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How I caught Marie Kondo's tidying up bug

Watching others confront their mess is disturbingly compulsive.

Four episodes into Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, something snapped. At nine o’clock at night I found myself reorganising the top shelf of our inconveniently narrow linen cupboard so that the tablecloths stood to attention in neat rectangles. I could now remove one without the lot falling on my head. This shelf, tidied in the “KonMari” manner made famous by the tiny Japanese declutter queen, now “sparked joy”, as she would say. I had drunk the Kondo Kool-Aid and it was good.

Kondo’s improbable bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and now the television series have sparked both inspiration and derision. She has clearly plugged into something primal. Fear of entropy, possibly: the gradual, inexorable decline into chaos that may one day destroy the universe and, meanwhile, is busy making my study into a no-go zone.

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The families Kondo visits – “Hi-eeee! I’m Marie-eeee!” – are not the sort who turn up on Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. The Mersier family – Katrina, Douglas, children Nolan and Kayci – had moved from roomy Michigan to a two-bedroom LA apartment. Cue domestic Armageddon. Katrina: “It’s just one big cycle of jumbled scatterbrain!” Junk affects relationships. “It’s hard for me to feel like this is an actual home,” says Kayci, as her mother looks stricken.

Most self-improvement series assume that we are a bunch of losers who need to be scolded, sworn at and harried to lose weight, renovate, tame errant offspring or hone our business sense by someone like Gordon Ramsay, Supernanny or, God help us, Donald Trump. Kondo is a kinder iteration. When she’s shown a room crammed with so much frightful tat that the owner falls over just trying to walk in, she skips for joy. “This is so exciting for me! I love mess!”

Kondo greets each house in a little ritual and “wakes up” books so they can indicate their joy-sparking potential to their owners. She brings the fervour of an animal rights campaigner to the treatment of undergarments: “Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel,” she has declared. “Please put an end to this practice today.” She insists on thanking old junk before throwing it out, possibly a bridge too far. But she’s not the fanatical minimalist she’s sometimes made out to be. “I love the way she doesn’t make any of the family members feel bad at what they want to keep,” says one relieved punter.

The whole Kondo caravan has been accused of betraying feminism – it’s the mothers who disproportionately deal with disorder. But here, Kondo sweetly and implacably makes each family member viscerally experience their mess and deal with it.

Of course, one small nuclear family filling 150 rubbish bags with trashy excess scarily underlines the sustainability issues of Western civilisation on a fragile planet. This is not really addressed on Tidying Up, except by getting more plastic containers to put stuff in. But watching the clothing version of a giant fatberg grow on someone’s bed might make you think twice next time you are tempted to buy … anything.

The series can be quite moving. “You’ve done so much good for me; I thank you for that,” young Nolan Mersier tells his old jacket. In another episode, Kondo helps Margie deal with the clothes of her deceased husband of 40 years. “The dreams that he had are in a pile on the floor,” weeps Margie. “By tidying, you can sometimes ease the pain of the past,” soothes Kondo.

Even the KonMari method won’t keep the unruly forces of life, death and the resultant dreck at bay. But taking a long hard look at the havoc you unleash along the way and taking responsibility for it can’t be a bad thing. On to the sheets and towels.

TIDYING UP WITH MARIE KONDO, Netflix.

Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.