When it comes to manga about various real-world topics, there is an educational element to the work, but it’s usually ancillary to the main thrust of the story. Hajime No Ippo/Fighting Spirit is a boxing manga, and Hikaru No Go is a Go manga, and both use elements of their actual sports or games in the narrative of the story itself, but the sport and game in question are secondary to the actual thrust of the story from the very beginning.
There are a few manga which take the opposite tack – put the main thrust of the story on the thing they’re talking about, and then will bring in other plots to give additional structure of the story. On the seinen side there is Drops of God, which is primarily a manga about wine, but which incorporates side plots to keep things from getting monotonous – and there’s also the show I’m reviewing – Moyashimon.
The show follows Tadayasu Sawaki, who is a freshman at an agricultural university in Tokyo – and who can see microorganisms, though to him instead of looking like they do through an electron microscope, they look like, well, cute characters. His family run a Moyashi (fermentation starter producer – think the companies that make yeasts and malts), and after his older brother ran off, he’s somewhat expected to run the business.
At the university, Sawaki and his childhood friend Kei Yuuki are referred by Sawaki’s grandfather to Professor Keizō Itsuki, who runs the Microorganism biology department. Itsuki knows about Sawaki’s gift, and persuades him to major in Microorganism biology. The particulars of the program aren’t gotten into, but I’d imagine it’s close to Oregon State University’s Fermentation Science program, except going into Graduate and Doctorate level curricula, as one of the supporting characters is working on her doctorate.
The show’s various arcs get into various aspects of campus life, Sawaki and the other students in the program learn about various forms of fermentation through practical experiments and making various products – like sake, mochi, wine, and soy sauce. Throughout the series, they get surprisingly in depth into the nitty gritty of their production. They don’t quite get far enough for you to make the products at home – particularly since some of these, like soy sauce and sake, are illegal to make in the home in Japan, but they get just close enough for you to figure out what questions you need to research online.
The non-educational part of the narrative is also great – with the microbiology department having a great cast of characters. There is the duo of Kaoru Misato (or, as I’ve heard nicknamed, “Mr. Eva”, due to his name being made up of the names of two Evangelion characters), and Takuma Kawahama – who end up working together in a variety of semi-harebrained schemes to make money. There’s Sawaki’s fellow freshman – the germophobe Hazuki Oikawa; doctoral student Haruka Hasegawa (who is a lightweight and tries to avoid alcohol), and Aoi Mutō, campus queen and also something of a boozehound.
These characters have a bunch of really strong narratives built around them, but probably the strongest is around Yuuki. Yuuki’s family runs a sake brewery, and consequently Yuuki is also expected to take over the brewery, so there’s a common thread between the two friends over them taking over their family businesses. And then, partway through the story – after the Spring Festival arc, Yuuki comes out as transgender.
Writing of transgender characters in anime and manga can be very hit or miss, leaning towards miss. As I’m writing this, I’m in the middle of finishing Ouran High School Host Club, which is a show which consistently, regularly, dramatically misses when it comes to writing transgender characters with a consistency that can only be matched by the rising and setting of the sun.
And before you say “But Haruhi’s dad in Ouran isn’t actually transgender, he just dresses in drag.” Yes – that is the case, but he also is frequently referred to using transgender slurs, and one of his coworkers who runs a B&B elsewhere during the short summer vacation arc maps more towards being actually transgender – and is still written as a camp comic relief character and is meant to be laughed at by the audience for this, instead of being laughed with. And, to be clear – I do like Ouran, it’s a very funny show, and has a lot of jokes that just nail it. However, whenever Haruhi’s father or his co-workers come up, it becomes very cringeworthy.
In contrast, Yuuki, once she comes out as being trans, is never the butt of a joke because she is trans. Characters are shocked at seeing her for the first time, but they very quickly come to accept it. There are issues with characters not getting that she identifies as being female, and not male, either by referring to her as just “crossdressing”, or by misgendering her when it comes to pronouns. However, that can be as much attributed to Japanese cultural biases when it comes to transgender people, as opposed to deliberate prejudice. It’s not perfect (subconscious bias is still bias), but it’s considerably less cringeworthy than it is in Ouran.
Yuuki, once she comes out, never acts camp, never becomes predatory – her personality and behavior are effectively the same – there is a continuity of personality from before she came out to afterwards. If anything, as a character the animation and voice acting makes her feel more comfortable in herself after coming out and being open about her identity than she did before.
If I have a real complaint, it’s that after she comes out, Yuuki stops being an active participant in the story, moving to being a supporting character of the series, as with coming out, she also takes a leave of absence and instead chooses to run the liquor store near the campus, returning briefly when Itsuki starts brewing sake, to help provide exposition on the process for making sake.
Other than that, the sign of a show that really works is that it makes me want more – and boy do I want more. The series has two 11-episode seasons, which cover a lot of ground, but which doesn’t adapt all of the manga (which has not gotten a complete English release).
Moyashimon is currently licensed for streaming on Crunchyroll, but has yet to receive a physical release. So, if you want to watch it legally, you have to get a Crunchyroll subscription.