Let me tell you about a few of my favorite things.
We start my list of favorite shows with an anime that combines several things that you’ll be seeing more of in this space in the future: an anime original story, writing from Mari Okada and animation by PA Works. When Hanasaku Iroha first aired in 2011 I wasn’t yet familiar with PA Works (I had seen True Tears and Angel Beats but I didn’t really have an opinion of the studio at that point) and I didn’t even know who Mari Okada was. In retrospect it was the start of my love for both the studio and writer but at the time I was merely interested in what seemed to be a relatively ambitious anime about a teenage girl seeking out a new life at her grandmother’s inn after being effectively abandoned by her unreliable mother.
Any discussion of what makes Hanasaku Iroha great starts with its main character, Ohana. She’s a breath of fresh air compared to all the protagonists that seem to simply stand idly by while things happen to them. Ohana, by contrast, isn’t one to take things sitting down and has spunk and energy to spare. At the same time, she doesn’t come off as overly perfect or as somebody who gets everything right all the time. It’s common to encounter teenage characters who are merely teenagers because the show says so but don’t act like teenagers at all. Here we have the rare case of a teenage protagonist that genuinely feels like a teenager. Ohana’s a passionate girl who is still naïve and doesn’t quite get everything yet. Like many teenagers, she thinks she knows how the world works but she quickly finds out that there are plenty of things that she does not yet understand. We see this starting very early on when Ohana starts cutting what she believes to be weeds after arriving at Kissuiso only to find that she was actually cutting plants that were being carefully cultivated by her new roommate Tsurugi Minko. This crops up again and again throughout the show’s run. Ohana’s good intentions result in her messing up more than a few times but each time her mistakes feel realistic and her desire to enact change always comes from a good place.
All that realism in her character is nice but it doesn’t mean much if a character can’t change. Fortunately, Ohana grows tremendously during HanaIro’s run. In particular, the return to Tokyo arc which concludes the first half of the show was phenomenal in how it broke down and built back up Ohana’s character. She experiences the full range of emotions someone that age can experience in an extremely short period of time and grows tremendously because of it. This was also excellent in how it provided a counterpoint to the events of the wedding arc that immediately preceded it. In those episodes we see Ohana’s belief that if you set your mind to something and want it badly enough you can get anything you want. Suddenly, when faced with her mother’s jaded cynicism, Ohana discovers that merely wanting something badly and working really hard for it doesn’t make everything okay. It’s a point that’s driven home further when she confronts Ko and discovers that while she was “festing it up” as she likes to say, Ko was actually having the opposite experience.
This arc highlighted some other strengths of HanaIro. The first is how well the show made use of limited time in these episodes. There were virtually no wasted scenes in that entire five episode run. Every interaction had a purpose and either helped to move the story forward or helped develop the characters and their relationships in some way. While the entire show wasn’t this tightly written and focused, there were very few wasted scenes and really no wasted episodes in HanaIro. Even the episodes that got a bit silly like the Jiromaru episode early on or the episode with the survival gamers, still had a message and showed us something new about the characters despite being silly. The second strength we saw in this arc is the show’s ability to draw parallels between the experiences of different characters. We saw Ohana and Ko at the same time making similar decisions regarding how they wanted to move forward and pursue their own desires resulting in almost exactly opposite results. The moment when this dawns on Ohana is one of the best moments in the entire show.
Another great parallel the show draws is between the generations of the Shijima family. Sui, Satsuki and Ohana don’t always see eye to eye but it’s remarkable to see the similarities between them and their experiences. This is especially true of Satsuki and how much she was like Ohana at the same age. She was more rebellious but she had the same level of energy and the same desire to push forward and make things happen. Hanasaku Iroha excels at creating family members who actually feel like they’re related. Rather than just having a group of characters forced together because we’re told they’re family, you can look at Ohana and say “she’s clearly Satsuki’s daughter” or even look at Satsuki and Enishi and say “they’re clearly Sui’s children.”
We also can clearly see how past experiences of the characters shaped who they are today. HanaIro is impressive in its efficiency here as well in the way Satsuki’s past is established through a few key scenes. Satsuki really is an magnificent character in how she manages to influence the story significantly despite appearing in person in only a few episodes. Her behavior has worked to make Ohana, Enishi and even Sui the people they are today. With Ohana the influence is obvious since she raised Ohana (or maybe more to the point she didn’t) but her immense natural talent both in terms of intellect and charisma helped fuel Enishi’s inferiority complex. Her rejection of Kissuiso and by extension Sui created the nagging doubt Sui had to endure after Satsuki’s departure. It also led to Sui’s current plight of being saddled with a child in Enishi, who is willing but not able to take over the inn after the departure of Satsuki who was able but not willing. These are just a few examples of the way the members of the Shijima family’s histories and personalities are intertwined. They genuinely feel like real people whose behavior, desires and outlooks on life are all internally consistent and very well thought out.
This isn’t to say every character in HanaIro is perfect. The show tends to suffer a bit when it starts to move away from the extremely well-defined central family. The episodes about Nako and Tomoe weren’t terrible but they weren’t up to the standard of the episodes that focused on Ohana, Satsuki, Sui or even Enishi. Ko himself wasn’t a particularly well-realized character and at times it felt like he was there more as an outside force to affect change in Ohana rather than an actual independent actor with his own needs and desires (other than his affection for Ohana). The worst offender is probably Jiromaru whose existence was more or less limited to awkward comic relief and the show probably could have benefitted from the complete elimination of him as a character. Tohru was as close as the show got to a bland, generic character who just does things right all the time. The best of the side characters was probably Minko in terms of how well her desires as a character were realized and also how she provides a contrast with Ohana. Minko’s stodgy insistence on doing things by the book and her conviction from a young age regarding what she wanted to do with her life played really well off of Ohana’s constant improvisation and her search for a goal in life.
I took some shots at the side characters there but I should say that while they weren’t up to the lofty standards set by the main family, they were still very good characters in their own right and all of them grew in some way during the show. They each also played an important role in the Kissuiso community as a whole, which was another stand out part of the show. There was clearly a lot of thought and love put into the way life at Kissuiso is presented and HanaIro does a tremendous job of capturing the ups and downs of daily life at an inn. PA Works in general excels at creating an immersive atmosphere and believable worlds that you as a viewer feel like you are part of and Hanasaku Iroha might be their best show in this regard. Kissuiso and the Yunosagi area in general felt very complete compared to other settings where you don’t see much there beyond that with which the main characters are actively involved. Hanasaku Iroha creates a world with other inns, other characters and other places that add depth to the show and make it feel more real even though we don’t get to see much of these characters or places during the show.
PA Works as a studio takes pride in their location scouting and the scenery in their shows and it really pays off in a show like Hanasaku Iroha where Kissuiso and Yunosagi feel like real places you could visit rather than decidedly fictionalized locations that could never exist in that form in real life.
I would be remiss in talking about any PA Works show and not mentioning the gorgeous animation. The attention to detail and atmosphere in both design and writing is very important to Hanasaku Iroha but it really helps that the whole thing is completely gorgeous to look at. The repeated shots of Kissuiso at different times of day are probably the highlight in this regard but the way the entire region is presented was simply beautiful. PA Works is at their best when they are creating amazing landscapes and realistic locations. The mountain village setting of Hanasaku Iroha plays to that strength very well. It can be hard for pretty animation to make up for a mediocre story (I’m looking at you Kyoukai no Kanata) but when you have a great story and cast of characters already, beautiful animation can help the show reach another level.
To cap all of this off, the ending of HanaIro was superb and a breath of fresh air in a world where good endings are hard to come by. The way things were wrapped up wasn’t overly neat or contrived but each plot thread reached a satisfying conclusion. While everything wasn’t perfect for each character, you can still see hope for a brighter tomorrow for everyone. The scenes of Ohana and Ko at the festival were very sweet however the highlight of the finale was Sui walking through Kissuiso and reflecting on all the memories she made over her decades running the inn. It was an incredibly poignant and emotionally potent sequence that the viewer can really empathize with. We may have been around Kissuiso for less than a year of in-universe time but the amount of change and growth exhibited by the characters as well as all the ups and downs they went through make it feel like so much longer. As Sui reflects on her memories of Kissuiso we are allowed to reflect on our own time with the staff and guests of Kissuiso and what made that time so magical.
As a show that really gets how to create believable and relatable characters and excels at creating experiences in which they can grow, Hanasaku Iroha is truly a stand out anime. The combination of amazing visuals, superb characters and an immersive atmosphere makes HanaIro a very special experience. The show may slip into a fit of jarring silliness at times and some of the side characters aren’t particularly well fleshed out but the way HanaIro draws you into the daily life of Kissuiso and shows you the history and trials of the Shijima family more than makes up for those minor flaws. All of this comes together to make Hanasaku Iroha one of my favorite anime and a fitting opener for this series. I like to believe we all have something we can learn from Ohana and hopefully we can manage to live our lives with a fraction of the zest and passion she shows. As we see with Satsuki, sometimes reality has a way of beating us down but we could all stand to “fest it up” a little bit now and then.