Seriously – how do I tackle a perplexing series like Hanasaku Iroha? I could talk about how it infuriated me with it’s preposterous failed attempts at slapstick. I could repeat my irritation at the way it wasted so much time on the way (Graham Nash has nothing on HanaIro). I could marvel at the astonishing range between its best episodes and its worst. I could gush over the animation and background art and character designs, all among the most beautiful you’ll ever see in a TV anime. I could was rhapsodic about the emotional pull it had when it focused on the elements of the series that really mattered. Yep, this was definitely a series that all over the map and impossible to pin down – an irritating, exhilarating, vexing and beautiful mess. How do you write about a show like that?
I guess in the end, it boils down to this for me – I’d rather a show be sometimes great and sometimes awful that always mediocre. And make no mistake, this was a great series when it was on its game. The series never really decided what it was about, but there were certain areas where it thrived. Ohana’s confusing relationship with Kou. Her troubling relationship with Satsuki, and Satsuki’s clumsy efforts to make peace with her past and her mother. Sui’s consternation at seeing what following her dream had done to her family and her staff. There was terrific drama and some fine comedy mined from those subjects, and if the show had spent more time focused there it would have been much the better.
I could certainly spend hours pointing out the myriad flaws of HanaIro. But really, what’s important about them is what they say about the series as a whole. It’s sad that a show that had so much potential – so much heart, so much drama, so much atmosphere – chose to bring so little of it to fruition. The open-ended finale already has some folks talking about a second season, but please, I beg you – no. There wasn’t enough here for one two-cour series, never mind two – at least not as realized. If anything this would have been much better as a one-cour show, because if you took the best 12-13 eps and made a series out of those, you would have one of the year’s ten best anime. As is, you have a maddeningly inconsistent show that’s notable for its missed opportunities as much as its successes.
For all that, though, it did end on a pretty high note with three of the final four episodes being quite strong. I thought it might, as the eps written by creator Mari Okada tended to be the best. And of course, it looked absolutely stunning. PA Works isn’t the most prolific studio, but when they jump in they do so with both feet – this show had a big budget and a team of talented artists behind it, and that really shows. At this point it might very well rank as the second most visually impressive TV anime I’ve seen after Seirei no Moribito (which PA Works assisted Production I.G. with).
The funny thing is, for all that it started out as a coming-of-age series, sometimes felt like a romance and sometimes felt like a straight slice-of-life, HanaIro more than anything ended up being about Okami-san, the “Madame Manager” Sui. It’s no coincidence that Ohana wrote “I want to be Sui” on her wishing plaque, for what Ohana was discovering over the course of the series is just how much like her Grandmother she was. It was Sui who counseled Ohana about Kou, who provided her model at work, and it was her ryokan – “An Inn to Please Sui” – that provided the one constant throughout the series. The inn was a character, yes, but Sui was the inn. it was her wish and her vision and her passion and her decisions that were the constant throughout the changing moods and faces of the series. In the end, when Sui told Ohana she’d be waiting for her, what she really meant was that the old building would be there – just in the same way her husband was waiting for her in the end.
The subject of romance is never too far off the radar in an anime with teenagers, and there was certainly an explosion of discussion on the romance aspects of this one for a while. It’s an odd subject, because romance is both a feint and the very heart of HanaIro, seemingly contradictory but really not. The loud and boisterous orgy of shipping of Ohana with Tohru – rarely has so much rhetorical blood been spilled over such a trivial topic – aside, the one strand running through this entire series was Ohana’s relationship with Kou. Though he was often physically absent Kou was always present in spirit, an important influence over Ohana and never far from her thoughts. As far as the series was about her coming of age (despite the title, I don’t think it ultimately was for the most part) Kou was a vital component of that. Ultimately Kou was the only thing Ohana was sure about, for all her procrastinating and inaction. Kou has taken a lot of heat for not being more forceful, but I think he should be praised for being as patient as he was. He was forceful enough to confess to Ohana before she left, and wise enough to let her find her way back to him in the end. While that wasn’t the meat of what the show was about, it was the one element that tied together the very beginning of the series to the end, and it was resolved in a pretty satisfying manner.
In terms of the rest of the cast, it’s a mixed bag. Minchi was admirable for always being ready to call BS (and there was a lot of it to be called) but often too one-note and self-centered. Nakochi grew on me as she grew more forceful, and the mostly silent characters like Mr. Ren and Beanman had some of the most poignant moments in the final arc. Generally, the show suffered for lack of strong male characters (I consider Kou one, but he was often absent) and the frequent emasculation of the weak ones – a common problem with Okada. There were too many characters – Enishi, Jiromaru, Takako – who were genuinely grating and annoying, a particular problem with Enishi as he was important to the plot. But at least we did have Yuina – while she was entirely window dressing and a diversion from the main story, what a pleasant diversion she was. I’ll never look at massage chairs the same way again.
Will HanaIro be remembered as an important series? I suspect not. There was simply too much weak material, too much time wasted on trivial nonsense. That’s a missed opportunity, because the show certainly had some very special elements. Again, though, given the choice I’d rather get the occasional burst of greatness and put up with the nonsense than never get anything memorable whatsoever. And as always, I’ll be waiting anxiously to see what both PA Works and Mari Okada do next, because they’re both capable of producing something truly great. It’s a shame that HanaIro wasn’t it, but I’ll try to remember the best moments and forget about the others.