Sep 18, 2012

Anime Review: Hanasaku Iroha

The main cast standing in front of the inn's main entranceIt’s series like this that give me a stark reminder: stop wasting time watching bad anime. With all of the junk released every year it is an even more important lesson to learn, lest I find myself missing out on stuff like Hanasaku Iroha. There is a long tail of anime, too, and the diamonds serve to remind me just how far behind 2nd and 3rd place are. Or perhaps it is precisely because of all of the junk out there that this shines so much more brightly.

Hanasaku Iroha, or “The Colors of Blooming”, concerns 16 year-old Ohana Matsumae as her life is uprooted from the familiar world of Tokyo and put into a small, country town of Yusonagi due to her mother’s typical careless whimsy. Ohana’s grandmother, whom her mom does not get along with and hasn’t seen for some time, runs an inn there named Kissuisō. A stern and strict matron, she hides no ounce of her displeasure at having Ohana dumped on her and puts her to work to earn her room and board. The usually carefree and cynical Ohana must learn discipline and, perhaps more importantly, to rely on others, having grown up learning not to rely on her mom. It’s a coming of age story (implied also by the title) more than anything, framed around a slice-of-life look into the staff of Kissuisō that Ohana must now learn to get along with.

Ohana from behind looking up at Kissuisō's majestic front entrance

Slice-of-life is an overused genre if only because its nature lends itself to lazy application to whatever one wants. Oh? It’s not quite action or heavy drama, just character building? Does nothing exciting really happen? Is the comedy, romance, and/or style too subtle? Then slice-of-life it is. And yet, it’s not fair that we use it as an “everything else” label when something doesn’t clearly fit the established clichés like rom-com, magical girl, or shounen fighting, or whatever.

Nako and Ohana sweeping the front stepsHanairo is much more than it first seems. It’s very much a character driven series, slowly building up relationships, but also showing real growth and progress. A lot happens. But it’s not a story about world domination or star-crossed lovers. It’s far more real and human, keeping a tight cap on many of the usual cartoony hallmarks of anime. No rainbow palette of hair colors, no overt fanservice, no sweat drops or pratfalls, giant band-aids or hammerspace. Instead we get a realism that is astonishing in its near-flawless execution, and this design decision permeates everything about the show. It’s not that you won’t still see big expressive eyes or guys scratching the back of their head and other hallmarks of anime, but you’ll find the few that are there are subdued.

I knew two things going into this series: it was cute and somebody on the internet wished they had started watching it sooner. (Both of those are fan art, by the way.) Beyond that, well… I wasn’t sure what to expect, really. And maybe that’s why I was especially surprised when it left me speechless.

You see, Hanairo is beautiful. I had never heard of P.A. Works but their work (ha!) is nothing short of impressive. The art is phenomenally good, with sprawling, detailed, and gorgeous backgrounds. Inhabiting the world are characters lovingly crafted to be visually pleasing, recognizable, but not so pretty that the realistic sense is lost. Scenes are rarely static, with a plethora of angles, plenty of movement and dynamism, and an attention to detail that is jaw-dropping at times. Fortunately, I saw it all in HD and it was non-stop eye candy.

Ohana admiring the cherry blossoms as Nako and Minko stand a ways behind her waiting on the train

And yet they were not content with stopping there, as Hanairo boasts some fantastic voice actors along with an effective and above average score, complimented by a number of excellent opening, ending, and insert songs. Ohana especially is a stand-out, with a wonderful performance and an always delightful accent to her voice. But the rest of the cast, too, give their all, pulling off some very difficult emotional scenes with authentic and rousing results. The music is a mix of piano work and other instrumentals, usually quite good, and although it starts to get a bit repetitive after 20+ episodes it’s good enough that you probably won’t care. Thankfully they mix things up frequently with several insert songs. All are used expertly, timed well and fitting. Rounding it out, the sound effects are top notch, capturing every movement and foot step with nary a noticeable repeat or corner cut.

Above all, the design screams realism. Every step the characters take, every movement they make, their dress and hair, the backgrounds, the details, it all strives to build a consistent and believable world. And, for the most part, it works. Sometimes the CG is a little too obvious, but mostly there is so much to feast upon that the minor gripes really don’t matter.

I’ve been gushing, I know, but I can’t help it. It is ambitious and grand, and yet not, because for all of the spackle and shine the story itself is nothing new, per se. It’s subtle at times, and very human, but it’s also the same relationship problems and such you’ve seen before. And yet, it’s so believable and real you won’t care. It may not break new ground, but it does it so well. You can start to sort of see the cookie-cutter designs at first, with the tsundere type and the shy one and so on, but over time they reveal themselves to be far more nuanced. What it lacks in originality it makes up for completely with convincing characters and by delivering interactions you can get sucked into. Learning about their fears, their loves, and their goals and how it all works out… that’s the real focus and joy.

Ohana dozes sitting in a passenger train

But even so, the grand showing with the big budget art, sound, and so on, hasn’t got a big budget story to drive it. Maybe it wouldn’t work with one. As it is, the writing and directing is usually tight and well done, with very little in the way of filler. But the reliance on characters over plot does mean that when it does tie up some of the early threads it feels a little lacking. After the initial bit of her getting accustomed and then the lingering question of her longtime friend she left in Tokyo and his feelings for her now that they are suddenly separated, things start to kind of meander. We get some more episodic looks into the other characters, which is appreciated and not really filler, but it does become noticeably weaker if only because it lacks a story arc to be working towards. Thankfully, things pick back up near the end and there is a quite satisfying finale.

I cannot speak highly enough of this series. I enjoyed it immensely and wish I, too, had watched it sooner. It isn’t for everybody, though, as the slow burn might not be exciting enough for some. The lack of many typical anime tropes also might not be to some’s liking. But if you let it, the characters will grow on you and I promise you’ll be in for a treat. It always left me with a big, dumb grin on my face. Perhaps because of its quality and mostly realistic approach, this could be a really good series to convince that friend or special someone to watch with you even if they “typically don’t like that anime stuff.” Sure, it’s got its anime/Japanese quirks like they all do, but it’s a refreshingly real and honest look at a group of people’s lives that the human story it has to tell overshadows the faults and peculiarities, if any.

As of this writing, you can watch Hanasaku Iroha for free on Crunchyroll. Be prepared for many feels, though (the good kind)!

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