I want to preface this review with the simple statement: I love J.C. Staff. Toradora! and Nodame Cantabile occupy spots on my "Top 5"; I've been able to recite Lina Inverse's Dragon Slave chant (Slayers) for almost a decade; and I laugh heartily every week at the antics of Hayate and the gang (Hayate no Gotoku!!). Combined with my growing appreciation for shoujo-ai anime, I figured I would find their 2009 anime, Aoi Hana, enchanting. Wrong. Instead of adding another sterling title to one of my preferred genres, my favorite studio coughed up a pretty picture-book about a pair of girls' schools, and then marred it with a halfhearted story of heartbreak and friendship.
Over its too-short eleven episodes, Aoi Hana details the life of a high school freshman, Fumi, and her relationship with a senior at her new high school. To spice things up, the series throw the lead's childhood friend and a classmate who harbors a deep, unrequited love for the princely upperclassman into the mix, creating an odd love-polygon. Closely monitored, the interactions between these girls could have made for compelling drama, but the show's obsession with its own beautiful scenery and failure to flesh out its its main characters torpedoed the effort. Scenes of school and town life dominate each episode, forcing the story to the sidelines and causing the narrative to skip jarringly around without much context or reflection. Interesting bits of history do spin off the central characters, but the series refuses to chase their consequences, leaving any potentially rewarding plot threads hanging in the warm summer breeze.
The lax focus even sucks vitality from what little plot does mange to play out. When major dramatic moments arrive, the series seems to lack the guts to really drive them home and the show quickly cuts from any confrontational events to pan over more scenery. The fleeting and deft approach to these major interpersonal interactions does not generate the aura of maturity and realism that the series likely intends. Robbed of sufficient buildup and receiving only the faintest attention from the narrative, almost all the story's twists and turns arrive with a sigh instead of a bang.
On a positive note, it appears that J.C. Staff placed the fantastic art team of Nodame Cantabile at the reins. Whereas its predecessor uses the climatic concerts as excuses to flex its visual muscles in lock-step with its plot, Aoi Hana milks its relaxed narrative to trot out the sumptuous backgrounds and understated animation during every break in the action. The watercolor scenery here rivals any I've seen in the genre, and the series so flawlessly integrates its limited CGI into the frame that only under careful scrutiny can the viewer differentiate between computer models and hand drawings. Each shot's lighting is also superb. From the change in light quality when episodes transition between day, afternoon, and night to the tiny sparkles on falling tears, this series creates a sense of reality and place that contributes to the ambiance. However, the focus on the setting and heavy use of montage that flows from it causes some episodes to play out more like a series of paintings than an animated TV show. No matter how pretty, still shots of the school buildings and town get old after a time and their pervasive presence drains valuable screen time from the cast interaction.
Aoi Hana sounds pleasant enough. The OP swells beautifully from silence into an enchanting little melody, but the series once again chooses staid over melodramatic and the performance doesn't capitalize on the song's potential. Following the tone set by the OP, the rest of the gentle soundtrack, comprised mostly of classical piano pieces, perfectly compliments the series' laid-back visuals, but quickly fades from memory.
On the whole, the voice cast's approach to the script follows the musical components' level of uninspired competence. Chiemi Ishimatsu delivers Sugimoto in a listless monotone that perfectly matches her character's expression. In this case, Ishimatsu-san does the audience a disservice by failing to provide any nuance that would have given greater insight into the character. Additionally, the normally electric Yui Horie vanishes into Kyoko, which particularly disappoints given the actress steals nearly every scene when she appears in Kanamemo and Bakemonogatari (both airing in the same season). In contrast, Akira's seiyuu, Gibu Yuko deserves special mention for bringing her vivacious charge to life. Much of Akira's personality comes through perfectly in Gibu-san's interpretation, and her effervescence brings a smile to my face every time the she opens her mouth.
Akira's forthright nature, cavalier attitude, and friendly demeanor make her the only bright point in an otherwise completely lackluster main cast. While we're given a cute trio of girls and a pair of amusing boys to round out the auxiliaries, Weepy (Fumi), Beanpole (Sugimoto), and Fangirl (Kyoko) consume most of the screen time. The principal lead drifts through the series, substituting tears for positive action and allowing and her sempai's whims to run roughshod over her feelings. Mild mannered to a fault, the tearful girl abides and trusts when she should resist and question. Under normal circumstances, this young lady's thrashing and inner dialog would illuminate her decisions and consume the anime's quiet moments, but not so here. Instead, the anime locks Fumi's inner conflict behind inscrutable facial expressions aggravated by the series' understated artwork. Her mood appears to shift between listless melancholy and vague discomfort, neither of which betray any depth of feeling or aching love for Sugimoto. When the protagonist finally starts to change in the second half of the season, her pivotal moments arise out of nowhere and ring hollow as a consequence of this largely hidden emotional evolution.
Neither of the other two girls in the love triangle prove any more interesting. The writers had probably intended Sugimoto's stoicism and willfulness to come across as coy and capricious, but her stony-faced expressions, even-tempered voice, and extremely late-coming background portray her as merely mysterious throughout most of the series. Confused, heartless, and impossible to read, she doesn't even divulge enough of herself to either inspire hatred on the part of the audience or justify her admirers' affections. Kyoko similarly shows nothing to the audience save for her slavish love and devotion to her sempai. The few moments she shares with other cast members paint her as a typical high school girl and don't explain what makes her tick. Towards the show's end, she receives a small bit of back-story, but it only provides her the thinnest of motivations, generating an "I guess..." from the viewer instead of an "Ah-ha!". Given that the three main actors in this drama are ciphers, it's hard to empathize with anyone. Even the more interesting side characters like Sugimoto's sisters and the sponsor of the Fujigaya Academy's drama club can only bring so much to the story when the leads give the plot so little to work with.
Aoi Hana's setup could have delivered a deep and engaging love story, but its inability to stay focused on its narrative spoils the effort. No matter how lush the visuals, drama sinks or floats on its ability to elicit empathy from its audience. In choosing to showcase the scenery around town at every opportunity, the show robs the viewers of the time necessary to understand its main characters, blunting the effect of what could have been powerful emotional moments in these girls' lives. Unfortunately, what attention the anime does pay to its central plot cripples it as a slice-of-life venture, and in the end it drops both balls. Aoi Hana takes itself on a jaunt around a beautiful town during which the series gets lost, arrives at nowhere, and tries to claim it as a destination.
Shy, crybaby Fumi has just transferred into Matsuoka Girl’s High School, in the city of Kamakura. It’s been ten years since she moved away, leaving her dear friend Akira behind; and soon, the two are reunited once more. Akira is now attending Fujigaya Girls’ Academy, though she and Fumi still manage to see each other regardless. Between classes and social engagements, the two will experience love, the struggle to admit one’s true feelings, and the joy of companionship.
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.