Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 23rd 2011
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
Life with her irresponsible mother is comfortable enough for teenaged Ohana. Sure she has to do all the cooking and cleaning and her allowance is crap, but she has her friends and her routines and a general sense of security. Which turns out to be mistaken. Drama-loving Ohana is about to get a bellyful of the real thing. First her mother's equally irresponsible beau gets in deep with the wrong kind of lenders, necessitating a quick escape, and then Ohana is informed that instead of going on the run (dramatic!) she'll be remanded to the custody of the grandmother she's never met. Ohana is excited at first, but her granny quickly disowns her—the blood of her wayward daughter is no blood of hers—and puts her to work at her traditional inn. Where fellow workers alternately abuse (temperamental cook's assistant Minko), patronize (assistant cook Tohru), or ignore her (timid fellow waitress Nako; basically everyone else). Not what Ohana had in mind. She's a strong girl, though, and circumstances can only keep her down for so long.
Hanasaku Iroha is a straight-up youth drama: no super powers, no supernatural forces, no ninjas, no fights with the fate of the world at stake—just a girl trying to make her way in a new and hostile environment armed only with her determination to change for the better.
That may sound bright, but to begin with it's actually pretty grim going; mainly because the cast is seemingly composed of total jerks. The inn's staff is uniformly disagreeable: Minko is a witch, Tohru is a dick, Nako is a doormat, and Ohana's grandmother is a special kind of monster, an unyielding, intolerant old bat with the kindness and warmth of a crowbar to the head. Their treatment of Ohana is callous and unfair (she's beaten for inconveniencing a guest) and worse yet, thoroughly unrealistic. Even bad people would treat Ohana better than the staff does, if only because they want to keep up appearances. At times like that, normally you'd look to the main character for someone to identify with, but no: Ohana is insensitive to point of social debilitation (her inability to read others is a super power unto itself) and spends far too much time whining and wallowing in self-pity to be sympathetic. And without anyone to empathize with, the inn-based unpleasantness is just that: unpleasant.
Episode two proceeds in a similar vein, but just as it seems that the series' attraction will be confined to its attractive presentation, things change. The inn staff begins revealing both their better sides and the reasons for their less happy quirks, but that isn't it. There was never really any doubt that Ohana would begin ferreting out the truth about the various staff members and perhaps even influence them—that's just par for a youth drama of this stripe. No, it's Ohana who gives the series a boot in the right direction. Rather than continuing to play the victim, she reaches down inside and lays her hands on a surprising store of inner strength. She takes the fight to Minko and Nako, taking them to task while vowing to do her darnedest to acknowledge and correct her own shortcomings as well. She begins to look on her new life not as a burden but as an opportunity to improve herself.
It sounds corny as heck when put like that, but it really works. The series almost immediately takes on a brighter, more optimistic feel, and Ohana finally becomes that focus of sympathy that we were flailing about for just the previous episode. Ohana's earnest desire to grow, to "shine" as she puts it later, quickly establishes itself as the emotional heart of the series, adding punch to the fluffy stories and a sense of purpose to the darker ones. That it transforms her into one of the sunniest, strongest young heroines out there is pure gravy.
The episodes that follow aren't necessarily any more realistic than the first. There's a wannabe tortured author who kidnaps Ohana and practices S&M rope-knotting on her before fleeing in despair and trying to commit suicide because...well, because that's what tortured artists are supposed to do, right? A later episode features a group of survival gamers who in any sane world would have long ago wound up in the slammer or the asylum. Along the way there're some predictable romantic complications and a marketing consultant who drives an expensive sports car despite sucking so bad at her job that there's no way she could afford one.
They're all fairly serious breaches for a show that generally aims to be a calmer, more realistic alternative to your average explosions-and-boobs teen anime. They're funny breaches, though—something that would have been unthinkable based only on the first episode—usually because of the cheerful sangfroid with which Ohana deals with them. Even by episode three she's so many miles beyond her poor-me former self that she actually helps the author when he messes up his bondage knots, and when the management consultant wants her and Nako to cosplay (the better to lure in the male clientele) she doesn't just take it in stride, she embraces it with an enthusiasm that worries her co-workers. There's something both uplifting and a little surreal about Ohana's newfound and unnaturally even keel, which makes her an endlessly interesting lead.
There are times, however, particularly when things get really odd, that a little of the opening episodes' darkness would be welcome. Even so, the new tone a vast improvement, and the series never completely abandons its serious undertones—particularly where Minko is concerned. Plus there are plenty of unaddressed issues waiting in the wings to blacken the series' mood, primary among them Ohana's relationships with her sociopathically irresponsible mother and emotionally closed grandmother.
And barring all that, the series' look still lends it enough visual realism that it never feels entirely cartoony—even when it most definitely is. Masahiro Ando and the crew at P.A. Works paint Ohana's story with a palette the stays strictly within real-world boundaries and surround her with backgrounds that bring real life, particularly to her grandmother's austere yet lived-in inn, but also to her new school, the glittering metropolis of Tokyo, busses, trains, and the beautiful country town the inn occupies. Mel Kishida and Kanami Sekiguchi's character designs avoid funky hair and funky colors, remaining suitably attractive while being subdued enough to be called realistic. Ohana naturally hogs the series' cuteness, hoarding enough to destroy a platoon of moe clones.
P.A. Works' animation is nice-looking, always there to do what it's supposed to and never bad enough to get in the way, but excellent only in short showy bursts. Shiroh Hamaguchi's score is of similar quality, though it is far more seldom used. Indeed, just plain seldom used. It is best when simple and sensitive. The opening and ending themes are appropriately pretty numbers that grow considerably on you.
There will undoubtedly be some who aren't interested in what is essentially a throwback to an extinct age of wholesome entertainment. Their loss. Hanasaku Iroha is a sweet and surprisingly fun throwback, an alternately funny and touching tale of growing up that's just a few lapses in realism and a couple of missing punches to the heart away from the best of its type. And it still has plenty of time to catch up with them.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Sweet without being saccharine, uplifting without being corny—as solid a coming-of-age-tale as you could want; looks good; great lead.
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