I think there are 2 ways for a show to achieve greatness. One of them is to shock a viewer - quick action, unexpected story twists and lots of suspense are perfect tools for it. Whether the plan is to leave the viewer pumped up with adrenaline ( approach that most of sports animes take) or leave him empty and depressed ( End of Evangelion is the best example here) the main part of it is impact. As long as you are hit strong enough, you will naturally use "amazing" and "extraordinary" when talking about that anime. The second way is equally tricky to pull, even though it sounds simple - it's main principle is to charm a viewer and it's main tool would be the mood. This is the approach, that most of the slice of life are taking. Honey and Clover is no exception of that.
Story - 9/10
This anime is a story about group of 5 students attending Hamabi art college. Even though they are all from different years, they hang out together, party together, at some points work together and some of them even live together. Basicly they are really close friends, slowly entering mature life. On their way to adulthood they face many emotional and social hurdles, and have to learn how to deal with them. Difficult relationships, confusion with planning career after graduation, money issues, pressure from society, lack of inspiration, drive to improve yourself... All the problems are gently presented, as the characters worry, laugh, think, cry and try to enjoy their college days. Even though there are moments that come close to "dramatic" cathegory, they unfold at very slow pace, typical for slice of life. That approach takes away the impact, which leaves the sad parts on "slightly melancholic" level of drama.
Coming of age is the main topic of this anime, but not the only one. There is also a bittersweet romance weaved in the background, or to be precise two different romances. One of them is sweet, but unbelievably slow love triangle between Takemoto, Hagu and Morita. While it sounds as an interesting pairing, due to the personalities of characters involved, it hardly moves in any direction. Since both Takemoto and Morita figured, that the other one is also in love with Hagu they are avoiding confrontation (probably in order to keep the friendship going). Sure, there are some developments but come one - there are only 3 or 4 moments, at which we can honestly say that one of them have taken some action, yet none of those actions pushed the relationship into something deeper than friendship. The rest of the scenes given to that romance is either character thoughts, dialogues with uninvolved characters or just stuff normal friends do. And even though I understand that this slow approach fits the overall mood, stilll - for a 24 episodes show that's kinda weak.
Second romance, while also unresolved, is a bit more interesting. It's also a love triangle, at some point even a love square. To put it simply - Yamada loves Mayama, but has been rejected since Mayama loves Rika (and also been rejected... kinda), and I won't spoil who the fourth participant in this play will be. Since they aren't at level of quiet admiration, this romance doesn't seem as stale as the first one. Sure, it's not moving forward at first, but later it naturally evolves, and washes the bitter aftertaste of never-ending game of tag. While I think, that Mayama is the one, who gets most of the blame for lack of change in their relationship, it's hard to really judge him, since everyone has it's reasons. I guess that how it works with love triangles - if the author manages to make all characters likeable, you aren't sure anymore who should you cheer.
Ther is also another factor in this equation - comedy. While "melancholy" rules over bigger part of the show, in order to loose the tension some jokes are neccessary. It happens more often at the beginning of the show, and slowly fades near the end. Since I'm a fan of absurd, black humour (like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei for example) the comedy seemed really mild for my tastes. At least for the most part,since there were also really hilarious moments (new version of Twister or Mocademi Awards being the prime examples). Watching this show just for comedy would be a grave mistake though.
While the story is quite good, and have it's importance, it is not the main focus of the anime. After all - with the pace, at which the plot unfolds, even the most amazing story would turn out to be boring, unless... the anime was based on something different. And that's exactly the case - Honey and Clover is more focused on scenes than on story (similar to Aria). The most important thing is to create some moments with charming and heartwarming mood that the viewer might enjoy (even though most of them won't lead to any major twists in the plot). They manage to achieve it by taking a nice idea for a romantic/melancholic scene, fill it with meanigful dialogue, season it with beatiful animation and sound, and finally top it with narration of character inner thoughts. And since J.C.Staff is really skillful at creating touching moments, you can expect some quality time.
I've written already 5 paragraphs filled with mostly praise, but it's not like the show is perfect. The main (and the most deadly) flaw is the weak start. No matter how you would try to defend it - it's pretty clear, that first 3-4 eps are mostly for the purpose of introducing characters and their relations. Moreover first ep even brings scenes, that are completely irrelevant to current plot, and their meaning is clear only near the end of the show. Sure - I can understand, that it's purpose was to make some sort of connection between the beginning and the end of the anime, but still... The pace of the show is already slow enough, so further weakening the beginning seems kinda like a suicide goal. While slow pace could be considered a flaw in general, I think it's normal thing for slice of life. You can't really rush, when your plan is to captivate the viewer in some charming scenes - that would just kill the mood. That said, to be perfectly honest - first half could be a bit faster paced. I mean when I compare the first half to second half, it's obvious which one is better and some part of that is due to story unfolding quicker. The last flaw I notice is the lack of closure. Of course the reason for that is the existence of second season, but as an independent show, Honey and Clover feels really unfinished. Apart from Takemoto confusion every single storyline resolution is left for second season.
You will have to excuse my fanboyish attitude, but I think the animation in this show is simply beatiful. If not for the calm, pastel drawings, the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood could not be achieved so easily. There is barely any CG, and when it appears it's nicely planted, so that it wouldn't feel out of place. Characters are pretty detailed, and often it felt as if I were watching moving manga instead of an anime.
Sound - 9.2/10
The opening was a bit weak ( though the opening video was great and original, but that's a different story :P). The first ending was good, the second was also weak. But the background music was really great. A nice and simple combination of piano, violin and (at some parts) guitar amplified the mood well (and the main "melancholic" theme managed to stuck in my head, which doesn't happen so often). Also there were a few nice, slow songs scattered among many episodes, that helped to highlight some of the important scenes ( or at few occasions were used for some short recap). Seiyus did a good job, especially Hiroshi Kamiya (voice actor for Takemoto) during "inner thoughts narration", since his voice fits the mood perfectly.
Character - 8.6/10
Among the 5 main characters Takemoto grows the most. He starts as a gloomy kid without self-confidence or purpose in life. On the course of show, plagued by inferiority complex (which is understandable, being surrounded only by talented people) he struggles to find a goal for himself. He is this sort of "too nice guy", who prefers to stand on the side, rather than challenge Morita, and try to win Hagus affection. His depressing attitude is a bit annoying, but it's understandable (no job, no goal, one-sided love + love triangle with good friend... yeah, it can get depressing). Near the end of the show he finally matures (though most of the effects of his transformation can be seen in season 2)
Morita is Takemoto's exact opposite. Bright and energetic, talented genius who can easily create a great sculpture, play morin-khuur or create a CG for a movie. He is the biggest prankster, and source of most of the comedy in the show. He is also incredibly selfish, and doesn't know how to create a good relationship. Due to that he feels jealous of friendship between Takemoto and Hagu. While amusing, this character is very incomplete. Some hints about his motives are hidden throughout the show, but the real explanation for his actions is in season 2. Without it, he seems to be only a whimsical genius, and he is actually a bit more than that.
Last part of this love triangle, Hagu is the most artificial character in H&C. Having the looks of middle school kid is one thing, having that kind of mentality is another. For a first half of the show she doesn't speak much, and when she does it's usually silly. She matures during the second half of the show, mainly due to overhelming pressure and artistic troubles she encounter. Still, to me she seems most alive not when she acts, but when Takemoto watches her and narrates it. Even though his narration is biased, he still highlits some details that aren't exposed well enough just through her actions, or he adds some sort of commentary that makes Hagu more interesting (for example his thoughts about "how much the world differ, from the talented painter Hagu point of view")
Yamada is way more realistic character than Hagu. Strong on the outside she is plagued by unrequited love. At the beginning she plays the role of hurt princess, but later on she realises, that the weird situation she's in is not only Mayama fault. She is selfish, easily throws tantrums or cries (especially when she's alone) and her desperate tries to cling to Mayama makes her look a bit uncool. Yet at the same time those feats makes her look real and likeable. Also during her "innner thoughts narrations" we learn, that she also feels guilty for being unable to forget Mayama and find new love.
Mayama is the most interesting of the five, even though he grows the least. He is intelligent and cunning, doesn't mind forcing his way in, when it benefits him. He is almost a stalker (very thin line here). The main issue with him would be his unhealthy relation with Yamada. After he rejects her at the beginning of the show, he still feels he have the right to decide, if the "candidate" is appropriate boyfriend for Yamada or not. I can understand he does feel guilty, and Yamada uses it (hoping to make him fall in love with her) but still he acts kinda like a jerk. His main issues are about emotional stuff, since he is the only from the main group, that have a steady and interesting job through almost the whole show.
Rika, Nomiya and Hanamoto are suffering from the same problem Morita does - they aren't good enough without season 2. They do well as support characters, but nothing more than that, even though they try to be somewhere between support and main cast. Rika and Hanamoto have their past partially explained , but their main reason for acting is only uncovered in H&C II. That makes them feel kinda flat, especially compared to the main protagonists. The rest of the characters plays purely support role ( In most cases comedic relief )
Overall - 9/10
Honey and Clover isn't a show for every type of romance fan. If you don't like slow-paced slice of life you will be disapointed or bored by this anime. Hovewer, if you like charming shows based on mood, than this is a must see.