People often go about Google with curious search terms such as ‘underrated anime’ or ‘obscure but good anime’. This results in often dubious lists in forums and other sites where people mostly post a decently well-known show claiming them to be underrated or in need of another season. No, Cowboy Bebop is not underrated. We also do not need a second season of whatever trashy anime with underage girls partaking in lewd acts that may have caught your fancy (cough Eromanga Sensei cough).
Surprisingly, though, I have never once seen Hanasaku Iroha mentioned anywhere. Neither in the aforementioned lists nor in random conversations pertaining to its genre and general content. I came across this slice-of-life anime while going through MyAnimeList’s Top anime section. The synopsis had me interested enough to wait for three weeks for the only decent torrent I could find to finish downloading. As I watched the very first episode, while thanking the sole two seeders from the bottom of my pirate, I had wondered if the wait would be worth it. And so, let’s see if it was.
Hanasaku Iroha starts off with protagonist Matsumae Ohana coming home to find out that her mother, Matsumae Satsuki, has to skip town to avoid debt collectors. Satsuki takes along her boyfriend but tells Ohana that she will have to stay at her grandmother’s quaint inn out in the countryside. Seeing as how Ohana and her mother keep bouncing from places, Ohana doesn’t seem all too troubled. That is, until her only friend drops the bombshell of a romantic confession on her and dashes. Ohana is then left to leave Tokyo on her own and arrives at Kissui Inn where her grandmother, Shijima Sui, coldly informs her that she will be earning her stay by working at the inn. Thus we are presented with 26 slices of the Kissui Inn cake along with a dainty muffin in the form a movie titled ‘Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home’.
I have seen a lot of slice-of-life anime. Hell, technically, the very first anime I had ever watched was ‘Tenshi na Konamaiki’ – a slice-of-life with a huge emphasis on gender-bending. Anywho who has watched enough of the genre know that the plot is often trivial and what matters is how the characters keep the narrative going while still managing to keep you heavily interested. Shows like ‘Daily Lives of Highschool Boys’ and ‘Nichijou’ keep you hooked with their bizarre comedy. Some shows like ‘Tanaka-kun is Always Listless’ do so with its calming atmosphere. Then there are a couple of rare ones in the vein of ‘The Devil is a Part-timer’ where the focus is more on the absurdity yet believable seriousness of the plot. My point is that a good slice-of-life should be more to the table and, thankfully, Hanasaku Iroha serves delicious peach juice with its slices.
The plot is, without a doubt, generic. Seeing as it deals with the running of an inn and the lives associated with it, one not accustomed to the genre would dismiss the show as boring. Hanasaku Iroha cleverly deals with that issue by making Ohana storm through the first couple of episodes with fervor and then toning her down for development to make way for the supporting cast to, in Ohana’s own words, sparkle. These developments are accompanied by scenarios such as scams, familial strife, dives into the workings of various roles that make the inn a success, the economy, and the usual highschool high jinks so there is a firm grip on the viewers’ interest.
My only qualms with the plot would be that it could be used to bring attention to the countrysides of Japan. Some light should have been shone on regional flowers, leisure activities, information on the location, and so on but it felt like the flashlight was in need of new batteries. There are only tiny mentions here and there and that just doesn’t satisfy me. I know I’m reaching a tad bit with this complaint but these minute details could have added a charming sense of ‘authenticity’ to the experience. It could have even helped make the audience want to visit places like the Kissui Inn and also put a brighter spotlight on rural development as is evidenced here.
With that out of the way, I should now talk about the soul of any good slice-of-life show, namely, the supporting cast. To do that, I’ll first yap a bit about Ohana. Ohana’s character is pretty much by the book except for the time when she hits a major slump and we see some quite heavy development. You wouldn’t really expect Ohana to get the treatment she gets by the writers but they go above and beyond with her especially in all the scenes concerning her romantic issues with the boy she had to leave behind in Tokyo. It’s not the usual overacted stuff you would normally see. She grows naturally over the course of the show learning from lessons and pondering matters sensibly like any reasonable teenage girl would. Or maybe I’m praising her a bit more than I should be since seeing the ‘HENTAI BAKA IIIIIDONTACTUALLYLOVEYOU YAMETETETTE’ spiel for the hundredth time is exhausting.
Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, the way Ohana’s character is handled allows the supporting characters to really bounce off her and cement themselves as their own beings that are still growing. While the youngsters; which include Ohana, Nako, Minko, Tohru, and their friends, see a healthy dose of D-velopment+, the adults don’t shy away from peeling off their layers to keep the story going. Going by Satsuki’s first impression in pilot episode one would think she is the typical useless mom and won’t show up again but she does reappear several times. Each time she does you get a new look into the triangular dynamic between the three generations of the Shijima women. She is both a fine character and a plot device. The same goes for Sui who is the manager of the inn. Composed to a tee and eyes set on keeping up the traditions, she helps the young ones grow into fine people with the right amount of guidance and employment of local inn-keeping etiquette.
Even the most minor of the supporting bunch are dealt with so delicately that there is this undeniable charm about them. Denroku, lovingly called Beanman, barely speaks a few words every couple of episodes or so and yet he seems as fleshed out as everybody else. The head-chef, Ren, also rarely ever speaks about anything other than kitchen orders but his expressions and periods of whimsy show us a lot about his character. There are very few wasted lines. The dialogue is simple yet witty and/or soothing enough to give characters like these the push they need to work on the screen. I like how distinct they are. You’ve got someone who you can barely hear to someone who won’t shut the fuck up.
Some examples of life in Hanasaku:
Speaking of which, I liked all of the characters except for Minko, the chef-in-training. While you have a broad range of interesting characters, Minko sticks out like a sore thumb. Her personality is just being a tsundere. You have mostly realistic portrayals of teenagers in Hanasaku Iroha and here, with Minko, you get unneeded tropes that spoil stuff. She even has a Goddamn catchphrase, for Christ’s sake. You end up somewhat liking her by the end of the show but she is very annoying in the first half.
Moving on, P.A. Works, the studio behind Hanasaku Iroha, has done a nice job with the anime. The animation is standard for the time. There are little touches in the background which make the scenes really pop. Characters will be chatting over coffee in a cafe and, through a window, you could see a woman leave a bus, wait for her boyfriend, and then they would leave together. The character designs are quite good as well. They’re as 2011-ish as they can get but the designs are so vibrant and matching the personalities they end up sticking with you.
Since Hanasaku Iroha tries to create an environment of calm (mixed with hectic frenzy) inn keeping with the content of the show, there is sparse background music. There are bits of what one could assume to be a mashup of elevator music, piano, and violin. I liked all of the opening and ending songs. Most of them are performed by nano.RIPE. The anime makes up for the lack of background audio with seven different ending songs. The fansub I had downloaded had not subbed the songs so I can’t say whether various changing ending songs have anything specific to do with the plot or certain characters. The voice actors have also done a good job. Most fit their roles and did not go overboard with the overacting some characters required.
Overall, P.A. Works did an excellent job with this original anime especially since this is one of their earliest works. Their most notable work before this was ‘Angel Beats’. After Hanasaku Iroha, they went on to work on ‘Shirobako’, ‘Another’, ‘Charlotte’, and many others. Their currently working on ‘Tenrou: Sirius the Jaegar’ which seems to be gaining a sizable following. Back to the point, though, despite the minuscule issue I had with the plot and the Minko’s braying I massively enjoyed the show. I am going to rate it a 9/10. An 8.5/10 would be accurate but I want others to watch this. Hanasaku Iroha is a slice-of-life anime for the sake of the genre done right.