Every now and then, you find a show that persistently lingers on your mind once you’ve stopped watching it. For me, Hanasaku Iroha is one of those shows, and not only because it has some truly likeable characters and picturesque animation. It's because it brings these elements, and more, together so well in telling an uplifting, but poignant, story that can resonate so well with each of us — one about letting go of parts of our lives and clinging dearly onto others.
Part 1 of this series starts with a rather harsh circumstance. Our main character, Ohana, a cheerful and energetic sixteen-year-old girl, finds that her mother and her mother's boyfriend are fleeing Tokyo to avoid his debts. Surprisingly, Ohana isn’t going with them but is instead sent to live with her grandmother at her hot spring inn, Kissuiso. As you may expect, though, it’s not baking and relaxation waiting for Ohana when she arrives. Rather, it’s a world where she’s expected to earn her keep by working at the inn, and to put the needs of its customers above her own while adolescent angst and drama whirlwind all around her.
Ohana coming to terms with this new life, and confronting the one she’s left behind, form the overarching plot of Part 1. She doesn’t immediately get on with her new family and co-workers but still seeks to win them over with her peppy zeal for hard work and friendly personality. She’s actually a really delightful character in general, evoking a little of Pikari from Amanchu! insomuch that she’s a breeze of optimism taking on a hurricane of drama, and I can’t help but warm to a character like that. However, all of Hanasaku Iroha’s characters bring something quite enjoyable to the story it is trying to tell. Yes, as other reviewers have pointed out, some of them are a little familiar and archetypal, but the show isn’t trying to reinvent any tropes here. Instead, it simply wants to present characters and situations that, much like its hot-spring setting, lift your mood and leave you feeling a little more enlivened at the end of each episode. In that sense, it overwhelmingly succeeds.
That said, the show’s characters do bring depth to the story. Ohana’s mother and grandmother are quite thought-provoking in how they approach motherhood so differently, particularly when it comes to inspiring independence from their respective daughters. Similarly, Tomoe, Ohana’s 28-year-old co-worker, not only helps to reframe the drama and hijinks for a slightly-older-than-teenage audience, but also acts as the ‘Big Sis’ to the younger girls, strengthening that familial atmosphere that binds the characters together. In truth, that’s what I like most about this show; we’re watching a ‘family’ form right in front of our eyes, and seeing how they come to understand one another through their trials and triumphs is a really heartwarming experience.
Turning briefly back to the story, and spoilers omitted, I really enjoyed seeing the growth Ohana underwent in just 13 episodes. There’s a profound and, more importantly, satisfactory resolution to the doubts plaguing her, and we start Part 2 with a protagonist who not only has an abundance of energy and charisma, but also conviction for the life she wants to live. Now, I would certainly have liked to have seen the same level of development in some of our other characters; they have their own arcs that haven’t quite reached their potential at this point, but we are only half-way through a 26-episode series. If anything, my hope is that we eventually see Ohana’s colleagues and friends blossom in much the way she has begun to, because that seems to be what the show’s title is calling for - to see all of its characters flourish brightly and beckon some new version of themselves in the process.
Animated by P.A. Works, Hanasaku Iroha is a particularly pretty show to look at, made all the more impressive by the fact that it actually aired back in 2011. The character designs are simple but charming, and never competing with their surroundings for our attention. In fact, their designs complement each scene and its hues quite nicely, making the whole show a rather visually soothing experience. However, given the show’s focus on its characters, facial expressions play a big role in heightening moments of comedy, romance and drama, and I’m really glad that the studio could explore quite a range of emotions without straying too far from its core realistic style.
None of this, though, detracts from how stunning the locations of the series are. Again, there’s a wonderful use of hues and soft, pastel colours that make the show a true joy to watch, and the show seems, at least to me, to subtly use them to emphasise its message. Rural settings are expectedly bright and soft, but the city of Tokyo uses much stronger and harsher colours, occasionally being blanketed with a bleak, grey filter. It’s just one example of how the show conveys its central messages - specifically the splendour of rustic life - through more than just what the characters are saying and doing, and I really do applaud it.
The soundtracks and Japanese dub for the show are pleasantly strong too; the gentle acoustic string and piano melodies, again, do a lot to heighten the more comedic and emotional elements of the show. Just as importantly, they seem to evoke the pastoral countryside whenever they arise, introducing a calming simplicity that Ohana herself is drawn to more and more as the show progresses. The voice actors similarly breathe a great deal of life into these energetic and distinct characters and, while I never feel very qualified commenting on dubs, I really do feel it’s a particularly strong one that each actor owns so very well.
Looking back on this show, or at least it’s first part, it’s clear to me that I really do admire it. It’s wonderfully animated, supported by relaxing music, and it tells a story that can resonate with each of us, particularly when told through such a fun and appealing set of characters. Is there anything I don’t like about it? I suppose part of me wishes it had begun with a more believable situation; Ohana’s mother’s elopement seems a little farfetched, and it isn’t given the weight I thought it would later in the show. However, to even say that kind of misses the point of why this show is so great. It’s not trying to be intellectually testing, to push boundaries or even be terribly realistic. Much like Kissuiso itself, the show simply wants to serve as a relaxing respite for us, entertaining, calming and soothing in equal measure thanks to a wonderful cast, plot and setting. And, like any good inn, it’s ready to welcome us back when we’re in need of an escape once again. It’s for that reason that I can’t wait to return in Part 2.