There are many things in life that aren't easy. Sadly, a lot of these things are also guaranteed in life. One of them is losing loved ones; another is drifting apart from people you were once close to. Dealing with these loses in no easy task, and different people will respond to it in different ways. Some react with regret, some with acceptance, and some with guilt. Some prefer just to keep their feelings inside and pretend that there was nothing there to begin with.
The story of Anohana revolves around a high school dropout and shut in by the name of Jinta Yadomi. When Jinta was younger, he had been the leader of a group of friends called the "super peace busters". Sadly, one day one of their friends, Menma, died. After the incident, the friends became more and more distant, and before long, it was like they had never been friends to begin with. Then, one summer years later, their old friend appears to Jinta. She tells him that she has a wish that she needs help with, but she doesn't know what it is. All she knows is that the friends have to be together in order for to be fulfilled. Then, another question arises; is this Menma the ghost of their old friend, or just an illusion made up by Jinta's now decaying mind?
Reading that summary, obviously the first thing that comes to mind doesn't have anything to do with being happy. This series obviously isn't a happy series by any stretch of the imagination. It is, after all, about a group of childhood friends recovering from emotional scars. It's really sad, and may even seem cruel. It can also be a bit contrived from time to time in order to get its point across and deliver its message, but for the most part it's pretty well grounded in reality. It's presented well, overall, though, and one would have to be hard-pressed not to find something they liked in this series. It's a very well-paced and surprisingly well written story with themes that prove true in each of our individual lives
The art and animation in Anohana is very good. It doesn't rely on CG effects at all, the movements of the characters are smooth. They animators tried very hard to make the movements of the characters' childhood selves often seen in flashbacks a lot different than the more laid-back teenagers they have become roughly ten years later. They have each changed a lot in appearance over the years, but comparing them to their childhood selves, it is believable that they grew up to look they way they do. It has a few hiccups every now and then, but it's never sub-par.
Since this is very much a character driven show, it relies heavily on interactions between these characters, and thus, dialogue. For the most part, the dialogue is very good, and natural. That is, when the characters are teenagers. When they are children, there are some awkward lines, but all can be forgiven when you have a cast of such wonderful seiyuu. For the most part, the acting is superb. The one problem is that all of the child roles are played by adults. The series doesn't suffer too much from it, and they appear to be trying their best, and they usually sound just fine. In addition, this isn't at all uncommon, but the series would have been improved slightly if they had put in the extra effort to have actual child voice actors.
The music in Anohana features a lot of slow piano and guitar pieces to fit the overall bittersweet tone of the show. It fits the series perfectly, and is always fitting for the scene it's in. The opening shows each character's current and childhood self, hinting at each of the respective character's problems. It's a very memorable and sweet opening. The ending is slightly less memorable, but also very good.
As in all slice and life, the plot doesn't really matter as much as the characters do, and luckily Anohana has a lot of lively and complex characters to help it shine through. Now, to be clear, these characters are all deeply troubled people, and can be a depressing to watch, but they are also very real. Every character was deeply affected by the death of their friend, and each reacted in their own way, and each had to fight hard to overcome their emotional scars throughout the series. It isn't a happy subject, but the series does this very well.
Yukiatsu, for example, was perhaps the most effected by the loss, but instead of seeking help or comfort, decided to take the weight of the event on his shoulders and deal with it himself, which only ended in disaster. The other characters all reacted in their own way, most of them with some degree of guilt over the event. All of the characters are very sympathetic, but Menma's mother is most of all.
It isn't often, but a couple of the character's problems can come off as a bit forced, and it can be very distracting. Some just seem to be added in to make the viewer cry some more. It's irritating, and can take away from the overall experience.
The focus of the whole series, though, is Menma; the girl who died all those years ago. Menma, although she has aged physically as a ghost alongside her friends, has not aged mentally. She still thinks like a child. She's naïve, selfless, and loves her friends and family deeply, despite how much each of them has changed over time. This makes her arguably the least interesting character in the series, because unlike everyone else, she isn't suffering through any emotional trauma, or at least not as much as all of the other characters.
Overall, Anohana is a lovingly-made and bittersweet tale about how friends drift apart, and how the loss of a loved one effects people. Despite some slightly supernatural themes, it always remains grounded in reality. The characters are realistic and sympathetic, even if some of their problems can be a little forced. It can be very melodramatic, but it doesn't hinder the series too much. If anything, this proves that an anime can be great as a simple stand alone anime not based on a manga or light novel.