Today, we introduce Hanasaku Iroha, an anime TV series from P.A. Works.
Not everything in this world is meant to be a Cinderella story, as 16-year-old Ohana Matsumae has discovered in her life. While her mother isn't exactly demeaning, she's already a handful for Ohana, who appears to do most of the housework. Much like the start to the comedy Hayate the Combat Butler, Ohana is forced to relocate when she finds out that her mother is going to flee debtors with her equally-irresponsible lover, but Ohana's dreams of reinventing herself turn out to be a nightmare. Instead of an embrace from a candy-offering old woman, Ohana receives a bucket and cloth from her business-model grandmother Sui, the owner of Kissuisô, an inn located in the countryside.
From day one, Ohana learns that he's not as accepted as she imagined she would be. While some employees see her as just the spitting image of her lackadaisical mother, others see her as a burden. The gruff Minko tells Ohana to "go die" when she gets involved with her chores, while Sui wants more obedience from Ohana as an employee, not as a granddaughter.
Yes, there does seem to be a bit borrowed from urban-vs.-rural storylines, but Hanasaku Iroha appears to include a lot of assumption being made on both ends. Ohana expects people to treat her like a child, while the employees of Kissuisô don't see her as someone needing the use of kid gloves. This dynamic should naturally lead to both sides giving ground to learn the other's habits in an expected ending, but the script is written so keenly that we care more about the walls being built around both defenses before they get torn down.
The animation for Hanasaku Iroha is astonishingly crisp for a televised anime. The reflections of scenery in train-window plexiglass, the rust from a signpost producing an amber smudge down its faded lettering, the rustic reproduction of the wooden inn—"It's like a movie!" Ohana exclaims upon seeing it all. The best thing is that the show isn't treated like a gallery of oil paintings; the movements of the characters are also very fluid across a range of speeds, from Ohana's careful pull of her earphones off her head to the quick dash she makes across the floor with her cleaning cloth.
The thing about a show located at a residence, as we have seen in the likes of Maison Ikkoku, is that there is potential for some good characters. While there is not that sort of eccentricity amongst the employees and customers at Kissuisô, there are well-established roles. Chiaki Omigawa (Hotori, Sore Demo Machi wa Mawatteiru) has found her perfect role as Minko, hot-tempered until she is put in her place by her job. Sui (voice-over veteran Tamie Kubota) is unflinching in ways of the host-guest philosophy, unafraid to slap her own granddaughter. Both are great in their acting and work well with Ohana, played by Kanae Itô (Amu, Shugo Chara!), an expert at the heroine-in-a-strange-position role.
The music stabilizes the show, coming to the front for its musical numbers and retreating into the background afterwards. The music produced by Shirô Hamaguchi (Oh My Goddess!, One Piece) definitely shows experience, keeping hushed enough for the dialogue. The opening theme from the group Nano.Ripe is a pretty uplifting song that reminds me a little of the way Judy & Mary approached their work—by letting the lead singer sing out from the guitar-led music.
It seems unfair to push the overall score of the show down with the fact it hadn't been fully promoted, but P.A. Works have done an admirable job to put this show together. Director Masahiro Ando has worked in tons of shows, but this is only the second show he's been lead-director for (CANAAN). It's not a bad thing to be teamed up with scriptwriter Mari Okada (GOSICK, Wandering Son), but the show's expectations were certainly muted.
Looking back at the few titles P.A. Works have helmed, I wouldn't have guessed that they had the patience to work on a show like Hanasaku Iroha. While CANAAN and Angel Beats! were both decent approaches to a story, both were seeped in action and required sharper-than-nails drama. In this case, however, P.A. Works have shown their ability to focus on a softer series with roots that reach deeper into Japan's past. The animation feels like it has taken forever and a day to produce, and we're not overwhelmed with hammy acting or implausible plot.
In short, just how did Hanasaku Iroha get off to such an impressive first step with such a beautiful backdrop? More importantly, does the show have the pace and capability to wow the audience for eleven or twelve more episodes? If Hanasaku Iroha manages all that, it could be the sleeper hit of 2011.
(Hanasaku Iroha is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Sunday at 10:30 AM EST.)