Episodes 1-8

by Theron Martin,

Many are going to look at the basic premise of Hanayamata – a group of middle school girls come together to form a club dedicated to yosakoi (a form of coordinated dance which combines elements of traditional Japanese festival dances with more modern touches) – and dismiss it as just the latest entry in the moe-heavy “cute girls do cute things” vein. That cannot be held against such individuals, as the biggest strike against the series is that there is no easy way to encapsulate what the series does in exciting terms. Those who do dismiss it, though, are missing out on what has proven so far to be a hidden gem of the Summer 2014 season.

Middle schooler Naru delights in stories of fairies and yearns to be something more than just painfully average, but she is too shy to do anything about it. That starts to change when she encounters a girl whom she first mistakes for a fairy: blond-haired Hana, a pint-sized American Japanophile whom she first encounters dancing at night and later learns is an overseas transfer student. Hana's unbridled exuberance and eagerness to form a yosakoi club overwhelms Naru at first, but gradually it starts to work on Naru as she begins to accept that, just maybe, this is the opportunity to break out of her shell that she has long been seeking. But two is not enough for a club, so they also appeal to Tami, the Student Council Vice-President, a rich girl who takes inspiration from Naru's example and starts to realize herself that she is no longer content to be Daddy's Little Girl and would rather join them in trying something entirely different. A harder nut to crack is Yaya, a long-time friend of Naru, who only half-heartedly helps out at first because she has her own band to worry about and is initially somewhat bothered that Naru does not have to rely on her as much anymore. As the four come together and even finagle a temp teacher into being their advisor, they practice and prepare in earnest for their debut performance, at a shopping mall anniversary talent show, as a stepping stone to a larger and later yosakoi celebration. But given Naru's painful track record in public performance, can they pull it off without a hitch?

The summary above only really scratches the surface of what the first eight episodes actually accomplish, as this is no mere sequence of girls just being cute. This is a full-dive personality exploration, one which plumbs down to the core of who these girls are and what moves and motivates them. For each of them yosakoi comes to represent not just a hobby but an endeavor which she can use to fulfill deeper needs. It is more than just a way to have fun with friends, though it is definitely that; it is a way to express oneself amongst the safety of others doing the same, a means to step beyond past constraints, and to draw closer to those you respect, admire, and/or value. These eight episodes look at all of that (and the minutiae behind what yosakoi is and what all goes into it, too, of course) in great detail but without being too obvious about it, which gives the content a real sense of depth and sincerity. Because of that, the content can make significant emotional appeals on multiple occasions without ever seeming sappy.

The Yosakoi Club is not complete yet, though. Machi, the Student Council President and a close friend of Tami, is featured with the other girls in the opener, closer, and title of the series (which is composed of the first syllable of each of the girls' given names), but despite appearing in every episode she has yet to join, be approached about joining, or even express any interesting in yosakoi by the end of episode 8. Given some character dynamics hinted at in episode 8, though, her eventually joining will probably follow the same pattern as the others: a fairly involved exploration of her past and what need yosakoi might fill for her. And that's definitely not a Bad Thing.

Somewhat surprisingly, the production effort fell to Madhouse, which delivers an effort that varies between looking extraordinarily pretty (especially when the girls are dressed up for performance and various visual enhancements are being used) and decidedly ordinary (the ovular look of Hana's face and her snaggletooth make her practically a caricature). It emphasizes a softer color palette and complicated patterns for its costuming and does a better job than most series of conveying the personalities of its characters through their visual depictions. While the voice work amply conveys enthusiasm where appropriate, it never goes overboard, and the music also shows carefully measured restraint.

Hanayamata is hardly all serious, and does have a fair amount of playful and even outright humor content (albeit much more in some episodes than in others). It is virtually completely clean. It may not be anywhere near the most exciting titles of the season to watch, but its charm is undeniable if given a chance.

Rating: A-

Hanayamata is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

A virtual high school teacher by day, Theron (Key in forums) has been an anime fan since the early '90s and a reviewer for ANN since January 2005.

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