2020 Anime In Review—Surprise Favorite: Hanasaku Iroha

by Rakka   Tags: anime lists

COVID19 unexpectedly gave me a lot of time this year to watch anime, read novels, and in general catch up on my media consumption. For better or for worse, this also means I watched a ton of amazing shows this year, of which I’ll highlight a few in a series of posts.

Note: general spoilers for Hanasaku Iroha and Honey and Clover.

2020 was an extremely busy year in anime. I managed to catch up on a lot of my backlog, watching extremely popular and classic shows like Clannad and No Game No Life, as well as several long-awaited shows, including the conclusion of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU and an adaptation of Tonikaku Cawaii, one of my favorite manga. Yet instead of any of these obvious picks, my favorite series of the year ended up being a 2010s show that I had heard nearly nothing about before: Hanasaku Iroha.

For me, Hanasaku Iroha captures that same unnameable magic as Honey and Clover. Unlike my love for Makoto Shinkai, this isn’t about the visuals or production quality of the show at all. On a purely technical level, both shows execute well—they don’t necessarily have mind-blowing art, but they do look consistently nice and it’s hard to spot obvious corner-cutting. They develop all of their cast well and give them reasonable screentime, and they have reasonable soundtracks, particularly the opening/ending themes and insert songs. All of this is true of any “solid” show. The characters will grow and develop, they’ll build up to fulfilling the potential that was set up for them early on, and we’ll get a satisfactory ending. Maybe we’ll wonder what happens to them next and wish we could stay with them a little longer, but the author’s taken care to find a natural stopping point.

Where Hanasaku Iroha and Honey and Clover set themselves apart is the “open-endedness” of their character development. With Ohana from the former and Takemoto from the latter, the end of the show isn’t the end of either of their journeys—instead, it’s just the start of what each decides to do with their lives. Ohana and Takemoto will certainly look back fondly on their period of their lives depicted—not as their golden years, but rather where they struggled and searched and finally found her calling in life. For Ohana, that means one day taking over her grandmother’s inn, having learned a little bit about what her family has gone through over the years. And for Takemoto, that means restoring shrines—and giving up on Hagimura so she can finally be free to commit fully to her own dream.

Another way these shows stand out for their character development is that they don’t revolve entirely around a main character. Of course, Ohana and Takemoto are the primary protagonists, and get the most screen time by far, but the other characters develop as well. We see Minko pursue her own crush, we see Nako taking care of her family, we see Yuina struggling with being her family’s heir. Ohana has a role to play in all of their lives, but they’re their own people, too, and it makes sense for everyone to go their separate ways in the end.

A lot of shows, even ones I adore, trend towards being slice-of-life or “peaked in high school” kinds of shows. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but rather in the sense that many shows set in school use graduation as a way to wrap up the stories, instead of a way to set up new stories. While you can imagine, for example, Taiga and Takasu in Toradora continuing on and developing their relationship, they’ve already scaled their biggest hurdles. Dating, college, marriage, work, and so on, are just matters of execution1. In contrast, Ohana and Takemoto are clearly only just getting started. Ohana has a lot to learn in order to take over the Kissuisō, not to mention finishing school and finally being honest with Koichi, while Takemoto, having finally found some sort of calling in life, is committing to a drastically different life from what he’s had so far and from what all his friends have chosen. For these two, in the end, it’s not about continuing what the characters have already started or achieved, it’s about starting something new.

And compared to a show such as Your Lie in April, where Ohana and Takemoto will go in the future is not clear or really even hinted at in the beginning, whereas for Arima, it’s pretty clearly signposted that he’ll return to piano. In other words, many shows develop their characters by having them become the pianist/artist/etc. they wanted to or were meant to be. But Hanasaku Iroha and Honey and Clover are more about giving our characters the change to figure out what they really want to do in the first place.

The settings of these helps with this character development. The Kissuisō for Ohana and college for Takemoto were just temporary homes; again, ones that they’ll remember fondly, but not ones that they ever could stay at forever (at least in the state as shown in the anime). From the beginning, Takemoto knew he needed to find a job, even if he couldn’t imagine what that would be be. Ohana, meanwhile, was just unceremoniously dumped in the Japanese countryside with all her friends left behind in Tokyo, and after adjusting to life there, has to go back to Tokyo in the end anyways. In the end, while they’ll miss their time there, neither of them want to stay—they know they have a lot to do elsewhere. Sure, Ohana wants to return someday—but only once she’s ready, and in an entirely different role, coming back to meet entirely different people. She knows she won’t have her high school experience ever again. And sure, every series set in school makes a nod towards the future with career surveys and graduation ceremonies. But those surveys are mostly just distractions for the characters, a standard plot device for anime in school, and graduation ceremonies are mostly just ways to neatly tie up and end the story.

Put another way, Hanasaku Iroha is about nostalgia not for the time in our lives where anything seemed possible and the future was far away, but rather for when we realized what we wanted to work towards in life and what we’d have to do to get there. And because of that, it stood out to me the most over all the other shows I watched this year, even though coming in I expected just another slice-of-life.

  1. Clannad gets a shout-out here, though, as we actually get to see Okazaki grow from delinquent, to boyfriend, to husband, to father, in a way that emphasizes all the new and difficult expectations and requirements placed on him at each stage—challenges that he isn’t always fully ready for.