It’s 2019, and it is all but normal to be skeptical of social media darlings who describe themselves as “tidying up experts.” If we’re all being totally honest, that about carries the same level of credibility as “influencers.” Or, say, “Philippine senator.”
But Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, just like Ms. Kondo herself, is made of sunshine, designer boxes, and Muji-label rainbows and is therefore hard to resist. Launched right at the beginning of the year on Netflix, the show has charmed audiences, especially well-meaning or aspiring titas craving for validation, mindfulness, and Terrace House.
In the eight-episode series, Kondo travels the whole length of... well, just California, really, getting liberals of all shapes and sizes to part ways with roomfuls of woebegone clutter. Where Queer Eye rubs shoulders with open-minded rednecks in largely conservative Georgia, the 34-year-old has had to contend with a racially diverse group of aunties and millennial couples who make use of phrases like “It’s a great cleansing experience” like it’s nobody’s business.
While any reasonable human being will roll their eyes at this, or at the amount of garbage that these homeowners have, the show’s star feeds off the whole unbearable lightness of these suburbanites’ suffering. Instead of getting mad at the insanity, Kondo is delighted by the madness. She would spend her visits in awe of the catastrophe before her. “I love mess!” she would say while picking through someone’s woeful wardrobe.
One of Time’s Influential People in 2015, Kondo is a best-selling author whose books have been published in 30 countries, and whose clients swear by the organizational philosophy called The KonMari method which, as per her sprightly explanation at the beginning of each episode, is largely about approaching a tidying challenge by way of categories rather than by location. There are five categories: clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous items, and sentimental items.
How Kondo describes her breakthrough moment sounds almost like a religious experience: “I was obsessed with what I could throw away," she said in an interview. "One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely. And I realized my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.”
If you were to base it off the episodes of Tidying Up, her principles are basically about making people realize how ridiculous they are about their possessions. But she does so without a hint of judgment and a large dollop of Japanese politeness.
And here lies Kondo’s greatest strength: It’s probably easy to get upset at this tiny Asian lady encouraging you to rid yourself of the excesses you so cling to in your life, may they be a pair of Nikes you’ve never worn, or 30 more Christmas baubles that you will never ever need. But Kondo’s genuine cheer, concern and kawai expressions push that vitriol back down the throat from which they threaten to escape.
While Kondo claims there is no magic involved in her method, it sometimes seems fantastical how the homeowners change their mindsets. At the start of each challenge, it is almost apparent the homeowners are holding back smirks whenever they utter Kondo’s catch phrase “spark joy.” But something changes between Lesson 1 (clothing) and Lesson 4 (komono, which refers to anything miscellaneous); or sometimes the shift happens mid-sentence, where the person being interviewed says something along the lines of “I love all of my stuff. They make me who I am…but I guess Marie is right, and I need to move on.”
In between the homeowners tearing up, or bickering, the screen fades out to Kondo sharing practical tips—from folding clothes to container-wisdom to finding extra shelf space. These carry the same cadence as the beginning of almost every tidying challenge, when she takes a moment to “greet the house” as the owners fidget, unsure of what to do at the sight of Kondo kneeling down on their floor and bowing. These scenes and Kondo are almost otherworldly, filled with calming wind chimes or fanciful TVC aspiration. It’s like if the Rustan’s holiday display turned human, sported the cutest skirt and bangs, and made it her life’s mission to make you a better human being.
And that is the point of all of this: if at the beginning of 2019 you are looking for direction, your home might be a good place to start.