Every few years, a how-to book comes along that generates a cult following, sending readers off in droves to replicate the tips inside.
Japan’s Marie Kondo certainly can claim to have done so with her books on organizing, especially her 2014 bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She is best known for her Konmari method, which instructs people to hold objects in their hands and determine whether they give them joy.
Now, Kondo has become a star of the small screen, with the new Netflix series, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which premiered on New Year’s Day.
The eight episodes tell the stories of individuals, couples and families, all trying to create order out of chaos.
Speaking mainly through an interpreter, Kondo displays her own brand of joy as she steps around overflowing boxes, pulls clothes out of closets and exclaims over collections of nutcrackers and baseball cards.
“I’m so excited, because I love mess,” she declares at the start of every episode.
Kondo divides organizing into five categories: clothing, books, paper, sentimental items and something she calls komono, which includes kitchen, bathroom, storage and miscellaneous possessions.
If you’ve ever felt badly about the shape your apartment or house is in, you can take comfort that it isn’t terrible at all compared with some of the folks in the series.
A not-so-empty nest
Clutter is everywhere when she arrives at the home of empty nesters Wendy and Ron Akiyama, who are wrestling with the detritus of three generations.
They inherited their Torrance, Calif. home in 1994 from Wendy’s parents. Rather than clearing out their things to make room, the Akiyamas and their son Russell added layers more.
Ron takes pride in his cartons of baseball cards. Wendy loves Christmas décor, especially nutcrackers, and leaves it out year around. The garage is a sea of unknown objects.
“We can’t find stuff, and that bothers me,” Wendy says.
There’s plenty to do, but Kondo never launches right into an organizing project, and she rarely does any of the actual organizing work. Instead, after greeting the Akiyamas, she kneels on the floor, as if on a Japanese tatami mat, to introduce herself to the house.
Then, it’s off to tackle the clothing, which she instructs the Akiyamas to pull out of the closet and pile onto the bed. The stack grows and grows and grows, until “it is the biggest pile I’ve seen of all my clients,” Kondo says.
You might wonder how the Akiyamas are possibly going to plow through it all, until Kondo says. “Ask yourself if it is something you want to take into your future.”
The Akiyama decide they want a far less cluttered future, and fill up 130 garbage bags with unwanted objects, delighting Kondo upon her return.
“You did this all in a week? I couldn’t be happier,” she says.
Delaying the difficult
It’s a sadder story when Kondo visits Margie Hodges, in Culver City, Calif., whose husband Rick has died nine months earlier. Margie wants Kondo to share advice on how to clear out his possessions.
Instead, Kondo decides to delay the difficult task until later, explaining it will be easier if Margie has done something less emotional else first.
She starts Margie out by sorting her own clothes. Then, she steers her to work on a guest bedroom and to clear out books in the living room, instructing her to thank each item for the joy it has given her before she discards it.
Margie finally interrupts her to say she really wants to deal with Rick’s things, and Kondo agrees to change her agenda.
Margie sends Kondo away so that she can face the clear out by herself, and she understandably breaks down in tears as she sorts through her husband’s shirts, jeans and western boots.
“It’s kind of a real jolt to see the life that we’ve lived and the dreams that he had all in a pile on the floor, and my closet is empty,” Margie says.
Kondo’s tips are concealed inside each personal story, and there’s often a lot of conversation before she hands out advice.
On one hand, that helps her understand her clients. But the viewer has to wait to get practical advice. Of course, if you’ve read her books, then you already know Kondo’s tips on decluttering.
- Take everything out of your closets, put in a pile and sort.
- Put easier tasks before emotional ones.
- Consider sorting photos by activities rather than year (but year is fine too).
- Each family member sorts his or her own things. Don’t judge what they keep.
- Put the things you’re keeping in plastic storage tubs so you can see what’s inside.
- Make a memory box that provides as much joy as the memories inside.
To her credit, Kondo never forces her clients to part with sentimental possessions. “If you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to breathe in and out. If you’re unsure, keep it for now,” she says.
Decluttering the show
But after watching the episodes, I couldn’t help thinking the series needed more organization of its own. Because she focuses on the five categories, we repeatedly hear Kondo’s advice on tackling books, photographs, clothes, and sentimental items.
After a while, you know there will be a giant pile of sweaters reaching to the ceiling, and that someone will be sorting piles of pictures on a dining room table.
Kondo might have taken some tips from another Netflix series, Salt Fat Acid Heat. In it, chef and cookbook author Samin Nosrat focuses on each cooking property for a full episode, giving viewers a thorough understanding of their role in cuisine.
Similarly, Tidying Up might have been better off divided up by subject matter, rather than telling the individual stories.
I’d happily watch an entire episode on organizing a kitchen, or one on deciding which family heirlooms to keep or discard.
Still, if you liked the book, you’ll now be able to see what Kondo was talking about. And that might be all the joy you need.