When most people think of anime, they think of intense action or perhaps a moé love story. But anime, just like books, TV and movies, can be about anything -- even about the everyday lives of four normal girls in the Japanese countryside.
Good -- Life in Rural Japan
If Non Non Biyori does one thing right, it is its portrayal of life in rural Japan -- especially as it is when compared with Japanese city life. There are few schools, buses come once an hour or less, and towns are lucky to have a train station within driving distance. Farming is still the main form of industry, so children and adults alike work the fields. Food comes from either family-owned general stores or just baskets of vegetables left at the side of the road unattended (with a can to leave your money in if you buy something). Even going to the nearest city for shopping is considered a rare treat.
First grader Renge opens the show wondering if she does, in fact, live in "the countryside" -- feeling that living there would somehow be a bad thing. In fact, her friends tell her that of course they don't live in the country, so bad is the stigma about it. Yet instead of fighting this stigma directly by being a love letter to rural life, the anime does not romanticize country life -- nor does it condemn it. It just shows it for what it is -- the good and the bad together.
Good -- Japan's Biggest Problem
Another interesting aspect of the anime also stems from its setting. Currently in Japan, the national population is decreasing -- and has been for many years now. Because of this, schools which used to have five or six classes per grade are reduced to two or three. In the country, the effects can be even worse -- as is seen in Non Non Biyori. In the combined elementary/middle school there are only a total of five students: One first grader, one fifth grader, one seventh grader, one eighth grader, and one ninth grader. Moreover, the school is in a horrible state of disrepair, and their teacher (the school's single employee) does little more than sleep at her desk in the front of the class while the students work in their individual workbooks.
Yet, it is thanks to this slightly depressing setting that we get a story unique to this time and place -- where four girls of vastly different ages become friends and explore the world far from the city.
Good -- Renge
Renge is the heart and soul of Non Non Biyori. While this is ostensibly the story of Hotaru, a girl from Tokyo and our audience proxy, her fish out of water tales quickly fall behind those of Renge's adventures. As the youngest of the group by far, she is just coming to understand that the life she lives, while normal to her, is vastly different from the lives of most children in Japan.
Moreover, we learn the most about the characters, especially the adults, through their interactions with Renge. The owner of the local candy store, an off putting, no nonsense young woman, is unable to resist Renge's earnestness and sense of wonder. We spend nearly two full episodes following their growing relationship. The other students are also explored by how they treat Renge. Despite the age gap, none of them talk down to her or treat her as an inferior. They support her accomplishments and are occasionally blown away by her legitimately shocking skills.
Simply put, Renge makes Non Non Biyori worth watching.
Mixed -- Slice of Life
In general, I find slice-of-life monotonous at best -- and Non Non Biyori is no exception to this. There are no themes to explore, no overarching plot, and little to no character development. It really is just the story of four girls in the country together. We see what they do and why they do it, but there is no purpose to the anime other than showing us modern life in the countryside. There is no conflict and no resolution. It simply starts when Hotaru arrives and ends after a year has passed. And rather than simply feeling like it lacks an ending, it feels more like it never really got started. Thus, like the vast majority of slice-of-life stories, it lives or dies based on how much you enjoy the humour and characters. And in my case, outside of the scenes with Renge, I was perpetually bored.
Non Non Biyori is the epitome of a slice-of-life tale as it is filled with normal people doing normal things without any greater plot or purpose. It has an interesting modern setting and premise, but does little more with them than use them for fish-out-of-water comedic relief. If you enjoy slice-of-life stories, you may love Non Non Biyori; but as for me, someone who thrives on plot and dynamic characters, it was torturous most of the time.
Non Non Biyori aired on TV Tokyo in Japan. It can be viewed in for free with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.