Hanasaku Iroha: Beauty In Simplicity
16 year-old Ohana Matsumae who lives with her single mother in Tokyo is forced to go to some inn way out in the provinces of Japan and live with her grandmother whom she’s never met when her mother suddenly decides to start living with her latest boyfriend. To make matters worse, Ohana just shrugged off a confession from her childfriend Ko without ever giving him a definite answer. But wait, it doesn’t end there. As soon as Ohana arrives at the inn, she immediately meets a pretty girl who tells her to “die” for some reason and her grandmother immediately puts her to work as a waitress at the inn as soon as she arrives. Does this sound like the premise for a typical soap opera filled with tales of betrayal, angst and delicious tears? It might seem that way at first, but watch Hanasaku Iroha in its entirety and you will be pleasantly surprised.
To be honest, Hanasaku Iroha was a show that I started watching simply because I thought the main character, Ohana Matsumae was really cute. I saw an episode of this anime on Hero TV (a local 24-hour anime channel that shows all kinds of anime faithfully translated and redubbed in Tagalog from Japanese). I’d just finished watching Fate/Zero and needed something a little more down to Earth to watch and Hasaku Iroha seemed to fit the bill, so I began watching it and finished all of its 26 episodes in three weeks time. This might seem like a long-time for anime marathon experts who can gobble up 50 episodes or more in a single day, but for me, this is personally a pretty fast pace for a show that I really care about. I can marathon a 13 episode show in a single day, but that would probably mean that I didn’t care enough to actually “savor” the show, so to speak. Hanasaku Iroha however, grew to become an anime that I really wanted to “experience.”
At a cursory glance, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about Hanasaku Iroha, (apart from the gorgeous animation, which most people won’t really notice unless they’re observing the show from a critic’s eye.) but this is exactly the appeal of this series for me; the fact that it takes things, people and events which are so ordinary and commonplace and makes them so compelling without relying on explicit drama or deus ex machina to pull it off.
Personally, I feel that taken as a whole, Hanasaku Iroha’s greatest strength lies in its ability to gradually familiarize the viewer with the series and its all-too-familiar cast of characters that reflect those familiar friends and strangers that we all encounter in our daily lives and to make you care for almost every single one of them. It would have been easy for this show to take a more homogenous Ohana-centric route and simply focus on Ohana and her experiences at the Kissuiso as well as her budding relationship with Ko. Fortunately, although the show does indeed do this, it also does so much more by giving almost every character featured in the series their time to shine that by the end of the show, I was happy to see that everyone was doing well and “walking their own paths” so to speak.
At this point, I have to mention that the ending was simply one of the best anime endings I’ve ever seen. It stacks up quite well to one of my other favorites in the slice-of-life anime genre, Honey & Clover and if I were to go by personal preference, I would go as far as to say that Hanasaku Iroha’s finale is slightly better for satisfyingly resolving everyone’s minor and major problems and ending on a believably happy note – even for the Kissuiso thanks to the promise that everyone made to come back when and if it does reopen when the inn finally had to temporarily close down. The only thing that might have made the ending just a little bit better would have probably been a photograph of the Inn’s staff back together at the Kissuiso, but noticeably a little bit older than they were when they had to part ways.
As far as the ending goes, I agree with the Madam Manager/Ohana’s grandmother when she said that the inn had to close down so that it would stop holding everyone back with a dream that wasn’t theirs to begin with. At some point, I truly believe that their paths would cross again and the Kissuiso would reopen with everyone “festing it up” together. Hopefully, the Madam Manager and Beanman would still be around when that day finally arrives.
Another thing that I like about Hanasaku Iroha is that it manages to evoke a strong emotional impact and actually be somewhat of a major tear-jerker without using explicitly dramatic events. There were many times during the course of the show wherein it could have gone the “soap opera” route. Ohana’s Grandmother’s failing health could have been exploited to be used as a plot device for a “dying Grandmother” subplot. Ohana’s mother is not exactly the most responsible as a parent; fleeting from one boyfriend to another and telling her own daughter to go live with her grandmother in some inn way out in the provinces of Japan while she goes off to be with her current boyfriend, and this could have been blown way out of proportion to make her seem like an abusive mother who takes out some past grudge she has on her husband on her own daughter – I’ve seen it happen more than once in soap operas and typical Filipino films in the drama genre. While we’re on the subject, let’s not forget Ohana’s grandmother who not only makes her granddaughter Ohana work as a waitress at the Kissuiso as soon as she arrives from Tokyo, but also slaps her all in the 1st episode – evil grandmamma plot anyone? Furthermore, Minchi/Minko’s antagonistic attitude towards Ohana and the fact that the guy whom she likes, Tohru, seemed to have a thing for Ohana could have been used as fodder for a soap opera slapfest wherein Minchi plays the role of the main villain with Ohana being the oppressed, helpless heroine. Again, Hanasaku Iroha strays away from this type of overly dramatic, cliché plot and yet manages to pull off its own brand of subtle, non-bombastic drama that could easily elicit more much tears than your standard soap opera plot about some guy whose girlfriend is dying of brain cancer with betrayal, deceit and convoluted family ties thrown in for good measure.
At this point, I’d like to talk a bit about the characters. Although not everyone gets an equal amount of screentime, Hanasaku Iroha might have stumbled upon the golden ratio of character development and focus. The reason that I say this is because even characters who get very little screentime such as Ohana’s love interest and might-be boyfriend, Ko, actually get just enough character development for you to care about them throughout the show’s 26-episode run. There are also some characters that the viewer might feel like hating on at first such as the ever-bitchy Minko/Minchi who acts as if she’s eternally on PMS all the time and keeps telling Ohana to die or calling her a “balut” (yes, fertilized duck egg – that kind of balut) as well as the Engrish-speaking Takako who likes poking her nose into the Kissuiso’s business simply because the owner of the Inn’s son, Enishi is in love with her, but personally, as soon as the show hit about the 20th episode, I had learned enough about both of these character’s personalities and why they acted as they did to genuinely care about them and their personal conflicts as well.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Hanasaku Iroha is a show without any major or even minor antagonists nor great big disasters or heart-wrenching events. The series simply revolves around Ohana and the staff of the Kissuiso as well as some supporting characters such as Ko and Ohana’s mother from Tokyo and Yuina Wakura, a classmate of the girls of Kissuiso who is the heiress of the neighboring inn. The series has its fair share of humor, just a little bit of fanservice and offers a fresh, rarely explored take on the slice-of-life genre that hits this particular reviewer just right.