Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hanasaku Iroha (anime TV series), via Crunchyroll

This is a 26-episode slice-of-life series, with each episode running approximately 23 minutes long. I haven't read anything about any more seasons being made, but I've heard there's supposed to be a movie showing in Japan later this year (according to the Wikipedia page).

[EDIT: I just realized that this post warrants a bit of a spoiler alert. Although I tried to minimize spoilers, my review does have a few.]

Synopsis:

Ohana loves her mother, but she has also spent pretty much her whole life not being able to rely on her. When Ohana's mother suddenly announces that her latest boyfriend has gotten into some financial trouble and roped them into it by using their address on the forms he'd filled out, Ohana at first thinks she'll be joining them when they move out in the middle of the night to skip out on his debt. However, Ohana's mother's answer to that is, "What kind of mother would do something like that?" Instead, she sends her daughter to live with her mother, Ohana's grandmother. Ohana's mother was disowned by her mother, and Ohana has never met her grandmother before. Prior to leaving, Ohana meets up with her friend Ko, in order to say goodbye to him. Shocked at the suddenness of it all and Ohana's apparently cheerful attitude, Ko blurts out that he has liked Ohana for ages and had hoped she would one day notice. Ohana has no idea what to say and runs off without telling him what she feels for him in return.

Ohana's image of how her life will be with her grandmother is rosier than the reality. Her grandmother is the manager of a traditional Japanese inn, Kissuiso, and she expects Ohana to work hard there, just like everyone else. There is no calling her "Grandmother" - she is "Madam Manager," even to her own son. Ohana isn't used to hard physical work, and she messes things up at first. She doesn't quite know how to get along with her coworkers either, which becomes even more difficult when one of her coworkers also turns out to be her roommate. The very first thing Minko tells Ohana to do is die, after Ohana pulls up some plants Minko had been growing, thinking they were weeds.

Gradually, Ohana gets used to life at Kissuiso and even comes to love it there. The show focuses primarily on the staff and work at Kissuiso - people's relationships, and the way Kissuiso is run (the driving force behind the inn is "the customer's happiness comes first"). However, Kissuiso is not a big inn, and it hasn't been a popular one in a long time. Things change. What will happen to everyone if the Kissuiso is closed for good?

Review:

This was an uneven show. Sometimes it was excellent, and sometimes it made me frustrated and angry with its characters, to the point where I had difficulty remembering why and if I even liked them.

Appearance-wise, it was a lovely series. I liked the look of the characters, but the real star was Kissuiso itself. It was gorgeous, created with enough detail that you could tell it was an old but still well-cared-for place. It was the glue that bound everyone together. I could understand why the characters worked so hard to keep it open and why they loved it so much.

For the most part, the characters had a lot of depth, even some of the more minor ones. Although I would have liked to have found out a little more (or even anything) about the lives of some of the male characters, like Tohru (the junior chef) and Ren (the chef), the series' main focus was on its female characters, and on Ohana's family.

Probably the strongest, most developed characters in the series were Ohana, her grandmother, and Ohana's mother, particularly in terms of how the three women related to one another. I loved pretty much any scene that dealt with all three of them together, although I also enjoyed episodes that focused on Ohana's relationship with just her grandmother or mother. Ohana's grandmother came across as overly harsh, at first, but she really grew on me as the series progressed and I learned more about her and her past at Kissuiso. I don't think I ever got to the point where I really liked Ohana's mother, but she certainly had a lot of charisma, and I was glad that Ohana was able to come to terms with some of the things about her mother's treatment of her that upset her. Ohana and her grandmother were alike in that they enjoyed and took pride in taking care of other people, while Ohana's mother just wasn't that kind of person, even with her own daughter.

On the one hand, I liked Ohana's adaptability. On the other hand, there were times when I wanted her to finally care about something or someone enough to put her foot down and fight for it (or him, in the case of Ko). She'd care, and she'd fret, and maybe she'd shout a bit and tell someone off...but, by the end of the series, I still felt that there was never really a moment when she stood to lose something and went ahead and fought for it anyway. Her relationship with Ko was saved more by Ko than it was by her – he was the one who made his feelings clear throughout the series, and, by the time Ohana finally said how she felt, Ko had already taken all the risk out of her announcement. When the Kissuiso's fate was at risk and the staff was so focused on saving it that they were tearing its spirit apart, Ohana once again refused to take a risk and choose a side, and she wasn't even the first one to say exactly why keeping Kissuiso open and busy seemed wrong to her. Nako, of all people, was the one to do that.

Which I guess makes Nako the perfect character to write about next. Nako, a painfully shy girl, started working at Kissuiso as a waitress in an effort to become more like the outgoing, confident person she is when she's at home. She was the only female character who had no history or subplot involving a guy. While I was a little impressed that even just one female character was allowed to not be concerned with getting a boyfriend/husband, I have to admit I tended to find the show's other female characters more interesting to watch.

Tomoe, the head waitress, got one whole episode pretty much to herself, and what we saw of her in that episode made me wish there had been more moments focused on her. I loved that her mother wasn't the sort of person to force her to quit a job she enjoyed in order to concentrate on finding a man to marry. Unfortunately, after that one episode gave viewers such a nice glimpse into her personal life, her one big goal, finding a nice, decently successful guy to eventually marry, became little more than an opportunity for a running gag.

Minko, who worked as an apprentice chef at Kissuiso, lived and breathed cooking and had a huge crush on Tohru, her mentor. She wasn't very good at explaining herself, and, unfortunately, never seemed to  recognize that fact and the negative effect in had on her ability to build up her relationships with others. However, I still enjoyed watching Ohana slowly become one her friends (mostly by not taking Minko's insults too personally and by telling Minko whenever she went too far). The romantic subplot involving Minko's crush on Tohru, Tohru's crush on Ohana, and Ohana's obliviousness got to be a bit much, though, especially since Minko was incapable of being open about her feelings and tended to take out her hurt and frustration on Ohana.

Next up, Enishi and Takako. Enishi is Ohana's uncle, while Takako is a friend of Enishi's from college who thinks she knows how an inn should be run. Enishi really, truly does want Kissuiso to be successful. Because Ohana's mother is out of the picture, Enishi knows he'll probably inherit the inn. However, he's a wimp who doesn't have good ideas and doesn't understand the aspects of Kissuiso that make it successful. He implements any idea Takako throws at him, as long as his mother allows it. In once instance, this fails badly, so badly that I found myself disliking both Enishi and Takako, despite the show's efforts to make them come out of it all as sympathetic and likable characters. I found it mind-boggling that Ohana's grandmother let it all happen, and I couldn't understand why she didn't verbally flay both Enishi and Takako. I was outraged when there appeared to be no repercussions from their enormous screw-up. While I will say that the repercussions did eventually come up later on the in the series, I'm still a little dissatisfied with how those events worked out. It's like the show focused on realism, but only as long as reality wasn't too inconvenient.

That “realism, but not” aspect was present in the ending, too. Maybe I'm a tad too cynical, but I couldn't help but think that, in the real world, that ending wouldn't have come across as quite so happy and hopeful. It was basically a pretty fairy tale ending that allowed for nearly everyone to have a more-than-decent chance at a happy future. There's even the potential for a sequel. While I didn't want an unhappy ending and liked how easy it was to imagine that everyone was doing well, the ending seemed almost aggressively happy.

Overall, this is a good series. It's not perfect, and there were times I had to pause episodes because my frustration with some of the characters got to be too much (Minko was the worst offender, but Ohana, Enishi, and Takako had their moments, too). However, the inn setting was enjoyable, and I loved the complexity of the relationship between Ohana, her grandmother, and her mother. Although she took a while to grow on me, Ohana's grandmother turned out to have an amazing amount of depth.

Additional comment:
  • “Festing it up.” Oh goodness, but this phrase was overused. I sort of understood what Ohana meant by it – if you listened to the actual Japanese words she was saying, she based the phrase on the Bonbori Festival that came up at various times throughout the series, so “festing it up” meant something like “working hard towards a dream/future that makes you happy.” Still, it got to where everyone was using this phrase. A lot.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Spirited Away (anime movie) - Those who enjoyed Hanasaku Iroha's beautiful setting and the early episodes in which Ohana learned how to work at the inn may want to try this movie. Its primary setting is a bathhouse intended for spirits. The main character, a young human girl, learns to work at the bathhouse and tries to find a way to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs.
  • Skip Beat! (manga) by Yoshiki Nakamura; Skip Beat! (anime TV series) - The main character, Kyoko, grew up expecting to one day marry Sho. Sho was the heir to his family's inn, so Kyoko was trained serve customers at the inn. She was told that the customers came before herself. In addition, she devoted herself completely to Sho. Then he betrayed her, and she became determined to rise above him so that she could grind him beneath her heels. Japanese inn stuff doesn't come up much, but those who'd like another series with a bit of romance may want to try this. Kyoko is pretty awesome. I have written about the anime and many volumes of the manga.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - The family aspects of Hanasaku Iroha reminded me of this series - families don't get much more difficult, complex, and painful than Fruits Basket's Sohma family.
  • Chihayafuru (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another series with beautiful visuals, Japanese culture aspects that play a significant part (characters learning about and playing karuta, characters wearing hakama), and a bit of romance may want to try this. I have written about this anime. It's based on a manga series that, as far as I can tell, hasn't yet been licensed by any North American companies yet.

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