Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 17th 2011
streaming episodes 14-26
As Ohana continues to live and work at Kissuiso, she gradually comes to fully appreciate that, for some, being an inn worker can be as much a way of life as a job, and that may be true for her as well. When the inn hosting their school field trip experiences a sudden staffing crisis, the Kisuisso girls cannot help but come to their aid. Their professional instincts also take over – not always beneficially so – when Ohana and Minko's class opt to do a café for their school's Cultural Festival. A director wanting to use Kissuiso for a movie set adds in a new wrinkle, as does an upcoming wedding for one of the staff's own. As the Bonbori Festival approaches, an even bigger crisis looms: the end for Kisuisso may be drawing near, which forces everyone involved to look to their futures and decide what they want most.
Slice-of-life dramas are one of the hardest types of anime series to do right. With none of the typical built-in anime hooks, they must find a way to be entertaining while also still maintaining a plausible depiction of real life. Doing so requires a strong cast, precision writing, genuine sentiment, and a realistic level of conflict. The second half of Hana-Saku Iroha not only delivers on all of those points but also enhances them with a light touch of humor, some exceptional technical merits, and a wonderful final episode, thus elevating the series into the ranks of the year's elite titles.
The excellence in execution shows on all levels. Studio P.A. Works made a name for itself with top-caliber work in 2009's CANAAN and 2010's Angel Beats! and does an equally fine job here. Their character designs, whether it be the fresh-faced Ohana, the faultlessly proper and elegant Madame Manager, or the handsome Tohru, all have looks that are distinctive and appealing without being needlessly odd and all move fluidly and (when necessary) rapidly about highly-detailed and sometimes outright beautiful settings. (The opener for this half of the series may, in fact, be one of the most ambitiously-animated of all anime openers.) A few episodes do work in brief touches of fan service, the bulk of which are centered on Minko, but depending on one's view those are either highlights or minor distractions rather than focal points. Few recent series do as good a job at integrating together CG and regular animation or look better doing so.
But the writing is where the series really shines. It takes mundane events, ruminations, and stressors and makes them into a joy to watch, in large part by centering them on a well-defined and interesting cast. Ohana is a big piece of that. Though she might fairly be labeled as the “earnest girl,” her mix of personal reflection, developing maturity, wholehearted devotion, and childlike fun more effectively portray her as a bud on the verge of blooming than most other characters of her type, and that gives her an undeniable appeal. (And let's not forget, this is a girl who developed her own slang term and gets everyone else to use it by the end.) Even so, the story proves repeatedly through the second half that it can withstand Ohana shifting partly or totally into the background for entire episodes while the story focuses on other characters, and that can happen because of the strength of the supporting cast. Nako gets a nice episode focusing on her efforts to show her more assertive side outside of home, while other episodes focus on Enishi's relationship with his sister, mother, and Takako. Takako also takes a more directly active role at Kissuiso and thus appears more often, but anyone grimacing at the thought of the series' most annoying character getting more screen time will be pleasantly surprised at how much her character develops over these episodes and how respectable she becomes in the end. Ohana's mother Satsuki also redeems herself completely during this stretch and becomes a far more than just a one-note character, while Sui (aka Madame Manager) also gets some wonderfully contemplative scenes as she considers the future of Kisuisso and reminisces about the past. Even Yuina gets some development attention, albeit to a lesser extent. Tohru and Minko, contrarily, remain more constant, although Minko does make a good showing in the school festival episodes and finally gets to truly vent her frustrations over how Tohru seems to be paying more attention to Ohana.
The series is not all drama, either, as this half certainly has its share of fun. The antics of Ohana and the other girls in the backgrounds when not featured are often good for laughs, various other characters get their comedy moments (especially, surprisingly, head cook Renji), and the girls' stunned reactions to Sui's magnificently efficient bathing regimen is the series' comedy high point. If you ever wanted to know how to make omelet rice, episode 20 will show you in thoroughly animated step-by-step detail, and seeing the girls in the school café wear fancy yukatas while waitressing is nearly as much of a treat as the beautiful execution of the Bonbori Festival in the final episode. The featured wedding is also something special. Romantic developments otherwise get comparatively short shrift, though a couple of episodes do revisit the latent Ohana/Ko pairing and at least a bit of the Minko-Tohru-Ohana quasi-love triangle gets sorted out.
The musical score by veteran Shiroh Hamaguchi (One Piece, Ah! My Goddess, Kiddy Grade) is the least impressive aspect of the series, but only relatively so and mainly because it simply is not present for large stretches of the series. When it is heard, it typically takes a light touch which gentles enhances scenes rather than driving them. The series also makes better use of sound effects than most. New opener “Omokage Warp,” sung by the same artist, has a similar sound and visual feel to the original opener, while new regular closer “Hanasaku> Iroha” is a gently lovely number with some nice visuals featuring the series' teen girls. Amongst Japanese dub performances, the stand-out effort is the little-used Tamie Kubota's very deliberate and proper delivery as Sui.
Hana-Saku Iroha is only available streaming on Crunchyroll, and no other American license has been announced as of the time of this writing. Despite the quality of the series, it seems like an unlikely candidate to be licensed and released, as it does not have manga or game tie-ins, is very specifically Japanese in many respects, and does not contain any of the kinds of story elements which are normally considered salable in the American DVD/Blu-Ray market. Fans may just have to content themselves with the facts that the series provides a full, well-rounded story and ends as strongly as a series possibly could.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Quality artistry, cast development, many beautiful scenes, superb ending.
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