Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I’ve been in the process of watching Shaft’s anime March Comes In Like A Lion (original run 2016-2018), a slice of life series focusing on a young professional shogi player. It’s exceptionally well-done, and I plan to write about it once I’ve finished it, but it got me thinking about another slice of life anime, Hanasaku Iroha. Hanasaku stands as my personal favorite animated series, and it's an example of a show I tend to like more and more with each subsequent watching. Produced by P.A. Works in 2011, Hanasaku follows a girl named Matsumae Ohana as she moves from her home in Tokyo to live with her grandmother at a traditional hot spring inn, Kissuisou, run by her extended family. It’s a fairly simple premise, and the show moves slowly—at least one person I know has called it boring—but everything about the anime, from the soft coloration to the airy strings to the slow-burning characterization, is absolutely beautiful.
A Matter of Perspective
Much of what makes Hanasaku special is its (rather large) cast. The anime centers around the lives of the employees of the Kissuisou, which includes three generations of the Shijima family (including Ohana herself, as Shijima is Ohana’s mother’s maiden name). The early episodes primarily center on Ohana as she adapts to life at the Kissuisou and wins the respect of the novelty-averse staff, as well as on the two other part-time employees who are close to Ohana in age. As the show goes on, however, we’re given insights into the lives of every member of the Kissuisou’s staff, and therein lies Hanasaku’s unique charm.
Slice of life anime series almost always focus on high-school-aged students (or occasionally junior high or college). This isn’t an inherently bad thing, and there are plenty of anime, novels, and games that focus on this demographic and nonetheless say something broader than the characters’ ages may imply—for examples of this, look to standouts like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Your Lie in April. While Hanasaku’s protagonist, at 16, falls right in the center of the typical Japanese-pop-fiction-hero age, most of the anime’s characters are considerably older, each is at an entirely different stage of life, and their personal growth is every bit as integral to the overall story as Ohana’s.
This makes Hanasaku highly interesting in comparison to its contemporaries. Ohana’s emotional journey is engaging enough, but the more memorable episodes by far are the ones that feature the inn’s other employees. Shijima Sui, Ohana’s grandmother and the owner of the Kissuisou, at first appears to be a demanding and crotchety taskmaster who’s stuck in the past, but as the story develops we begin to see Sui from the perspective of the older characters—including Ohana’s mother—and we’re given more context for Sui’s actions. The Kissuisou was an entrepreneurial passion project started when Sui was recently married, and Sui still believes firmly in her initial vision of caring for those who stay at the inn. Through various anecdotes and stories, we come to see why the inn’s employees have such respect for Sui, and we become able to empathize with her deeply as she struggles to keep the inn running in a changing world.
And Sui is just one example. Each character has different goals and concerns, which creates variety and keeps the show interesting. The character development is generally gradual and (by anime standards) free of melodrama. There are, to be sure, moments of particular tension and panic, but these tend to arrive and pass quickly, often the result of misplaced rumors or simple misunderstandings. The true dramatic progression in the show happens calmly over long periods of time, and major moments of character growth come not through immediate crises but in moments of self-reflection after relatively mundane events. The focus of Hanasaku Iroha is on the gradual personal growth that comes through everyday life, and on the beautiful moments that happen amidst the mundane.
Were the anime to focus solely on Ohana, this would not be nearly as effective (and it could easily fall into “boring” territory). Where Hanasaku succeeds is in the breadth of its cast. Most days at the Kissuisou are fairly similar, with familiar concerns and tensions and dramas appearing again and again—Minko’s unrequited affection for Tohro, her fellow chef; Ohana’s uncle Enishi’s endless attempts to modernize the Kissuisou; neighborhood rumors about the declining popularity of traditional inns—it all becomes part of the landscape, and while some of these issues eventually come to a head, many more of them are never resolved, mirroring the often-trivial long-term anxieties we tend to fixate on. Hanasaku finds its variety in presenting this daily life from multiple perspectives. When something unusual happens, we return to Ohana’s point of view, but many times we see the day-to-day from the perspective of the other employees of the inn, and we are given insight into how they process their lives and the meaning they find in their work.
The result of this is an exceptionally rich and layered setting, where the viewer has a deep understanding of the motivations, concerns, and connections of each member of the cast, which then translates to an affection for each of the inn’s employees. The Kissuisou is portrayed as a fundamentally good place, a place a little off the map that those who visit fall in love with and return to again and again. The attitude Sui insists on conveying to her guests is also presented to the viewer, and the result is a calmly uplifting anime that is, ultimately, about the beauty of the mundane and the goodness of people.
Traditional, and Also Not
On the surface, there is a strong theme of tradition in Hanasaku Iroha. The novelty-seeking Ohana initially arrives at the Kissuisou full of action and idealism, only to be shut down by her overbearing grandmother, but then as time goes on Ohana comes to understand her grandmother’s reasoning and eventually embraces the traditionalism of the inn. The matriarch of the family knows best, and the proud old inn makes people happy and stands against the soulless modern hotels. Even visually the anime is filled with traditional Japanese images, from cherry blossoms to kimono to the inn itself.
And yet, Hanasaku Iroha embraces variety and change. Ohana’s entertaining creativity and her appetite for novelty last throughout the entire anime, even as she grows to appreciate the traditional. Where new things are presented as foolish or threatening initially, they are gradually rounded out to become just another part of the world. The most complete romantic relationship in the anime is between Enishi—Sui’s son, and the first in line to own the inn on her death—and an outsider who constantly encourages innovation and change. Aside from this being interesting because of the age of the characters—they are in their 30s, which is quite a bit older than most anime couples—their literal marriage symbolizes the metaphorical marriage of old and new that is at the heart of Hanasaku’s thematic conflicts. While they come into conflict on occasion, ultimately novel and traditional ideas join together—even if uneasily—to create the foundation for the next generation.
Change in Hanasaku Iroha happens gradually, as a result of traditional worldviews slowly adapting to new challenges. The characters often grow and develop so slowly that it is difficult to notice it happening. As a result, the most striking moments in Hanasaku are those when change is thrown into the sharpest relief. In the show’s 10th episode, “Slight Fever,” we have the opportunity to step back for the first time to view the Kissuiosou with a bit more objectivity. Ohana is ill and bedridden, and the episode consists almost entirely of the Kissuisou’s staff visiting her throughout the day. Through the things they say, we see both how their attitudes towards Ohana have change and how they have grown through the first half of the show. Similarly, in the final episode, the Kissuisou is finally forced to close down, and a bit of distance reveals just how much the characters have grown during the course of the anime.
For all the show’s traditionalism, I think this gradual change and growth is Hanasaku Iroha’s heart. The anime’s title roughly translates to, “The ABCs of Blossoming.” Blossoming is not a static state, but rather a transformation. Each of the characters, from the youngest to the oldest, grows and changes in some way, and that growth and change outlasts even the Kissuisou itself, despite the Kissuisou being a clear representation of the best of the traditional. The anime begins and ends with forward, onward movement, informed by and grateful to the past, but not bound to it.
All Good Things…
As melancholic as it is, the closing of the Kissuisou is a brilliant way to end the anime. The inn becomes such a positive force throughout the show that its somewhat sudden closure comes as a huge blow, but the forward movement and the growth and change the Kissuisou’s closing necessitates is very much in-keeping with everything Hanasaku is about. While the Kissuisou itself was a good place for its characters to grow and develop, it is not in itself necessary. The characters’ lives will continue on after the inn, and they will find new goals, new concerns, and new meaning in whatever follows.
That Hanasaku’s characters would have to let go of the inn eventually was nearly inevitable, but the inn’s end’s presence in the anime forces the viewer to also let go of the inn. Just as Ohana, Sui, and the rest need to continue on beyond the special place that is the Kissuisou, so too does the viewer. This ending is an encouragement for the viewer to mentally leave the inn, taking its mentality with them, rather than abandoning the attitude of the anime when the last episode ends. In one sense, it is a challenge to the viewer—the regret and disappointment inherent in seeing the Kissuisou close can serve as an impetus to keep its spirit alive in one’s thoughts and actions, just as the anime’s characters aspire to do.
This final episode in effect serves as a bridge from the idealized-but-believable everyday life of Hanasaku Iroha to the real everyday life that we face daily. It won’t leave an impression on every viewer, but for some (such as myself) it will be striking. The unique blend of melancholy and optimism is singularly beautiful, and it only grows more so as I think back on it and rewatch it. It’s unlikely that Hanasaku Iroha will ever grow beyond its relative obscurity, but its careful construction and its timelessness establish it as among the strongest works its genre has to offer.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition