When I was young, I visited a farm run by a distant relative. It’s so long ago that the memory replays in fragments, endlessly remixed. Rusting Raleigh Choppers with chains that’d snap loose and slice your legs. A conversation with a friend about an ultimate Pokémon game that had all the regions, as if that would be more fun. A forever grimacing old man forcing me to eat rabbit and pheasant to prove I wasn’t a pampered supermarket shopping city type. A commemorative Worzel Gummidge annual splayed on a linoleum floor. The stench of heat and shit filtering out of the corrugated metal housing for over a hundred thousand chickens, screeching echoing in my head through sleepless nights. This was The Countryside, separate even from the rural village I grew up in. A place of rolling fields and trees, but also one of casual cruelty, an explicit reminder of how we exploit nature while somehow making it a part of our identity. I don’t live in the countryside anymore. Moving to China was the first time I ever lived in a city. I will never forget landing in Huizhou, exhausted from flights I was too nervous to sleep through, and my head teacher telling me that I needn’t worry- Huizhou is a nice, small city. A nice small city of over six million people. I moved to Guangzhou after a year, the largest port city in the world, with a population conservatively estimated at over eighteen million. At some point, the numbers don’t mean anything, more a vibe than a hard statistic. After years of pandemic and noise, as much as I love this place, I figure it’s understandable to crave some of that natural serenity. I’ve travelled in China when able, but later this year, I’ll be back in England, hopefully with less baggage than I left with in all sense of the term. But until then? Travel is a limited prospect, and I need to save as much money as possible. What to do?

Perhaps the answer is around me. Living and working in China, it’s impossible to get away from Kuaishou and Douyin (TikTok), their robo voices and repetitive sound effects no less annoying in Chinese. I don’t use the apps myself, not out of some misplaced sense of superiority, but more as an acknowledgement that I’d probably fall into the same endless thumbing loops I see play out on crowded subway cars. Besides, I don’t have to use the app since those same subway patrons evidently find headphones too restrictive. I’ve seen trends come and go, from Shaw Brother’s style cook-offs to Hebei Pangzai’s drinking challenges, but so many have the same thing in common. The countryside, or rather the countryside consumed by the overworked and overtired trying to reclaim any free time they can. Experience the quietness of nature in hyper-edited short videos served to you by an algorithm. Li Ziqi is the breakout star you might have heard of, a vlogger who found viral fame making crafts, cooking and farming, although the latter may as well have scare quotes the size of her native Sichuan province. Her videos have found international fame, with her YouTube channel having the highest number of subscribers of any in Chinese. I can kind of see the appeal- her videos are certainly quieter than most, with no viral pop songs or comedy sound effects layered over, and I can see how these videos would be comforting in These Uncertain Times™ in the same way I’ve enjoyed Joe Pera’s output over the years. I’m not interested in robbing anyone of some similar small pleasure.

And yet. It’s not an original critique that these videos provide an overly idealised portrait of countryside living. Even with their comparatively luxurious 10-minute plus runtimes, there is no pretence of it being some spontaneous view into her day-to-day life. Her videos are products as much as her line of instant snail noodles are, the work of an army of production designers and savvy internet marketers. Until they weren’t. She hasn’t uploaded since the latter half of 2021. The particulars are fuzzy- Asian influencer drama is as opaque as anything from the idol world. Still, it’s confirmed that Li Ziqi is suing the multi-channel network (MCN) Hangzhou Weinian, who own a 51% stake in “Ziqi Culture”, for presumed contractual violations. The only word from Li on the subject is that she “did not want to see her intellectual property over-commercialized”. I don’t think it’s worth picking apart such an obviously lawyer-vetted statement, nor do I think it’s fair to accuse her of hypocrisy given the artifice present in even her early work- after all, she says “over-commercialised” rather than “commercialised”. Commercialisation is inherent to not just her work but this whole cottage industry of countryside video-making. Whether it becomes commercial with the involvement of an MCN, or uploading to a video app, or as soon as you take out the camera, the result is the same. A shared illusion that only requires a suspension of disbelief, and what’s the harm in that? It’s not fooling anyone if the audience wants to be fooled, right?

Maybe. But this trend doesn’t only exist in short-form video, nor is it particularly recent. People have been pining for a prelapsarian pastoral life since at least the time of the Greeks, the same Greeks you see Very Normal statue and bust avatars begging to RETVRN to. The precise nature of the desire shifts, but the only difference these days is the rabidity of that desire and the gigantic culture industry that serves it. The causes of the former are, I think, self-evident- we might not all be retreating to the woods to send letter bombs, but capitalisms atomisation affects all of us, never mind that the planet’s on fire. That that same capitalism would try to sell us back a panacea isn’t surprising, and well, even if it only kind of works, why not enjoy it?

And after all:

The white-haired protagonist of Mushishi, Ginko, muses that “Relaxing is one of life’s pressing issues” while smoking

I’ve finally got around to Mushishi after years of “no, no, I promise you’d really like it” from friends on and offline, and yes, they were right. I do. A beautifully scored and reflective spook-of-the-week show that combines many of my oddly specific interests (fantasy medicine/surgery, horror as a force of nature, cool bugs) and remains relaxing despite the frequent dips into body horror and tragedy. The number of stoners in the comments on soundtrack uploads suggests I’m not alone in feeling that way. Though more upfront as a work of fiction, it has in part served a similar purpose to those short clips that feel so alien to me. It’d be easy to divide the two as “pretending to be real but not” and “not pretending at all”, but even within Mushishi’s fiction, there are layers of fakery. It’s set between the Edo and Meiji periods (a not insignificant amount of time!) Japan but not really, full of anachronistic clothing and technology. It’s a world of innumerable unnamed towns and villages. A forever countryside unmoored from history, religion and even any proper nouns to describe places. Even the word “Japan” is absent, though the inspiration from Japanese folklore is undeniable. The titular mushi are heavily based on hara-no-mushi (literally “belly bugs”), tiny parasites detailed in an Osakan medical tome known as the Harikikigaki over five hundred years ago, long before we had any understanding of the real microscopic organisms that live in and amongst us. The mushi of the show are more explicitly supernatural (though one hara-no-mushi, the asenomushi, causes you to sweat uncontrollably in the presence of your lover, which could serve as a subject for a lesser episode), being invisible to those who lack the special sight and able to do anything from creating pockets of sleep-inducing summer in frozen mountains to disappearing you into an endless series of caves you may never return from. They are not explicitly evil. Instead, they are acting according to their nature, a shadow biosphere that does not deliberately target humans but exists alongside them. They’re really cool and offer a lot of narrative flexibility, though the number of times Ginko has to explain what a mushi certainly gets a little grating.

Oh, right, Ginko. He’s our protagonist, a “Mushi-shi”- something between a folk doctor and exorcist. How present he is in any one episode varies greatly, but he is the only human constant in the show’s transient setting. Indeed, he is a great driver of that transience- unable to put down roots as natural (unnatural?) mushi magnet, a forever stranger to all but the occasional recurring character. His endless wandering probably explains the otherwise quite idiosyncratic opening, “The Sore Feet Song”. It’s part of that odd anime tradition of using moody English alt-rock/singer-songwriter stuff that somehow ended up in a director’s iTunes library (see also Serial Experiments Lain, Gunslinger Girl, Ergo Proxy), and it fits the vibe pretty well. At least until you listen to the entire song, which starts talking about robbing convenience stores mere seconds after they cut it off in the show. If you read the upload comments, you’d think they’d been deceived. I suppose they had, but obfuscation is deep in the show’s DNA.

Is it in that obfuscation that it gained its “comfy” reputation? When I was playing Disco Elysium, a friend asked if the political themes would be more trenchant hadn’t they used fantasy stand-ins, i.e. Marxism instead of Masovianism. I don’t think so. Though it may have made it more palatable to some, it doesn’t feel like a dodge. Considering the effort to create detailed histories for each faction while retaining real-world political interest, it was a smart call. This question echoed in my head the more I thought about Mushishi, which erases Shintoism and Buddhism from its not-Japan but neglects even to bother inventing a stand-in. I mostly don’t mind the vagueness of the setting- it’s a collection of folk tales, and folk tales don’t usually get into the weeds of politics. The absence of religion is weird, though, especially in a world where most people are subject to the whims of supernatural beings they can’t see. It seems like fertile ground for religious groups to misinterpret, something the show does get into, but only with other mushi-shi. Much as I enjoy the series, it’s a disconnect too far for me, one that feels more in service of reducing friction and potential offence than a genuinely creative choice. I’m not asking for (similarly oddly comfortable) Spice and Wolf’s detailed economics and world-building, but it crosses the line from pleasant vagueness to avoiding a question.

And that’s the heart of the Countryside Virtual- not a lie or a hand-wave, but a refusal. It isn’t the wilful refusal of reality from those seeking out this media that bothers me, but rather the media’s unwillingness to engage with almost anything negative about countryside living, often to the point of absurdity in video games. Take Stardew Valley, where you can throw off the shackles of your office job and engage in virtual agrarian servitude, the only narrative friction coming from an evil megacorp that threatens your little capitalism with big capitalism. Or how about Animal Crossing, explicitly created as a homesickness relief for the director, that has in recent iterations sanded away even the possibility of a villager being vaguely mean, reducing them to compliment spewing automatons that only serve to give you more stuff to litter your island paradise with. Self-appointed comfy or wholesome games rankle in the same way those short videos do- it’s a negation of friction beyond even the most pastoral Ghibli movie, beyond media created explicitly for children. And while Nintendo is easy to fold into the broader culture machine, a mostly solo-developed indie game is not. I don’t see the appeal in playing it, but I also don’t see the appeal in creating a fantastical balm of mundane hardship elevated to an addictive gameplay loop, a medicine sold for an illness created by the same industry. Then again, one of the recent indie sensations is a power washer simulator called Power Washer Simulator, a game seemingly designed for mundane catharsis and something to keep your hands busy while listening to a podcast, that neither bothers to simulate the physics of power washing in any interesting way nor the business you’re running. We are so desperate for release and escapism that this is apparently not an absurd creation. In fact, it’s one you can enjoy even further abstracted by a Twitch personality riffing over it. I don’t want to get into some annoying bleak Gen X-ish cynical doomsaying because I hate that shit too. I don’t blame any of the individuals seeking comfort in this way, nor even the creators of this media. It’s just… sad. Whether it’s sad that it’s necessary, or that this is how nature is parcelled to us, or that I’m such a member of the fun police that I have to compare one of my new favourite anime to Tiktok videos is up to you. Maybe this is all just an extension of that same countryside posturing from that old man on the farm all those years ago. In the city but not of the city. But I think we can dream bigger than an anodyne nature that has never and will never exist.

And that bigger dream doesn’t have to remain virtual.

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