minor details of Kono Oto Tomare! are accurate to what a koto club in Japan would be like. I doubt some of the club politics and conversations with the principal are things that would actually occur. However, the koto is a very real instrument and an important part of Japanese culture. Before watching this show, I had never heard of a koto. While watching the show, I immediately fell in love with it. The song “Tenkyu” from the penultimate episode really sealed the deal for me. I could not recommend giving it a listen more—maybe, you’ll fall in love with the koto as well. Hearing this song inspired me to research the koto more on my own time and search for even more songs that include this gorgeous instrument. I ended up learning more about not only Japanese culture, but also a bit about Chinese culture since that’s where the instrument originated. The show kindled my interest in not only music made with the koto, but also how the koto itself is made due to all the scenes with Chika’s grandfather, leading to me learning far more than I ever thought I would because of an anime.

There are people who see anime as “low-quality” entertainment or just media made for kids that you can’t take anything away from, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s more than just shows geared towards children; genres like seinen and josei are entirely dedicated towards an older fanbase. Generalizations are hard to make towards a form of media with so much variety. Anime just means the show is animated, after all. So, I believe it’s unfair to say that you could never learn anything about “real” Japanese culture from any anime ever. Many involve very real aspects of life, and watching any anime could be a great jumping-off point for learning some fascinating facts that you would have never thought to look into otherwise.