In 2014, Non Non Biyori’s first OVA released. It portrayed the lead-up to what promised to be a major turning point for the series’ main squad: their first ever journey away from the deep rural countryside they called home. After a season of episodic stories built upon their innocence growing up away from society, the opportunity to watch them pierce the veil of the wilder wider world was irrepressibly tantalizing.
My hype leading into Non Non Biyori Repeat (the second season) was entirely based around seeing this storyline come to fruition, yet it was for naught as the new batch of episodes retrofitted new stories into the previously covered timespan. My initial disappointment subsided as these stories began to top those told in the first season. In Repeat, Non Non Biyori mastered the art of growing its characters through poignant dramatic moments smartly timed amidst wholesome hijinks. This evolution made me crave the vacation arc even more given the promise the heightened storytelling chops.
Now, basically half a decade after the seeds of said promise were sown, the girls finally set out to Okinawa for new adventures in Non Non Biyori Vacation, a film for those who like their Piña Coladas alcohol-free.
On vacation as a kid, I’d drink virgin Piña Coladas without realizing they were served any other way. The frozen pineapple-coconut concoction used simple fruit juice ingredients that kept their quality consistent no matter where I ordered them. And for years did my youthful self order them and order them, and never got bored. I knew what I was getting and what I was getting, I liked.
I feel this same way about Non Non Biyori: watching these characters I’ve come to love through two seasons of nuanced characterization will always be pleasant. They’re already fleshed-out people to me and as long as they aren’t written in ways that outright betrays their established characterization, I’m game. Keep feeding me their slice-of-life antics–even free of any drama of depth– and entertained I shall be. Non Non Biyori Vacation proves this thesis: it’s a Chill As Heck Good Time* without extreme dramatic stakes that you can slurp down for its quick 71 minute runtime. The easily drinkability brought me back to those virgin Piña Colada sipping days of my childhood. But the whole time the metaphorical drink was pouring through my body, I couldn’t shake thinking of a related event from the late 90s…
…when I accidentally reached for my mom’s Piña Colada. And you can be dang sure it was no virgin.
My single-digits-age self rebuked at the taste of the rum ruining the sweet-toothed goodness of my beloved Piña. But upon learning that the version of the drink I’d been slurping was incomplete, the luster was lost. I sparsely ordered Piña Coladas until ultimately stopping altogether.
Now an adult**, I’ve learned that the true appeal of a Piña Colada to a connoisseur is the quality of rum used. It’s not the type of drink you’d go to if you were truly trying to appreciate good rum, but the nuances of different rums still separate a passable Piña from a scrumptious one or even one that ruins the fruit juice element altogether. You may establish a base line of consistency by going virgin but you’ll never discover the Perfect Piña unless you take a chance on the consummate mix-in.
When at its best (and it usually is), Non Non Biyori is the Perfect Piña of emotionally-driven slice-of-life series. It washes the entirety of its episodes in an aura of serene innocence that allows the writers to seamlessly intertwine silly moments (i.e. a girl dressed up as a teru teru bōzu wreaking “havoc”) and emotionally-charged character drama (i.e. that same girl’s fish dying, teaching her about the concept of death). This is to say that we first get the sweet fruit drink through lighthearted comedy, an important ingredient that endears us to the characters. Then we get one of many flavors of fine rum poured in to bring out their many subtle nuances. Few slice-of-life series possess the depth of rum collection that Non Non Biyori does and as such it’s disappointing that the bartender poured with such a light hand for Vacation.
In the aforementioned 2014 OVA that covers the cast winning a vacation and preparing to embark, the most affecting scene comes when Renge (the youngest and most innocent of the cast at 7 years old) ponders whether this trip will change her worldview and thus her as a person. These moments where she proves wise beyond her years have been the catalyst for her character growth throughout the series and this revelation was perhaps the most significant setup for growth yet. As such, I was surprised when Non Non Biyori Vacation–which covers multiple scenes from the OVA to set up the vacation itself–omitted this one. The scene encapsulated the “breaking out of your shell” storyline that the film could have really ran with for a gut-punching emotional core. Instead, it barely exists in any meaningful capacity with any character, let alone Renge.
Instead, almost as if a tourism advertisement for Okinawa, the film goes through the motions of a pretty standard island getaway vacation–playing on the beach, hiking in tropical forests, kayaking, snorkeling, and so forth. Each provides moments of gags or fleeting sweetness but never any indication that these experiences are leaving a meaningful impact on the cast. Three of the four main characters have lived their entire lives in the deep countryside of mainland Japan and (outside of Renge at times) seem nonplussed with this shift in environment they’re now surrounded by! And the scenes where this isn’t the case–particularly at the film’s emotional climax– just come across as joyful fun because up until this point the rest of the trip has felt like not far from business as usual.
The film’s main (and arguably singular) subplot involves Aoi, a girl working at the family inn that the cast is staying at. She mainly acts as a plot device for Natsumi whose demeanor we see change when around a peer her age, an interesting dynamic shift though not one given much significance. At the film’s close we’re told that Aoi will have a lasting impact on Natsumi, but how? In what way did this encounter change who Natsumi will be going forward? In a film where I was trying to find any moment where the characters had such moments of change, I couldn’t even discern any in the one place the writers seemed to be attempting it.
This also comes up in the film’s other through-line: Renge’s quest to draw three very specific pictures of their trip in her sketchbook. The sketchbook has always been used as a vehicle through which Renge–who is likely on the spectrum–can show certain emotions, symbolizing a sense of emotional distance she has from the world. It’s a brilliant part of her characterization! But it’s used extremely passively here; the act of her drawing brings with it no real feeling of significance, giving the sense that the writers had nothing to say through having her sketch and really just needed to give her something to do. I’d rather have seen her actively engage with the unusual world around her, making tactile discoveries. This is what the OVA set me up for and I can’t help but feel a bit robbed. (And it doesn’t help that the end-game of the sketchbooking is just to act as a plot device for Natsumi’s arc).
Non Non Biyori has its share of episodes that are more virgin than imbibed. That balance is not just okay but actually necessary for the series. Vacation falling into the former category is no sin at face value. But the choice to turn this arc into a film brings with it expectations that the creators are going bigger with their storytelling. The final product shows no such ambitions. Yet even if the film was instead relegated to the opening episodes of the upcoming season three, the disappointment of wasted story potential would be all the same. Leaving the countryside is perhaps the more ripe ground for character growth that Non Non Biyori has. The chance now feels squandered, even if it still resulted in a perfectly enjoyable film.
Despite all the criticism I could throw at Non Non Biyori Vacation, did I enjoy spending more time with these characters? Yes. They’re the same as ever. And I love those same people. Moment to moment, these same people engaged me in the same ways they always have. There’s a point where familiarity breeds contempt (or at least greater expectations). When 24 minute episodes have produced greater change in the characters than is found in a runtime three times that length, wanting more is natural.
What I’m trying to say is that while I don’t condone (super-)underage drinking, I wish the cast had taken a sip of that spiked Piña Colada that 90’s me tasted and discovered a whole new world.