Next up we have what may be the toughest show to evaluate in this entire list.
Honey & Clover is a show that I have kind of a strange history with. I actually dropped the show after a few episodes the first time I tried to watch it. My curiosity eventually got the best of me and I went back and watched the rest and liked it quite a bit (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing about it right now). Going into this re-watch I had mostly forgotten the bad experiences I had initially and assumed I just didn’t appreciate the show at the time. It seemed reasonable enough given it was one of the first thirty or so series I watched and my understanding of what I’m looking for in an anime wasn’t really that developed yet. This feeling was reinforced several times when I went back and watched the first episode to show it to other people and really enjoyed it. I chalked it all up to inexperience and decided that Honey & Clover was always good and I just didn’t get it at first.
Then a funny thing happened when I started re-watching the show: it actually wasn’t that good. Now this isn’t a Fullmetal Alchemist situation and the show eventually reached the high points I knew were coming but for the first six episodes or so the show was a real drag. More than just not being up to the level of the later episodes, it was downright mediocre. The humor was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. The characters behaved awkwardly and their interactions didn’t display the chemistry I had come to expect. Hagu in particular just comes off as weird in the early episodes, her doll-like appearance making her seem creepy and making Takemoto and Morita’s infatuation with her almost inexplicable. It wasn’t until the end of episode seven when everybody is searching for a four-leaf clover together that it felt like the show really turned the corner.
From there the show takes off into a brilliant examination of growing up and learning to make it on your own. When it’s at its best, Honey & Clover demonstrates a keen understanding of the experience of being a poor, confused college student better than almost any show out there. Through the experiences of Takemoto, Hagu, Yamada, Morita and Mayama, the show paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be on your own for the first time and not be sure exactly where you’re going in life. In many ways, Honey & Clover is to the college experience what Ano Natsu de Matteru is to high school. While Ano Natsu may be more polished and consistent, Honey & Clover is more ambitious and at its best is more poignant and insightful.
The greatest strength of Honey & Clover is its realistic and relatable characters. Too often it feels like young characters are just adults in children’s bodies and that they don’t actually behave in believable ways. Honey & Clover’s characters feel like real college students that think and act like a college student would. They’re naïve and selfish at times but also full of optimism and youthful exuberance. We see them experience love, heartbreak, hope, despair and all the other ups and downs of college life. More than anything we see that growing up is a process. You don’t just wake up one day and understand the world and where you want to go. It’s a journey and Honey & Clover takes us through all of it.
The most literal example of this is Takemoto’s cycling adventure to Wakkanai and back. The show opens with Takemoto wondering aloud how far he could go on his bicycle without turning back but it isn’t until the end of the first season that he finally goes out and does it. The result is one of the finest examples of a character growing up before your eyes. This arc is lovingly crafted, emotionally resonant and full of beautiful scenery. We see Takemoto overcome logistical difficulties, learn the value of a day’s work and finally set a goal for himself and actually achieve it. Watching Takemoto go from a confused boy who was only riding his bike to get away from the emptiness of his life, to somebody who returned older, wiser and more confident about his place in the world was an amazing experience.
In contrast to Takemoto we see talented people like Hagu and Morita who both already have something they’re skilled at and goals in their lives. Honey & Clover does a great job of showing how talent can be intimidating to other people and foment feelings of jealousy. We see this in the story of Morita’s father and how he’s ultimately betrayed due to the jealousy of the less talented people around him. At the same time being talented can be a lonely experience. From a young age, Hagu was isolated because of her immense artistic talent. She grew up sheltered, only working on her art and never experiencing the wider world. Honey & Clover does a great job of showing us the isolating effects of her talent and how she overcomes this to grow as a person and an artist. The way the show manages to humanize both sides of the talent divide is truly outstanding. It makes the jealousy felt by the less talented imminently understandable rather than petty. The isolation experienced by the talented is also is presented as a genuinely human feeling rather than the selfish whining of somebody who doesn’t appreciate their own gifts. It’s another example how well Honey & Clover understands its characters.
Honey & Clover also spends a lot of time with the romantic entanglements of the cast and demonstrates an acute understanding of what it means to be young and in love. We see Mayama trying to control Yamada’s life because he feels the need to protect her from being hurt by other men and doesn’t yet know how to let her live her own life. He feels like he’s protecting her but he’s really suffocating her and preventing her from becoming an adult and making her own decisions. At the same time we see Yamada unwilling to give up on her love for Mayama because her doomed love has come to define her and giving it up means denying something fundamental of who she is. We also see Takemoto fall in love for the first time and how he isn’t quite sure what these feelings are or how to deal with them at first. Each of these stories taps into something fundamental about young love and all the twists and turns that come with it. We see the tragedy of failed love but also the growth and good that comes from it. It might not be the happy love story that many people expect, but nonetheless Honey & Clover provides some of the most compelling love stories in anime.
All of this is presented with a great sense of atmosphere. The show displays the hectic feeling of early college life, the intimidating feeling of the real world bearing down on you before and after graduation, and finally the nostalgic feeling after it’s all over. A lot of the work here is done by the show’s outstanding soundtrack. The music is probably the most consistent part of the show, always working to set the scene and create the right mood for the situation. In particular, the instrumental versions of the opening and ending songs that are often used during the show’s more melancholy moments are outstanding. The show also makes liberal use of insert songs that also enhance the mood and capture the feeling of that particular moment in the characters’ lives. The way the end of each episode fades into the ending song, especially Waltz, is yet another example of the show’s effective use of music.
All of this is good, but even after the growing pains of the first six episodes the show still has its rough patches here and there. It especially struggles when it tries to be funny. The jokes don’t come easily and the gags often feel heightened and forced in addition to often being poorly timed. Honey & Clover is much more at home when the characters are in a wistful, melancholy mood whether they’re reflecting on their place in the world or on their love lives. The characters don’t work well when they’re shouting or having over the top reactions to some absurd event. The jarring transitions reminded me of my biggest problems watching Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, although Honey & Clover’s high points are higher and it’s low points not as low. Still, the mood whiplash the show experiences and the way the characters feel out of place during comedic moments is very much the same.
So where does this leave Honey & Clover? How do you rate a show that combines some of the very best coming of age stories and one of the most compelling love polygons with some really ill-advised comedy and what is at times some really weak writing? I want to be able to just say Honey & Clover is great and after the initial rough patch things smooth out but the weaker parts of the show never completely go away. I could say that the show just isn’t very good but that isn’t true either because when it’s on its game there are few shows that can match what Honey & Clover does. It refuses to be put in a single “good” or “bad” box. It’s difficult to even isolate the good and bad parts of the show to a single time or character. Morita is generally annoying and has more than his fair share of bad scenes but the story of him and his brother is probably the single best articulation of the show’s thoughts on talent. Hagu starts of as weird and unnatural but her feelings when faced with losing what matters most to her during season two are some of the most genuine and emotionally moving parts of the show.
Ultimately I still think Honey & Clover is a very good show and it’s still one of my favorite anime of all time. It certainly has its flaws, more so than most shows on this list, but the good parts are just so good that it more than makes up for it. The way the characters grow over the course of the show and the sincere examination of early adulthood is something that few other shows can offer. It’s not intentional but I suppose it’s appropriate that a show chronicling the myriad ups and downs of college life would have so many ups and downs of its own. While number seven may be a little bit too high for this show that shouldn’t be taken as a slight against it. Honey & Clover is an outstanding anime and deserving of a spot on this list.