Tuesday, July 31, 2012

:anime: Final Impression:: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai. (AnoHana)

This was actually posted on Aug. 28, but since this was originally supposed to be posted as a "Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick of the Month"/review hybrid for July, I am listing it as an item for that month, even though it, uh, quite isn't…

Review: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai. (We Still Don't Know the Name of the Flower We Saw That Day.)
Alt. Titles: AnoHana, anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day

Official Sites: Japanese, English
Additional Links: ANN Entry, MAL Entry
Video: Crunchyroll (Note: First four episodes available to everyone, rest of show available to Subscribers only)

Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai. (or "AnoHana", for short) was one of four series spotlighted in HardDoor's spring/summer 2011 noitaminA preview. From its April debut, the 11-episode drama went on to become one of the year's most heavily-lauded series, second only to its biggest star, Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Perhaps it is of little surprise, given that many of the key individuals behind it also made the beloved Toradora!, but so praised has AnoHana become, that it has already cracked the top five of ANN's top-rated anime of all-time. The Toradora! carryover was to be expected, but the amount of praise it recieved took me by surprise. I was looking forward to the series ever since it was announced, so in a rare break from protocol, I sought out a fansub for the series, since it was unavailable through "legal means" at the time (though now is at Crunchyroll). However, after clearing out time to watch the entire 11-episode series in the span of a few days, I could't say that I shared the same sentiment as everyone else.

Following the death of a friend when he was younger--one which he feels accountable for--a teen boy named Jinta became deeply depressed and a shut-in, no longer attending school nor speaking to his former group of friends, who have all drifted apart from one another following the tragedy. One day, Menma--the girl long-thought dead--suddenly appears to him in his home. She knows neither the reason why she is still around, nor why only he can see her, but together, they try to find those answers--and perhaps reconnecting with their once-close friends belies one of the keys…

In spite of the creators' best intentions, one of the chief problems with AnoHana is, unfortunately, Menma herself. With her distinct long, silver hair, petite body, and white dress, Menma stands out, almost like a symbol of purity. While likely by design as the focal character and centerpiece of the show and her group of friends, it is hard not to be distracted by how much she sticks out among the more normal- and teenage-looking characters. It is a distinctiveness that works against the series and is worsened by the almost child-like demur that Menma displays, which makes it even harder to believe that she is a teen herself, much less a person (her appearance is shown to have aged from the childhood flashbacks, but still manages to look too young. Not that she meshed any better then, either…).

Her very character feels more like a caricature than anything else: a creation whose sole existance is to look and act cute and elicit sentiment and sympathy from the viewer. This doesn't jive well with the more "realistic", grounded, and well-rounded characters around her, who make her look one-dimensional and banal. She's an unreal person in a real world amongst a bunch of real characters, and that's a problem when you have a story built on a realistic premise (the effects of childhood loss) and lacking a fantastical sense. Even the "ghost" aspect feels like an awkward fit, making it feel as if you are watching two completely different shows. In the quest of creating an endearing central character, AnoHana's handlers were heavy-handed in their approach, giving the show an unbalanced and ham-fisted feel.

As given by her traits, there is a certain emphasis--or, rather, overemphasis--on Menma, and the complications brought about by that the aforementioned character duality is underscored by the matters surrounding her childhood friends. On one side, their interrelationships and the changes undergone from earlier times form the most satisfying and compelling parts of AnoHana, where the show feels like a somewhat typical, but well-executed, teen drama surrounding a circle of aloof friends. Here, it feels more alive than any other time (joke unintended), but once the sticky matter of Menma rears its head, it becomes bogged down and the characters begin to act obsessive, if not crazed, over her. I do not mean that in a good, story-driven way, either: it's enough so to make you think that they all need serious, clinical help with the way they react about her. From the tear-soaked finale to a literally-unbelievable secret that one of the friends holds, there is an excess in the way AnoHana tries to convey its emotional content, sometimes to the point of comedy.

Scriptwriter Mari Okada, who penned the entire series, possesses a resume of both strong and questionable titles, but familiar problems are present. Fractale, a series she did just a few months before, suffered from pacing and story exposition problems. CANAAN's writing was easily the weakest element of the stunningly-animated series (a detraction it could never overcome). The Book of Bantorra drew criticism for its composition and story structure. Lastly, Red Garden--a series of her's that I adore--didn't quite explain key details and certainly was not lacking in melodrama (though that was more befitting of its American-based dramatic style).

AnoHana may be able to handle the aspects of a ghost interacting with the real world , but the finer points of its plot? Not so much…

Such story problems mar AnoHana, as well, which does better at handling its main plot point than it does the myriad of little details and subplots that get inserted along the way (and even then, not so much). It does well enough in trying to answer all of the nagging logical questions regarding Menma's interactions with the world of the living, for example, but fails to give some real clarity and insight into her actual, oft-mentioned death. In the case of the pivotal flashbacks, they were suitable for for establishing the plot's history, (too) often revisiting the events leading up to Menma's death, but they fell short at doing the same for something as highly-important and central as the children's collective friendship. It isn't as well-developed or -covered as it should have been, and it shows in the sometimes-lacking portrayal of the group's dynamic. Moreover, a prime highlight of the series' propensity for melodrama-over-substance comes in the passing of Jinta's mother's, which is ungainly woven into Menma's own and serves as nothing more than another layer of sap, not some valuable piece of character or plot building.

Perhaps director Tatsuyuki Negai, who did an impressive job with A Certain Scientific Railgun and also did well helming two episodes of Mushi-Shi, could be a bit culpable for AnoHana's uneven execution, too, as leader of the production. Its overall values, mind you, are good, as is its effort in bringing out the attractive qualities in Masayoshi Tanaka's (Toradora!, Highschool of the Dead) character designs. In addition, the score, while not entirely standout, is suitable enough and the acting's very good, in spite of everything. There is even an added sense of pride taken with its fashion sense (WARNING: Link contains plot spoilers), as the characters don an ever-changing array of fine garbs (as opposed to the usual "single set of clothing" look in animation), but it all feels somewhat a waste when the end product feels as loose and ill-cohesive as it does.

Good design work can't make up for questionable execution…

From the outset, Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai. looked to be a very promising work, based on the previous efforts of Negai, Tanaka, and studio A-1 Pictures, and its premise and overall look. Unfortunately, its handlers chose to lather on the sentiment and sympathy rather than letting the natural feelings from the loss of a childhood friend play itself out. Too present is an air of emotional manipulation, begging you to feel sorry for Menma's plight or the state of her friends's minds and their varying levels of coping. The result is an overwrought, nay desperate, work, and that makes it difficult to feel much of anything under such inflation. AnoHana may not be a "bad" show, per se, as its the creators did have their hearts in the right place, and lovers of melodrama and emotional stories will likely love this tale, but for all of its extraneous effort, it only amounts to being a vacuous and underwhelming one.

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