I wasn’t totally sure how I’d feel about returning to AnoHana, some three years after the completion of the TV series. I certainly loved it (I ranked it #2 on my list for 2011), but three years is a long time – all of us change over a span like that, not least as fans of a specific medium such as anime. And maybe some part of me had come to almost believe the 20/20 hindsight criticism of the series from so many quarters, that maybe I’d been kidding myself about just how great a show it was.
The first thing I need to say is that I’m very glad I didn’t see this in a theater, because it would have been a rather embarrassing spectacle. That’s how it is with me and AnoHana – this story gets me where it hurts (especially when the strains of “Secret Base” start playing). I think it’s a pretty good acid test of whether someone is constitutionally capable of being moved by fiction, because AnoHana makes no bones about the emotions it’s trading in. It’s not overly subtle, and it’s not especially complicated – but it is absolutely honest. It’s an unaplogetically sentimental story which asks of the audience only that they embrace some very fundamental human feelings – some call it manipulative, but I don’t see it that way. It’s just completely lacking in subterfuge or deception. There’s a strong current in anime fandom (more in the English than Japanese-speaking community, interestingly) to dismiss any anime that displays emotion openly as inherently defective, and it’s so pervasive that I only now realize that I’d almost allowed myself to feel guilty about loving AnoHana – as if doing so betrayed some character flaw. It’s great to be able to embrace it wholeheartedly again, and recognize the pompous scorn heaped upon the series as nothing more than it is – an opinion, plain and simple.
There’s no need to go into a great deal of detail here, because this is essentially a retelling of the events of the TV series, and I already have 12 posts on that (indeed, it was one of the first series I blogged). There are some new scenes and they do flesh out the emotional side of the story very effectively (especially an additional game of Kakurenbo), but for the most part this is a look at the events of the series from a slightly different angle. I think it’s on-point and comprehensive enough that someone who’d never seen the series could follow it and it would resonate, and if you liked the series (and vice-versa) I see no reason why you should feel differently about the movie.
There’s a wistful subtext in watching AnoHana in light of where Okada Mari’s writing journey has taken her since, I won’t deny that. For my money this series and True Tears are the apex of her career by a wide margin, and returning to Chichibu and the Secret Base with her is a reminder that when she’s in her element, Okada-sensei is a major talent. Subtlety is not her strength, but painting the emotions tied into friendship, loss and first love is – and when she’s paired with a first-rate director like Nagai Tatsuyuki the results can be spectacular (as they are with AnoHana). Nagai-sensei’s role in the success of this series and film cannot be overstated – he’s arguably the best director in anime when it comes to relationship drama and romantic comedy.
Watching this movie I’m struck as well by how fantastic this cast is. Of course any fan of Cross Game registered immediately that AnoHana was a reunion of its three stars – Miyu Irino, Tomatsu Haruka and Sakurai Takahiro. But the ties to CG really are deeper than that – AnoHana too is a story of dealing with the tragic drowning of a young girl, of the Miyu-portrayed boy with the beautiful soul who was damaged by it and the Tomatsu tsundere girl left behind who loves him, and forever measures herself a memory and comes up short. Adachi’s work is all about psychological subtlety and emotional subtext, while Okada obviously paints with a much broader brush. But the feelings are strong in both instances, and Miyu and Tomatsu are once again superb here – both are among the very best in the business, and they have a magnificent chemistry. Hayami Saori (Tsuruko) and Kondou Takayuki (Poppo) are both excellent, and the actors who play the boys as children – Mutsumi Tamura as Jintan, Seto Asama as Yukiatsu and Toyasaki Aki as Poppo (all of whom have much more to do in the film) equally strong. And the great Kayano Ai as Menma takes what could have been a grating role in lesser hands and infuses it with real depth and integrity.
It’s interesting to muse on why I didn’t re-watch AnoHana, but I suppose it’s most likely that the emotional impact on me the first time was so strong that the urge to endure that again never quite won the day – that and the fact that the story felt complete and told, with no need to return to it. That said, I was amazed that I found myself so totally immersed with these characters again so quickly – in that sense a movie like this can almost feel like time travel if it’s well-made. And this one is very well-made, indeed. It’s spiritually faithful to the original while giving us just enough of a new framing device (the Super Peace Busters reuniting a year after the series ended to send Menma letters they’ve written to her) to feel fresh. And more importantly than that, to give the impression that it has a reason to exist – the movie really does have something to say, and it does add something meaningful to the AnoHana experience. This is not a reworking, a substantive reinterpretation of the series’ events and ending – more of a fond reflection with the benefit of a little distance provided by the passage of time.
This works – all of it. The movie works, and AnoHana still works as a concept. Why? I would say because for all its simplicity – or perhaps even because of it – AnoHana is a brilliant little story. It’s elegant and direct and unpretentious and asks us to make no Olympian leaps of logic or empathy. These are very universal and basic things all of us can understand – friendship, loyalty, first love, the hurt of unrequited love, and most of all the pain of having to say goodbye. This is magical realism in the truest sense of the word, using fancy to allow the exploration of the human experience in a way literalism cannot. For all the high-handed derision heaped upon it from certain quarters since its airing, AnoHana remains wildly popular and by most, beloved – and it’s quite deserved. It’s a beautiful and painful story, the kind of hurt that feels cleansing and sort of nourishing. I’m glad I still feel that way after all this time, and I’m glad I was able to re-discover my love for AnoHana.