Disclaimer: this review may contain a spoiler for the first episode.
Few shows this year will elicit such tender, bittersweet feelings as AnoHana. Anime rarely focus on the grieving process, and the series’ sensitive execution of the subject makes it a treasure among 2011’s offerings. The plot sees a group of youths trying to come to terms with the death of their friend, Menma, while her ghost hangs around encouraging them to heal. Although they have physically grown up since the incident, in many other important ways their lives have remained frozen in time. Mostly, the show navigates this tough subject masterfully and creates a beautiful, moving drama that fulfils an age-old human desire to believe that those who die don’t leave us behind without closure.
AnoHana doesn’t quite escape cliche. It bring us glaringly contrived scenes like two characters tripping over each other and landing in a romantic pose. However, these blend into the background in light of its compelling strengths. In a harmonious mingling of comedy and grief, this show convinced me that laughter and death sit as naturally beside each other as spring and winter: one makes the other bearable. Moreover, the show knows how to create a dramatic highlight. These heady emotional climaxes come thanks to a witty and unexpected script that builds and builds tension, and then releases like fireworks.
Well, mostly. Director Tatsuyuki Nagai would have topped his wonderful 2008 project, Toradora, except that here he doesn’t trust his audience to recognise a sad moment. Whereas Toradora maintains a masterful balance of drama punctuated by peaks of melodrama, AnoHana’s characters burst into thick, gelatinous tears every time the topic turns tragic as though trying to cue us to do the same. Worse, the ending explodes into a tidal wave of tears that sent me scurrying under my duvet in utter embarrassment. Just when the story calls for the characters to struggle to suppress their swelling angst and the voice actors to accent their lines with faint cracks and trembling, we get instead a biblical volley of shrieks and howls and gnashing of teeth. From the penultimate episode the show ceases to expertly stoke our emotions and instead begins to tactlessly manipulate them.
AnoHana generally achieves an animation standard on par with many of its peers, although it manages to add one or two interesting distinguishing touches. We notice an effort to capture the tone of the story in the visuals - scenes prefer the dusk, dawn, and evening, meaning melancholy shadows creep in many a nook. The direction sometimes calls for an effect too. When Menma falls off a fence, key protagonist Jintan leaps in dreamlike slow motion to catch her while the camera swoops towards him in an exaggerated manner. They’re little touches, no more, but their combined effect gives the show a palpable atmosphere it might otherwise not have.
This is a wise soundtrack that knows its presence is required to accentuate and not dominate. Melodic, mellow, and utterly fitting, it works with the mood of the show when it is needed and stays completely out of the way when it is not.
AnoHana never allows its leads to wallow and instead sends them bumping along a dynamic grieving process marked by poignant rediscovery. The result is a piecemeal deconstruction of their final moments with Menma and how uniquely it affected them. Considering the brief running time, AnoHana manages a heroic amount of characterisation. Erstwhile geek Anaru’s relationship with her new vapid friends, for instance, becomes a fascinating glimpse into her pushover personality and brings an added gratification when she rediscovers the joys of gaming with Jintan. Yukiatsu, an arrogant overachiever brimming with undisguised resentment, proves a peculiar success as the hidden contrasts of his personality come to light.
And whenever two characters interact, the resulting drama sparkles. My favourite scene involves Jintan defending Anaru in class as everyone begins spreading rumours that she’s been spotted at a love hotel. Jintan is a borderline hikikomori sapped of the easy confidence he had as a child because of Menma’s death. When he stands up in class to speak, a wave of silence spreads through the class. But the words that spill from him are unexpected, hilarious, and utterly revealing about his depth of feeling for Anaru. I love those distilled moments when the characters reveal themselves through dialogue.
Perhaps unavoidably, the ghost Menma turns out to be the least human. Her performance relies too much on moe tropes to fit neatly with her more complex, living friends. Her main contribution is to be dead and cute, functioning in effect as Jintan’s mascot. She only has two emotional states - crushingly sad and unnaturally perky - when what I really expect from a ghost is less emotion. The script requires her to weep beautifully at least once every episode, which contradicts the show’s evident message that it is those who are left behind, and not the dead, who suffer most. By the nth time, her tears cease to be a point of pathos and more a predictable habit. And while the other characters emulate reality, she remains a cartoon.
AnoHana begins by appealing to our emotions, and ends by pandering to our sentiment. It packs enough poignancy and charming humour to leave us warmly aglow inside only to stumble at the finish line in an unfortunate eruption of hysterics. But damn it, a good drama is a good drama, and AnoHana, if not the best this year, is certainly one of the most affecting.
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