Hana-Saku Iroha Episode 1 – Cultivating Character
For those of you who have been following my reviews for a long period of time (hi, Joe!), you’ll probably have noticed that there are certain things I like in anime. Serious character development, and respect for the integrity of characters generally, top out that list. Also preferred is a continuous, well-plotted story which neither wastes time on filler or derails in its final moments. Avoiding fanservice, particularly of an obviously gratuitous manner, is a major plus. And, at the end of the day, I’m a sucker for gloriously detailed art and visual design.
Provided a show hits those features, typically I’ll respect it, even if it’s not my usual cup of tea. I’ve watched and reviewed action shows, romances, dramas, and comedies looking for those elements. It’s not often that I hit a series that matched all of those qualifications. With Hana-Saku Iroha, however, it’s like Christmas come early.
Ohana Matsumae is a comparatively normal high school girl, who like most girls that age is wishing for something a little different. She gets that when her irresponsible mother Satsuki lets her boyfriend list her as a reference for a loan he can’t pay back, and the two of them decide to abscond together. Without Ohana.
Instead, her mom ships her off to her grandmother, with whom neither has had any contact for over a decade. (Something about how Satsuki eloped with Ohana’s father some time ago.) While not exactly pleased, Ohana does having a fleeting moment of hope that perhaps the move, to the hot spring inn that her grandmother runs, will give her the change of pace she’s been looking for.
That lasts barely ten seconds after arriving at the inn. Within moments, she’s infuriated her soon-to-be roommate and is conscripted as a laborer for the inn. The latter is at the instigation of her grandmother, who seems intent on treating her like a prodigal in place of Satsuki, a stranger who has to earn her own keep.
Thus, most of Ohana’s initial time at the inn is finding out exactly how in over her head she is, learning how life isn’t always fair, and finding the strength to push forward in her new home regardless. No doubt over the course of the series she’ll eventually win over her coworkers even after her disastrous first impression, and prove herself the responsible woman her mother never was. She’ll almost certainly mature and grow as a person through the process. It’s a classic story of a woman growing to understand the responsibilities of adulthood—and classic, often enough, means predictable.
If the plot of the series is looking to be so predictable, why I am so happy with it? For the same reason that separates true classics from their myriad imitators and copy-cats: skill of execution. Every part of the show, from the intricate visuals to the large cast of characters to the detail of Ohana’s own mental state, shows off the obvious love that went into making this series. The care and craftsmanship are unmistakable.
I’ll have cause to speak on many of these as the show continues, no doubt, but I’ll highlight just a few examples in this review. As her life comes apart, Ohana confides to her good friend Kouichi about how she’ll be moving away. Kouichi has always had a crush on her that he’s been too timid to express directly, but now that she’s leaving, he realizes that she’ll never notice his romantic intentions unless he speaks of them openly. And so he does, taking the risk with the knowledge that his comfortable relationship with Ohana will never be the same.
Nearly every character (of which there are over a half dozen introduced in this episode alone) gets this sort of attention. Even better, such introductions don’t just deal with individual characters but also explore how they relate to everyone else.
Roommate Minko, for example, is established as being on the bottom rung of the totem pole, subjected to criticism from multiple fronts. Without the same fiery independence of Ohana, she takes criticism meekly, even as she rages at her new coworker at the slightest instigation. Is she venting her suppressed rage at the only person lower on the staff totem pole? Is she jealous of Ohana’s supposedly pampered lifestyle and attitude of entitlement? Is she just mad that Ohana messed up her garden? The characters here are sufficiently layered that all of these might play a role.
Ohana’s odd family dynamics also come to the fore. Her uncle Enishi decides to engage in only semi-good-natured harassment of his niece in retaliation for harassment his older sister once inflicted on him (which may not have been good-natured at all). And her grandmother (who insists on Ohana calling her “manager” like everyone else does) gives us some rationale of why Satsuki rebelled and fled in the first place, with an extraordinarily stringent view of life that does not afford the luxury of failure. It will remain Ohana’s task not to break as her mother did under such pressure.
Ohana’s grandmother is one character who I’m on the fence about. She’s so hard-edged and unsympathetic (unsympathetic both in her actions toward the staff, and to the audience), that I suspect that she has some deeper layers buried beneath her outward persona of a tiger mom that the show is waiting to spring on us. Then again, her rather heavy-handed methods to “educate” Ohana in the way of the world seem an bit too obvious. Ohana is facing enough inner turmoil and personal desire for maturation that this extreme of an external conflict seems unnecessary.
Perhaps some false starts were natural; this is the first time P.A. Works, the studio behind Angel Beats!, True Tears, and Caanan, has ever produced an original independent work. Really the amazing thing is that this show, with a comparatively novice director and working with a self-produced script, has produced something not just better than those three shows, but what might well be the best show of this season.
Despite a certain degree of predictability, Hana-Saku Iroha has a brilliant premiere episode which presents some of the best characters, and character dynamics, in recent memory. It’s not romantic enough to be a Kimi ni Todoke or dark enough to be a Shiki, to pick two great shows I’ve covered recently. But if it keeps up the same level of quality that we see here, it could easily surpass them both. For anyone not addicted to miles-a-minute action or dependent on constant fanservice to keep paying attention, this is a show you need to check out.
You can watch the episode here. Do so. Now.