by Paul Jensen,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Leave it to Hinamatsuri to spend half of its finale delivering the punchline to a joke it started telling twelve weeks ago. This episode gets off to a normal enough start, with Hina and her classmates trying to survive after getting lost in the mountains. Hina's powers are their best bet for escape, but when she ends up too tired and hungry to work her magic, Hitomi and the boys must rely on their acting skills to conjure up some imaginary ikura. Once rescue arrives and Hina is reunited with Nitta, the credits start to roll, and it seems like the story is already over with half of the episode's running time still to go. As it turns out, that extra time is devoted to telling us what happened to Mao after she escaped the deserted island and explaining just what in the world was going on in the first scene of episode one. Even in its final minutes, this is a fantastically weird series.
The “lost in the wilderness” sequence delivers about what you'd expect after last week's revelation that Hina had disappeared on a school ski trip. Her telekinetic powers make survival seem easy enough on paper, but things are never that simple when Hina's involved. The main jokes practically write themselves in the early going: Hitomi and the guys think Hina's hallucinating when she announces that she has special powers, and then they think they're hallucinating when she provides a demonstration. This is all reasonably amusing, but the highlight of this episode's first half comes once Hina decides that she's too hungry to do anything useful. The imaginary restaurant routine makes good use of the fact that all of the characters are in on the joke: Hina knows that the other characters are lying to her, they know that she knows, and yet everyone carries on with the performance because it's their best chance for survival. It's a wonderfully presented scene, with all of the characters playing the straight man to one another's delusional actions. Top it off with an appropriately ridiculous SOS signal and you've got a fine example Hinamatsuri's core comedic formula: keep cranking up the absurdity until the scene ends of its own accord.
That brings us up to Hina's reunion with Nitta, which is arguably the only weak link in this finale. This is the show's chance to deliver one last emotional high point, but the scene doesn't really do enough to tug at the viewer's heartstrings. The issue here appears to be one of time; with everything else that needs to be done, Hinamatsuri can't spare the few minutes it would have needed in order to show Nitta worrying about Hina or Hina longing for home while lost in the mountains. Since we don't get to see that moment of emotional crisis for any of the characters, this reunion in the hospital ends up functioning more as a piece of narrative housekeeping than as a tearful acknowledgement of the bond between the protagonists. If anything, this scene works best as a joke, albeit one that requires some audience participation. With the story clearly ending too early in the episode, the viewer is briefly left to wonder what in the world is going to happen with the remaining screen time. We're essentially playing a baffled Nitta to the show's inscrutable Hina, if only for a moment. Whether or not that actually works as entertainment will depend on your tolerance for stories that kick down the fourth wall, but I'll certainly give it credit for subverting my expectations.
In exchange for the abbreviated finale, we get a long-delayed comedic payoff. Remember the out-of-context martial arts fight scene at the beginning of the first episode, with an older version of Mao fighting a group of monks three years after the events of the main story? Well, in the last few minutes of the season, that scene is finally put into context. The main pieces were all put in place in previous episodes: Mao's departure from the deserted island gave us a general sense of where she was headed but no indication of what would happen once she got there, and punk rocker Atsushi casually dropped the revelation that he was traveling the world in the midst of Hitomi's flurry of part-time jobs a couple weeks ago. Sure, Hinamatsuri could have gotten away with pulling this story out of thin air, but I love the way in which those little hints make the whole thing feel deliberately planned. Once you get past the initial shock of realizing that, yes, this is how the season is going to end, there's also some strong comedy to be found beyond the core joke. Atsushi is amusingly useless throughout the escape sequence, Mao's need to disguise her powers through fake physical attacks is a clever premise, and the monks strike a fine balance between taking the situation seriously and embracing the humorous insanity of it all. For an ending whose very existence is essentially a joke, it works remarkably well.
This is certainly an entertaining way to wrap things up, and it defies narrative logic and audience expectations in all the ways I'd expect from Hinamatsuri. Even so, I'm left wondering if it might have been better if the first half had been given more time to play out. As much as I love the bait-and-switch credit roll halfway through, that timing forces the series to heavily abbreviate the end of Hina and Nitta's story. This robs the finale of any major emotional impact, which is a bit disappointing considering how good Hinamatsuri's dramatic elements have been throughout the season. I'm not sure where the series could have found the extra time needed to deliver that final emotional punch (short of cutting out the flash-forward entirely), but as it stands this feels like one of the few times Hinamatsuri has had to make a hard choice between drama and comedy. Then again, this show has always specialized in surprising its audience by not giving them what they think they want, so perhaps this final defiance of my expectations is exactly the ending it needed.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Hinamatsuri has been one of the best shows of the season. It came out swinging with a striking blend of absurd comedy and compelling character drama, and those two contrasting appeals only grew stronger over time. It's all well and good for a series to promise to make its audience laugh and cry, but few titles ever manage to carry out that promise to the same extent as Hinamatsuri. It went all-in on its frequently insane comedic scenarios, even if that meant waiting a full season for a joke to land. At the same time, its more heartfelt storylines lent the show enough thematic and emotional depth to make it more than just a zany gag comedy. This is a rare case of a genre hybrid truly delivering the best of two worlds, and it did so in a creative and exuberant way. Hinamatsuri is easily the best comedy I've seen so far this year, and it might just be my new go-to recommendation for anyone seeking “something different.”
Hinamatsuri is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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