Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 30th 2012
anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day
Sub.Blu-Ray + DVD - Complete Series Premium Edition
Jinta Yadomi, Jintan to his friends, is pretty sure that he's crazy. It wouldn't be strange; after all, he's been a shut-in for the better part of the school term. But it isn't his crippling social phobias that have him convinced he's bonkers. It's Menma. Menma is a girl he loved when he was still a child. She died, shattering his young life. And yet here she is, all grown up and hanging out at his place. No one else can see or hear or touch her, so yeah, Jintan's pretty sure he's nuts. He figures she's a manifestation of his stress. But she won't go away. She claims that she's waiting for her wish to be fulfilled—a wish even she can't remember. She thinks maybe it involves getting the old gang back together, the six friends who once called themselves the Super Peace Busters. However, that day long ago shattered the others' lives too, setting them all drifting irrevocably apart. And they can't be brought back together without reopening some old and very deep wounds.
Tatsuyuki Nagai's tale of growing up and grieving is a heartbreaker, make no mistake. Even at its lightest it aches with the pain of lost opportunities and relationships buried forever in the flow of time. When it ends, it's with a farewell of such sweet, fulfilling sadness that stones would weep to watch it. As a test of one's manly emotional reserve it is pretty much unequaled. But it's also winning and often darkly funny, incisive and frequently subtle. As an ensemble drama it's a match for all but the finest character studies, and as a study of grief and healing it is very nearly the equal of Mitsuru Adachi's baseball masterpieces. It can be too forceful at times, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in raw emotional impact.
Anohana starts cute, with Jintan getting into the kinds of scrapes with his adorable ghost houseguest that guys in anime shows normally get into with their adorable ghost houseguests. But even in the first episode it's clear that that's not the path the show plans to take. Menma's admission that she is indeed dead is enough to cleave your heart right in two, and visits with Jintan's onetime friends reveal a series that is at least as interested in drifting friendships as it is with Jintan and Menma's supernatural romance. The poignancy of the episodes that immediately follow has much to do with the universal experience of growing up and growing apart: As close as the Super Peace Busters were and as much as Menma wants them back together, the kids who once hunted beetles together are as irretrievably lost as Menma herself. Anaru the shy geek is now a flashy kogal. Jintan the leader is a socially crippled shut-in. Poppo the goofy follower is a world-tripping free spirit. Yukiatsu the second-in-command is an elitist honor student. Tsuruko the keen shadow is a cynical ice queen. Only Menma stayed the same, frozen in time by death.
Theirs isn't the gentle drifting apart of most friendships though. Forever at the center of their story, and the series, is the death that pushed them apart. The series is an oft-devastating portrait of the ripples that a tragedy can send through the lives of those near it, growing with time until they've distorted those lives beyond all recognition. In Anohana grief, if lived wrong, is a potent poison. When faced with his loss, Jintan turns inwards until he's almost entirely cut off from the world. Anaru runs away from it by trying to become a different person. Poppo runs away literally: to faraway places and faraway adventures. The cocktail of grief, guilt and jealousy that Yukiatsu keeps bottled up inside twists him so deeply that it nearly drives him insane. His grief is so potent that it poisons Tsuruko, souring her personality as she watches the boy she loves forever pine over a dead girl. Watching Menma's friends live on transforms Menma's mother's grief into pure, cold hatred. But if lived right, the show says, grief can also cure. When the friends finally face their grief head on, without the interference of guilt or resentment or displacement, they aren't crushed; they're cleansed, freed to move on with their lives. At the very end grief for them is a heart-busting mixture of joy and sadness, liberation and letting go.
Which makes for one of the most powerful final episodes in recent memory. Which, ironically, is probably the series' most serious problem. Nagai lunges so ferociously for the emotional jugular in that last episode that it sits rather uncomfortably with the gentler emotional attack of the ten preceding it. Where previous episodes let emotions float naturally to the surface, the final episode is one big vicious punch to the heart. Throwing the punch requires Nagai to cram a series' worth of brutal emotional revelations into one pivotal early scene, and following it through requires him to abandon all subtlety in the tear-soaked finale. The former is probably the more damaging, as it means that a lot of what the characters say and do, their motivations and even their personalities, doesn't make complete sense until the last episode. It also crowds the final episode, giving it a potentially rushed feel. If it doesn't sweep you up the finale can very easily come across as forced. Luckily that's highly unlikely. It would take a heart of something much harder than stone not to be moved by the weight Nagai puts into that last punch.
Nagai is a master of character animation. Aside from the general quality of his visuals—which are always top-notch, from backgrounds to characters to fluidly composed and animated actions—his only real trademark is his characters, whose angular jaws and expressive mouths are as distinctive as a fingerprint. His grasp of the emotional content of movement is the best in the business, and his ability to use it effectively perhaps even better. His characters speak as much with their bodies as their faces and as much with their faces as their voices. Despite her flashy clothes and unfriendly demeanor, Anaru's inner kindness and innocence is clear for all to see in the way she reacts to others. Yukiatsu's words cannot hide the jealousy and hate that bleed from his eyes. Tsuruko's brittle personality is clear from the frosty rigidness of her posture alone. Every change the characters go through—and they go through many, both heartening and heart-breaking—registers with poignant clarity on their faces and in their body language. Nagai doesn't need words or even the score to move us; his characters, both as they are written and drawn, are more than enough. Which is more or less exactly how the show works. The series gets along with no music at all most of the time, breaking in with a solo piano when extra force is needed and bleeding the sweet ending theme into the action when it really needs to push.
NISA's release is the standard for them: big box, beautiful art, gorgeous hardcover booklet (mostly art, with some character profiles and an amusing gallery of Jintan's shirts), both a DVD and a Blu-Ray version (essential for enjoying Nagai's animation), and pretty much zippo for on-disc extras. No dub either.
Discussing the melancholy and tragedy and grief in Anohana can be a bit misleading. It certainly gets across the series' emotional impact, but it also glosses over a lot of the series' other charms. Its thriving community of romantic subplots for instance. The interplay of Jintan's feelings for Menma with Anaru's for him, Yukiatsu's for Menma and Anaru, and Tsuruko's for Yukiatsu is crucial in how events play out and yields almost as many sad, uplifting, and generally touching moments as their quest to fulfill Menma's last wish does. The series' sense of humor is another. Some of its most unpleasant turns also have a certain black humor to them, especially Yukiatsu's unraveling during a hard-love trap set by a ruthless Tsuruko. Perhaps most important of all, though, there's the simple pleasure of watching a show that treats us like adults. That trusts us to appreciate its depth of character and thought as well as feeling. That doesn't expect us to disconnect our brains just because it's engaging our hearts.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ An examination of love, tragedy and grief that is smart, powerful, occasionally profound, and filled with superbly written characters undergoing sensitively observed changes.
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