Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Episodes 1-4 streaming
Tsuchida has an unusual job for a guy: he's a kindergarten teacher. Fresh out of college and still a bit of a kid at heart, Tsuchida hopes to make a good impression at his new place of employment, the Hanamaru Kindergarten. However, plenty of challenges await him in his new class—especially when a rowdy little girl named Anzu decides that she's in love with "Tsucchi" after a fateful first encounter. And while Tsuchida is fending off Anzu's delusions of romance, he's also trying to strike up a friendship with the attractive young teacher Yamamoto, who just doesn't seem to notice when other men take a fancy to her. Oh, and between all this he's got to teach the rest of the kids in his class. But who's got time for that?
Somewhere along the way, the anime industry's sense of cute went horribly awry.
Gone are the days of adorable animal mascots and endearing side characters. Cute has been consumed by a virus, a virus consisting of teen and preteen girls who will graft themselves onto any genre that might possibly sell one more special edition DVD, one more figurine, one more body pillow. Little girls with guns. Little girls with magical-spiritual powers. Little girls as military aircraft. Little girls who can alter reality (but without realizing it). A funeral for the Death of Cute was held in Spring 2009, with Yui Hirasawa, Mio Akiyama, Tsumugi Kotobuki and Ritsu Tainaka presiding.
But hope springs eternal, and for those who have survived, a new dawn awaits.
Hanamaru Kindergarten is bringing cute back.
Perhaps the reason Hanamaru Kindergarten does so well is because of what it does not do. It does not appear to be yet another cynical exercise in selling you figurines of every single student in Tsuchida's class—the cast of characters eschews otaku-oriented stereotypes and is built on a simpler, more traditional core: the Brat, the Brain, and the Bashful One, plus our downtrodden yet likable protagonist at the center. It is also not trying to push some kind of controversial envelope by pairing up a toddler with a twentysomething—if anything, Anzu's affection toward Tsuchida is merely her way of expressing an innocent childhood crush, with some misguided pretensions of adulthood. No more, no less. Sorry to disappoint all the alarmist prudes, but there is no raunchy Kodomo no Jikan action going on here—just sweet, silly observational humor.
And speaking of the other thing that this show doesn't do—it doesn't hurl out nonsensical memes at light speed, or force the characters to behave as irritatingly as possible in hopes of a cheap laugh. The show's appeal comes mainly from its perceptive "Kids Say the Darnedest Things" approach, invoking the nostalgia of our own childhood misconceptions and make-believe, or perhaps the antics of siblings, cousins, and friends when they were that age. Rarely has a kids' eye view of the world been so accurate: the thrill of going down a slide, the competition to be the smartest in class, the desire to act like a grown-up (Anzu's pretend "date" with Tsuchida in Episode 4 is one of the series' gems so far), even the roughhousing among little boys (yes, Tsuchida has male students as well, instantly making this series more realistic than 90% of all school-based anime). Suffice to say, if there were ever to be an anime of Yotsuba&!, it would probably be a lot like this—and in fact the kindergarten material sparkles with such joy that the grown-up stuff, like Tsuchida's advances toward Yamamoto, fall a little flat by comparison.
Naturally, this rose-tinted view of childhood would not be complete without the requisite visual polish. Much has been made of the incongruous "dream team" that was assembled to work on the series—sending in Fullmetal Alchemist's Seiji Mizushima and the illustrious Studio Gainax is kind of like asking the Vienna Philharmonic to perform the works of the Backstreet Boys, but it is exactly that kind of dream team that is able to elevate such mudane subject matter to the level of art. The pastel hues and near-obsessive use of soft filters combine to form a unique aesthetic, something that's eye-catching enough for kids yet nuanced enough for adults—and with none of the neon-colored, mutant-faced excesses that often result from cuteness being pushed too far. Indeed, the simple character designs flout the standard anime template: the kids are essentially potatoes with arms and legs, while Tsuchida and the staff seem to be pulled from a more sophisticated slice-of-life world. As one might expect in a series like this, there aren't too many opportunities for flashy animation technique, but keep an eye out for the ending sequences, which change with each episode and give the animators a chance to show off their skills for 90 seconds each week.
The ever-changing credit sequences also result in different ending songs each time, but all this does is highlight the show's one weakness: an insipid soundtrack. The opening theme and various endings are mostly just variations on a singsong melody layered over a sugar-pop arrangement, with none particularly more tuneful than any of the others. Similarly, the background music consists of forgettable tracks that accentuate each scene—tinkly, lighthearted motifs, chords as light as air, and a smattering of humorous synth effects—but otherwise end up being a pretty shallow listening experience. Good thing the whole point is to watch the series, anyway.
Although it's been pointed out that Hanamaru Kindergarten is not trying to sell you figurines, or body pillows, or collectible card games, it would not be surprising if the show's charming qualities led to an outpouring of merchandise anyway. This is a cute series for those who despair of what cute has become, an honest treatise on childhood that refuses to submit to today's prevailing trends. Forget about fetishistic stereotypes, inscrutable nonsense gags, and inappropriate student-teacher relations. Hanamaru Kindergarten returns to the roots of slice-of-life humor, places it in an adorable classroom environment, and proves to the world that Cute Is Not Dead. The virus of the last several years may have warped anime's cute aesthetic beyond recognition, but somehow, deep down, there is still a living, breathing soul. A Hanamaru soul.
Overall : B
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Encapsulates the joy of childhood with its honest sense of humor, familiar and likable characters, and a distinctive visual style.
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