Spring 2011 was bursting with several opportunities to overwhelm the fandom with awesome. But while the likes of Hen Zemi and Maria Holic Alive left little to be desired, the standout hit of the season came from an unexpected source: Hanasaku Iroha – a tale about a young girl named Ohana going to work at Kissuiso, her grandmother’s hot spring inn.
Hanasaku Iroha is an anime of two very distinct halves. The first thirteen episodes play out as a character-driven coming-of-age drama focusing on Ohana and her interactions with other people. This opening part unfolds with subtlety and grace and focuses on Ohana arriving at her new life at Kissuiso and learning the meaning of hard work in a manner not dissimilar to Chihiro’s plight in Spirited Away. On top of this, the show also places great importance on Ohana’s various relationships and how the girl ultimately affects those around her. The anime simultaneously explores the teen connecting with her stony-faced grandmother, deciphering how she feels about childhood friend, Ko, confronting her flighty and unreliable mother, and melting her roommate, Minko’s, icy shell. With all the strands of Ohana’s life weaving together and building up to a climactic thirteenth episode, it feels as if the series could have ended right there and then.
Unfortunately, some of the show’s latter episodes toss aside the exceptional storytelling of what preceded them and descend into little more than typical slice-of-life. Ohana’s development grinds to a halt as she becomes little more than Kissuiso’s enthusiastic cheerleader and resident ray of sunshine. Taking less of a back seat but more a completely different car and honking on the horn every so often, Ohana hands over the spotlight to her peers – though she continues to make her presence known by helping guide everyone down the correct path. Instead of subtly developing the secondary players alongside the protagonist as previously, we get far more blatant character-centric arcs mixed in with school life standards such as festivals and class trips to the beach. While still entertaining and sensitive to its cast, after seeing what the impressive opening has to offer, watching schoolgirls bicker over “omurice” is a let-down and add little to the central relationships.
Luckily as the show comes to a close, it starts to reclaim some of its earlier glory as tensions rise while everyone attempts to save their beloved Kissuiso. Much like the anime’s opening half, the interpersonal relationships between the main cast make the climax such a treat to watch and as the episodes continue, friendships regress, revolt, and renew. Hanasaku Iroha’s finale proves one of the most fulfilling I’ve seen for some time as it wraps up each individual plot thread, seemingly sending the narrative full circle, while simultaneously changing everything along the way.
One of the most striking aspects of Hanasaku Iroha is the animation. This show demonstrates some of the most luscious background imagery from recent years, and P.A. Works has excelled itself by including details right down to the veins on marble pillars or the natural wear and tear of a kitchen floor.
Hanasaku Iroha also displays a surprising attention to detail when it comes to movement, which adds a sense of realism wherever possible. Small details such as Ohana’s cheeks getting buffeted by the wind as she speeds down a hill on a bicycle and sparks floating in the air during a bonfire means that this series is less a feast for the eyes, but more an all-you-can-eat banquet. Likewise, the anime integrates its computer generated animation very well and, instead of appearing awkward and unwieldy, enhances the show by giving smoother movement for train rides or delicate snowflakes falling from the sky.
Much like every other aspect of the show, Hanasaku Iroha’s soundtrack is very gentle. Quiet acoustic guitar tracks reminiscent of the background music from the Aria franchise help depict the feeling of happiness and calm that Ohana derives from her new life at the inn. The musical score may not be one that you must rush to get hold of, but it perfectly matches the series’ overall tone without resorting to sappy, saccharine harmonies.
The series’ voice cast fares just as well as the soundtrack with each actor providing the ideal vocals for their characters. Tamie Kubota’s performance as Sui fits the bill perfectly with her portrayal of the stern Madam Manager who isn’t to be messed with, while also retaining a softer, more maternal side that prevents her from becoming a figure of hate. Meanwhile, Chiaki Omigawa captures Minko’s vulnerability to a T, yet imbues the character with enough aggression and drive to depict the young chef’s more decisive nature.
The characterisation in Hanasaku Iroha is subtle, but top notch. At the beginning Ohana hovers somewhere between a poor abandoned daughter and a selfish brat, but through her various interactions with those at Kissuiso, she goes on her own journey and transforms. In particular it’s her developing relationships with two of the inn’s residents – her stern and indifferent grandmother, Sui, and her classmate the serious Minko – that mostly contribute to the young girl’s evolution. These two relationships are the most charming of the series, although Ohana’s interactions with both her mother and childhood friend Ko are also both engaging and integral to her development. That Ohana’s grandmother treats the teen as nothing more than an employee when she first arrives, watching the two gradually connect as Sui’s icy exterior slowly thaws in the face of Ohana’s determination and enthusiasm makes for unadulterated viewing pleasure. Certainly, the teenager’s desire to earn Sui’s approval goes a long way to how she matures throughout the course of the series.
Undoubtedly, the lynchpin of Hanasaku Iroha’s plotline is the effect that Ohana has on her peers. In some cases her enthusiasm simply becomes infectious, and re-ignites a flame within the staff. However, in the case of Minko, it’s more of a two-way street. Minko’s initial disdain of Ohana serves as one of the central reasons behind the new girl’s drive to improve, but at the same time as the inn’s newest hire becomes more competent, Minko’s competitive aspect ignites enabling the young chef to herself evolve.
Even in a relatively slow-paced show filled with deep interpersonal relationships, there’s still a lot of room for a sprinkling of eccentricity amongst the cast. Additions such as the over the top, perverted and flamboyant author, Jiro, and high-flying business consultant Takako with her random English phrases, there’s not only the option for more comedy to make an appearance, but they cause plenty of friction and open up opportunities for Ohana to further evolve and prove her worth.
Despite a filler-esque section following the half-way mark Hanasaku Iroha is one of the best series of the year so far. With brilliant characterisation, deep relationships between the players and a quietly graceful soundtrack all wrapped up in a sumptuously gorgeous visual treat, you couldn’t ask for more.
Ohana Matsumae is a sixteen-year-old girl with no purpose or direction in life. One day, however, she gets the chance to reinvent herself when her mother and her boyfriend do a moonlight flit to escape his debts. Left alone, Ohana goes to live with her estranged grandmother, but when she arrives she finds herself forced to work at the family’s hot spring resort, the Kissuiso Inn. With her grandmother considering her nothing more than an employee and a roommate who hates her, Ohana’s happy dream of a new life soon turns into a nightmare. Now the wide-eyed girl must learn the value of hard work as she attempts to make friends and familiarise herself with life at the resort.
While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.