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.
StorySpring 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.AnimationOne 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.SoundMuch 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.CharactersThe 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.OverallDespite 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.
It’s all too common for anime-series to start off on a promising note only to end in adisappointing manner. Sometimes creators are forced to rush an ending due toexternal factors, other times they run out ideas or budget but most of the timewriters simply bite off more than they can chew resulting in cheesy melodramathrough all sorts of contrived situations. Hanasaku Iroha is the complete opposite. Its first 6 or so episodes try out drama,comedy, romance or slice-of –life in such a way that the shifts betweenepisodes feel jarring. The good news? It’s after the clumsy start that it really manages to find its feet andblossom into a touching, funny series that superbly celebrates themes such asworking hard and thinking before you leap. Best yet: it does so in a tender,non-patronizing manner. The story’s premise is that our protagonist, 16-year old city girl Ohana Matsumae, isforced to work at her grandmother’s countryside inn after her mother gotherself in a jam thanks to her current boyfriend. Ohana is, of course, takenaback by this sudden change. Especially since she was confessed to by achildhood friend just a little earlier. She nonetheless packs her bags andmoves to her grandmother, and it’s here that she enters a world of joy andmagic. Or so she thought. Upon her arrival at Kisuisso (the name of the inn) she’s all but immediately put to workby her grandmother, Sui Shijma - a stern old woman who makes it very clearwho’s in charge. The rest of Kisuisso’s staff is a colorful bunch that includesthe clumsy Enishi (Ohana’s uncle), the gossipy Tomoe and, most importantly, 2girls of around the same age as Ohana: the grumpy, single-minded Minko and thebashful yet kind Nako. A large part of the series revolves around seeing these characters interact while taking care of the inn’s day-to-day business. It’s in this regard that the series does a great job letting you knowabout every character’s quirks. They do this by showing how they react tocertain situations and people. An offhand comment made by a character can turnout more meaningful once you know what it is that makes said character tick.This subtle approach to characterization is one of the show’s biggeststrengths. Better yet, the characters actually feel pretty realistic. A character can be hypocritical,petty or overly prideful one moment but balance it out by being a hard workeror having a cheerful disposition that allows them to face a new day head on.Nobody is put on a pedestal. Another upside is that the series develops its adult characters in interesting way. Storieslike this usually relegate the adults to bit parts if they even bother to havethem around to begin with. But characters like Enishi, Sui and Ohana’s motherSatsuki actually turn out to be interesting characters who interact with theyounger characters in meaningful ways. The best part about the characterization, however, is the way characters develop. Ratherthan making them go through instantaneous changes after a big, life-changingevent – characters change gradually and only if they work their ass off to keepat it. This is what Hanasaku Iroha is all about, and it shows best through thecharacter arc of Ohana herself. She starts off as a well-meaning but indecisivegirl who leaps in 10 different directions but gradually grows into a moreassertive, mature person who learns to channel her energy in more constructivemanner rather than diving headfirst into things without a solid plan. The wholearc is written so smoothly that the development may not be immediatelynoticeable to some viewers. This, however, is the beauty of this show’swriting. It shows, rather than tells. Sadly, the storytelling and characterization also contain some flaws. The previouslymentioned bad start is one of its most significant ones. While the first 2episodes consistently feature a light dramatic tone the 3rd episodemakes an extremely jarring shift in tone to comedy. It features, of all things,a rape attempt and a suicide attempt being played for laughs. Thankfully theseries never quite does such disastrous things ever again but it’s definitely alow point. Another problem is that some of the characters aren’t fleshed out as well as they couldhave been. Minko in particular never manages to have more to her than being ahardworking if grumpy girl with a crush on an older guy. Yuina is anothercharacter whose potential feels unfulfilled seeing as she goes from interestingfoil to the hardworking Ohana to (mostly) comic relief. Though she’s one of theseries’ better characters when it comes to delivering humor, the absolute lowpoint being the perverted writer Taro Jiromaru whose antics in the 3rdepisode are too repulsive to be funny. The fact that his screentime is verylimited suggests that the creators may have been aware of this. Visually, the series is stellar. It features some gorgeous artwork and animation. Theamount of detail with which all the locations are rendered is truly impressive,so much that every location really has its own feel to it which is all the moreimpressive considering the realism of the setting. If you look real hard youcan find a few off-model drawings and budget-saving still frames but the factthat one has to look for them speaks volumes for how fantastic the visuals are. The audio is competent. I can’t personally judge the acting seeing as I don’t understandJapanese but some bloggers have praised the performances of some of the seiyuin particular lead actress Kanae Itou as Ohana and Tamie Kubota’s performanceas Sui Shijima. Other supporting characters are voiced by reliable veteranslike Junichi Suwabe and Mamiko Noto who are always pleasant on the ears. HarukaTomatsu’s Yuina wasn’t received so enthusiastically, seeing as more than a fewpeople found her voice to be very annoying. Ultimately,however, Hanasaku Iroha’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. When theseries finds its groove it manages to explore its themes through wonderfulcharacters who are endearing in all their imperfections. It’s not a fluffycomedy about cute girls doing cute things nor does it bombard the viewer withmelodrama. Instead, it’s a wondefully tender story about giving it your all yetrolling with the punches when you’ve got no other choice. Very highlyrecommended.
Secret Santa Review Where Hanasaku Iroha is not wholly predictable and formulaic, it is because it is abandoning common sense and its own internal logic. Where characters might have personalities, Hanasaku Iroha has largely substituted singular traits. Where other shows have characters, Hanasaku Iroha has props. Where other shows establish worlds, Hanasaku Iroha merely has disconnected scenes. But the animation’s not bad, so score one for P.A. Works, right? Attempting to follow developments in Hanasaku Iroha is a fool’s errand. Not simply because those developments are not interesting, but because they are too often nonsensical. When a character well established as calm, collected, experienced and savvy makes an obvious blunder without explanation a bit over halfway into the series, it does not come across as natural, but merely as something the plot necessitated. Characters do not act as would come natural to them, but merely as they must.Consider the following: The show has established that our lead, Ohana, is considered attractive. She is also the exciting new transfer student from glamorous Tokyo. It would seem likely she would be flirted with, as other girls in her class are. But this never happens in the series. That is because Ohana has already been romantically linked to a character, so they virtually cease any other consideration of romance for her. Two other characters are constantly flirted with because that is their role. Characters are only what they need to be, and anything extra that might make them feel human is discarded.Among those discards is an actual personality. Ohana is stuffed to the brim with nauseating levels of genki. She has one approach to every situation, and it always works. Simply applying boundless optimism and determination does not work in reality, but that is not a lesson to be learned in this cliched bildungsroman. There is Ohana’s mother, whose personality seems to take on multiple conflicting forms as necessary. Flighty, undependable mother? Sure. Suddenly reliable mother? Why not! Back to narcissistic jerk? All in a day’s work. It is almost impossible to determine how she will react in a given situation because she is so inconsistent. When plot drives characters and not the other way around, there is a serious problem. Throw in a token tsundere, a shy girl with a small, genki core, the role model and a few other forgettables, and you’ve got Hanasaku Iroha’s basic cast. Speaking of forgettable, there’s the case of Yuina and the Fukuya Inn. Positioned early on as a large competitor to the Kissuisou, the inn the majority of the show takes place in, it is quickly cast aside except for when it needs to be used momentarily for a plot point. Its only real purpose is to introduce Yuina, who contributes somewhere between diddly and squat to the show. She is simply there to be there. Additionally, Ohana’s romantic subplot introduced in the first episode suffers from such laconic development and such a milquetoast male interest, that the resolution to it lacks all impact because the viewer is sure to lack interest. Being so sporadic and inconsequential, any of these minor attempts at development simply feel like a distraction from the actual show. Disappointing is the complete lack of true adversity. Characters do not need to face countless setbacks, but when everything is sure to turn out fine, it cheapens any potential hardship. For a show about personal growth, characters should face mistakes to learn from. Instead they merely face trials they are already equipped to handle. Perhaps this is why the characters change so little throughout the series. Rushed and incongruous developments lead to a world that feels forced and unnatural and is populated by barely formed shells, all taking place on stages barely connected to each other thematically or logically. It is best to simply give up on it rather than chase after what just is not there. Drops of awkward sexual fanservice only weaken the show even further. Seiyuu range from decent on the end of the inn’s manager, to slightly irritating on the end of Minko. There is sometimes a paucity of actual acting from the voice actors, with lines that should have more impact delivered in a bored monotone. The background music offers nothing that would be listened to independent of the show, but works to compliment scenes appropriately. Animation in Hanasaku Iroha is good, not great, when they put the effort in. A noticeable number of shortcuts are taken to reduce actual animation. Characters are shot from the back of the head during some conversations, or engage in little movement, or backgrounds are left a bit simplistic. These often occur in tandem, making them all the more noticeable. Yet when the studio is not cutting corners, as is more often, pleasant background art accompanies competent animation. For a television anime, this is somewhat above the average. Little touches help a great deal. For example, a character has a bit of tissue stuffed up her nose fall out as a visual exclamation of shock. These are not strictly necessary, but are appreciated because they add more vibrancy to the show. The character designs are a little common, but are also sensible, appreciably distinct from each other and represent an overall solid job. Hanasaku Iroha is a show you can only make if you have no conception of how to develop plots, characters or worlds. Characters should have consistent personalities and worlds should be built by bringing in elements outside of just those which advance the plot. Characters that only serve to push the plot forward at points should not receive excessive focus. All characters should ideally be too complex to boil down to an adjective or two, but at the very least the main characters must be in a show like this. Numerous divorced plot strata should not be clumsily brought in to disrupt an already weak main plotline. A plot element introduced must receive only cursory focus, or must otherwise receive sufficient development. Ohana’s romantic subplot and her high school life are both made too relevant to receive so little focus. For all its faults, Hanasaku Iroha barely earns a 3/10 on the strength of its animation and sound alone. Notably below average, Hanasaku Iroha is not recommended even for fans of the genre. A botched tale, Hanasaku Iroha is two cour of frustrations. The only honest advice is to pass over this one. (Overall score is not meant to represent an arithmetic mean.)
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