Camping was an important part of my childhood. For a few summers, my family would pack up our Buick station wagon and bring us to Bayley's Camping Resort in Scarborough, Maine. There we would have a lovely time cooking marshmallows over the campfire, and dine on the finest hot dogs and SpaghettiOs one could craft over a gas grill. (The camp also had its own pool, arcade, and mini-golf, so entertainment was never in short supply.) Come nightfall, watching the big star-studded sky was a show all on its own, thanks in part to the lack of light pollution that a Bostonian like myself is so used to.
I bring these memories up because this season, an anime has come around that has somehow recaptured the love of camping with those close to you. Laid-Back Camp is that show, and not only will it unleash an outdoors enthusiast out of any viewer, but its humor and feel-good attitude has made it the must-watch series of Winter 2018 (as Andrew from Wicked Anime has stated previously). So let's get a fire going, slide into a sleeping bag, and see what it is about Laid-Back Camp that fills us with as much warmth as a fresh cup of hot cocoa.
Based on the manga by Afro, Laid-Back Camp focuses on four nature-loving high schoolers. The loner Rin (Nao Tōyama) is already an expert in the ways of camping, when a chance meeting with newbie Nadeshiko (Yumiri Hanamori) has her experience the wonders of roughing it up with a friend. Entering a new high school, Nadeshiko enrolls in the campus's Outdoor Activities Circle, where club president Chiaki (Sayuri Hara) and member Aoi (Aki Toyosaki) are clamoring to dive into some fun under the stars. However their lack of street knowledge in the art of camping leads them to make multiple mistakes, with the legit smart one Rin having no part in the club and just carrying onward on her own stone-scattered path.
What the series does best is showcase the differences the characters have skill-wise when in camping mode. Where the Outdoor Activities Circle has so much trouble budget-wise that they can only afford a ¥1000 yen tent and the most minimal of necessities, there goes the fully prepared Rin on her little motorbike with everything except the kitchen sink. Of course, having the necessities doesn't always guarantee success, with the club's beginner's trek to Fuefuki bringing good times for Nadeshiko, Chiaki, and Aoi; meanwhile, it's just one setback after another for Rin when she solos it up in Nagano. All of this is presented hilariously, as the level of angst in Rin reaches upsetting levels whilst the club of newbies soak it up nicely in their camp's hot springs.
It's when Rin has Nadeshiko by her side when she truly experiences the wonders of camping. While they have their moments when their paths cross unexpectedly, it's their first planned trip as a duo when Rin experiences a true friendship-bonding experience. Whether it's joking about a mythical monster or looking to get advice from fellow campers, how the once-lone wolf opens herself up within the confides of nature and her new bestie is when the most magical of moments occur in Laid-Back Camp. A blend of innocent sweetness and silly bantering help to push this show to be more than just another "cute girls doing cute things" kind of anime, and instead pushes the series to be a memorable experience to watch happen onscreen.
Of course, when the series ups the humor, things get side-achingly funny. An instant message chat between Rin and her friend Ena (Rie Takahashi) has one of the funniest moments ever expressed via phone chat, bringing forth a sort of realism in the two's chumminess. The highlights of the show involve the Outdoor Activities Circle testing out equipment before trying it out for reals, be it a sleeping bag or a new wooden bowl for cooking outdoors. These scenes lead to some spit-take worthy visual gags that one cannot spoil here in good conscience. Trust me when I say that some of the humorous stuff that occurs here nearly reaches a Red Green level of comedic gold (although it does lack a bit of that much-needed duct tape to keep it firmly together).
The voice cast sounds like they're having an outright blast in their roles, with Hanamori stealing the show with her peppy attitude as Nadeshiko. Tōyama's Rin is the polar opposite, but is at her best when that cool demeanor is broken by some unexpected bumps in the road. Hara and Toyosaki bring the punchlines and laughs big and fast as Chiaki and Aoi, with an enthusiasm for the great outdoors sounding as authentic as the taste of pure Canadian bacon drenched in Vermont-crafted maple syrup. A special nod is deserving to Akio Ohtsuka as the show's informative narrator, who delivers his lines with the same deadpan hilarity one would find in a classic Goofy cartoon.
Capturing the beauty of nature in anime is no easy feat, and it's surprising to see how C-Station (Girl Friend Beta, Star-Myu) manages to do it so wonderfully in Laid-Back Camp. The view of Mt. Fuji and the forests that Rin and Nadeshiko experience are simply breathtaking, with the attention to detail in the grassiest of fields and the bluest of lakesides. While the character models can contrast with the gorgeous backdrops, C-Station does an upstanding job with expressing the characters when the humor need an extra oomph to get some additional laughs.
When it comes to the soundtrack, Akiyuki Tateyama (Kumamiko, SHIMONETA) has whittled down the most New England sounds I've ever heard in an anime. The simple guitar/banjo playing, the whistling, and the soothing melodies they all craft when combined gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Opening theme "Shiny Days" by Asaka is the prime definition of feel-good vibes, acting as a great peppy track to start out one's adventures roughing it up. End theme "Fuyu Biyori" is the perfect opposite, with Eri Sasaki singing beautifully with just an acoustic guitar backing her. It's very reminiscent of one of Frank Turner's more stripped-down songs, one that only needs a voice and a string instrument to craft something powerful and beautiful.
Laid-Back Camp is funny, informative, adorable, and -- above all -- a love letter to all things nature. Even if you've found yourself walled up in a city your entire life, a mere couple episodes of this show will get you itching to pitch a tent and take in some good old-fashion scenery. Its sweet attitude and can-do mentality will make anyone want to gear it up with your best buds as you take in the grandest of sights and sounds. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a coupon for some New Hampshire mom & pop shop that yearns to be used on a propane lantern.
Final Grade (not an average):
Background Noise: Babel by Mumford & Sons - It took a group of Brits to bring the Americana sound back to the mainstream world, with their 2012 album brimming with powerful folk and inspiring vocals. Tracks like "Lonesome Wanderer," "Below My Feet," and "Whispers In the Dark" were made to listen to during a roaring camp fire, as the starry sky shines from above and glistens the pupils in your eyes. A shame that Marcus Mumford and company have gone electric since this release, as it captured everything that made this band so great. Perhaps a weekend of roughing it with the Outdoors Activities Circle will regain that folksy spark they once had...