The opening moments of Laid-Back Camp show a soothing scene of a group of five girls gathered around a campfire, cycling through images of toasted marshmallows and little jokes, and ending with them all taking a group selfie. “Alright,” I thought to myself. “This is going to be one of those Cute Girls In a Special Interest Club series. Fun!” Once the episode proper begins, this introduction turns out to be (presumably) a flash-forward of sorts, as the audience is introduced to one member of the group and her established hobby of solo camping. Over the course of the premiere she meets one of the other group members (the selfie-taker herself) and they begin to form a sort of clumsy friendship. “I see,” I thought to myself. “So we’ve gone back in time, and this is the story of how the Special Interest Club is brought together. Inevitably, the solo camper is going to be dragged into the camping circle where she will, through many hijinks, come to understand The Power of Friendship and abandon her status as a recluse. Fun!!”
Though it has a waft of cliché about it, I would have been alright with this plotline—I’m watching Laid-Back Camp to relax, after all, so I didn’t go in with too many demands (the bar was set at the ankle-high “let the anime girls star in a sweet and fun story without the camera ogling them”, on which I’m happy to report Laid-Back Camp has delivered so far), and you know I’m a sucker for any kind of story about blossoming friendship. But I’m also happy to report that the show surprised me, by taking a perfectly justified but often unexplored—and thus unexpected—route in regards to its story of the solo hobbyist.
Rin, the solo camper, is not dragged into the group in a puff of comedic shenanigans. When she meets the pink-haired, effervescent, well-meaning-but-air-headed Nadeshiko (who fell asleep at Rin’s campground and got stuck there after sunset), she bursts into Rin’s life with almost Manic Pixie-like sparkle and slapstick. She’s loud and colourful to contrast Rin’s focussed quietness, and adds enough pep to Rin’s lakeside camping trip that you have to wonder if she’s truly “interrupted” her solitary holiday, or if she’s enhanced it. Surely, when Nadeshiko leaves Rin with her contact details and exuberantly declares that they should go camping together again sometime, it’s marking the end of Rin’s lonely travels and drawing her out of her reclusive state and towards a happier life? Surely this is what the story is?
You have to wonder, but the wondering is cut off by a few key factors: first, Rin isn’t lonely, she just likes being alone. She’s far from a friendless outcast who, I don’t know, waxes poetical about how she doesn’t like people and prefers being at one with nature, like some sort of misplaced Romantic writer. She has a best friend who’s perfectly accepting and supportive of her hobby, and who never feels like Rin is leaving her behind—they have different interests, and they recognise this and do their own thing while exchanging messages.
When the Outdoor Activities Club is introduced, there is no shenanigans-filled storyline about trying to recruit Rin so they have the magic number of four members and can avoid getting shut down, a la K-On!, (which I know I bring up as an example whenever I talk about a show of this nature, but it’s something of the definitive one). Rin avoids the club, and after a little communication, they shrug and accept that she doesn’t want to join, and the two factions go about their business.
Nadeshiko makes an attempt to nudge Rin away from solo camping by showing up adorable but uninvited to her campsite one night, and Rin in turn seems to reluctantly warm to the idea of camping with a buddy rather than alone. But after this, Nadeshiko sort of comes to understand what exactly Rin enjoys about camping, and gently backs off. The next arc of the show features the Outdoor Activities Club and Rin going on two separate camping trips, running parallel. And… both factions have a great time, in their own ways. Rin is not portrayed as morose, wondering what fun the others are having without her. The Club is not rolling their eyes about her status as a loner. In fact, the two groups exchange messages and photos, with Nadeshiko and Rin sending each other shots of their respective starlit views in a moving moment that connects the two of them without them having to be physically side by side.
Something about this moment—and this whole mini-arc—was just so nice, to the point where my heart was still warmed several days later. And it got me thinking about why it was so nice—obviously, Laid-Back Camp is meant to be soothing as a whole, but there was something about the portrayal of Rin’s introverted adventures that was particularly soothing to me. It’s rare that solo activities are shown in a positive light, when you think about it: often the group is presented as the better place to be, and people who do activities or hobbies on their own are seen as a little bit odd.
From team sports to online fandoms, there’s often a sense of community expected and embedded in our enjoyment of things—you could call it an ancient instinct to find safety in numbers and acceptance as part of a group, if you wanted to get anthropological. But the reality is, that doesn’t work for everyone all the time, and sometimes people need their space. And though it’s not something I’ve really thought about before, Laid-Back Camp has made me realise that we don’t often see media telling us that this is okay.
Rin’s love of camping and travelling on her own is portrayed as just as valid as the antics of the club. While that flash-forward at the beginning tells us she’ll eventually end up camping as part of a bigger party, she’s not presented as miserable, lonely, or missing something before this happens. At halfway through the series, Rin has gradually reached a point where she willingly invites Nadeshiko on one of her camping trips, expressing a sort of emotional intimacy by letting someone else into what has thus far been her me-time. This is heartwarming as hell, of course, but the point remains that this is a positive progression from what was already a positive point.
Rin was happy camping on her own, and that was fine. Rin is also happy camping with other people, now that she’s giving it a try. Nadeshiko does not bundle into her life and drag her from a state of brooding to a miraculous realisation that she was a fool to avoid other people all this time…! Some people like to do their own thing, and some people like to share the experience. Both forms of fun are valid. There is no shame in being solitary. Sometimes, in a world where we’re constantly wired onto the internet and the billions of connections it contains, and expected to spend our free time socialising and our work lives networking, you just need to spend some time alone. Introverts need solitary time to recharge, and some people just enjoy soaking in new sights and sounds on their own rather than with a group. It doesn’t mean you’re rendered friendless or hopeless, or that you can’t also enjoy group outings.
Rin’s character arc is not, as I was expecting, shaping up to be about being pulled from sad loneliness to the magical place as part of a group, and I appreciate that a whole lot. Yes, she’s on her way to enjoying camping with other people, which will eventually lead her to that warm and comfy scene that the show opened with, but she’s also allowed to just do her own thing and have the other characters and the greater narrative respect that. If this show has taught me anything, it’s that there are many ways to camp, and many ways to go about the things you love, with enjoying your own space and sharing the experience placed on equal footing.
And in a show with a central atmosphere of “comfy”, it’s vital and refreshing to show a variety of comfort zones. Rin’s comfort zone is simply expanding rather than being presented as limited, or something that needs to be “fixed” by the explosive appearance of a new friend. It’s a seemingly little thing, but it’s a narrative choice that I enjoy and respect, and it’s something that’s ensured Laid-Back Camp a special place in my heart.