Hanasaku Iroha Part 1 (Episodes 1-13) (Cert 12)

2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 309 minutes approx.

Change is inevitable but as the old adage goes, one has to want to change for it to work. Some need it, some resist it, many fear it but is it really for the better? The truth is you never know until you try but don’t expect results straight away or you’ll not be able to tell where the benefits are.

16 year-old Ohana Matsumae is desperate for change in her life. Her mother Satsuki pays little attention at her except at meal times which Ohana cooks, she feels stultified at school and her best friend, Koichi Tanemura, declares his feelings for her but Ohana doesn’t know how she feels. When Satsuki’s dubious boyfriend decides to run away to avoid his debts and takes Satsuki with him, Ohana is sent alone to the country to be in the care of her estranged grandmother, Sui.

Thinking she is going to be living in a lavish country estate, Ohana discovers Sui, runs an old fashioned onsen hotel Kissuiso, and instead of welcoming her grandchild with open arms, Sui immediately puts Ohana to work! With no apparent love lost in the family, and having already seemingly upset other staff members, Ohana begins to regret making this move but is determined to use this experience to make herself a better person.

Hanasaku Iroha comes from the prolific pen of Mari Okada, whose work not only spans decades but also genres and styles, yet she is most noted for her slice-of-life dramas revolving around relationships. It is apparent from the opening scene of this series that is no different, and with Okada’s own relationship with her mother famous fractious at best, looks to be a very personal work.

Usually in anime when teenagers are left alone the parents depart before the main story begins, but for this take, it is relevant that we witness this scenario as it is crucial to the central plot, and not just a contrived launching pad. Grandmother Sui isn’t just a stern, crotchety hidebound old matriarch who runs a tight ship, she has deep rooted ill feelings towards her troublesome daughter, the latter clearly not cut out for responsibility and hard graft.

Slivers of information regarding this bitter relationship are shared throughout the first half of this 26-episdoe run, but the main bone of contention is how much Ohana reminds Sui of Satsuki, thus she assumes it is a case of like mother, like daughter. Of course, this couldn’t be more wrong – Ohana has grown up angry and disappointed with her mother, feeling the brunt of her capricious and selfish ways her entire life, hence leaping at the chance of a new start.

With nepotism all but unlikely, Ohana has to muck in with the other staff at the hotel as hard, if not harder, to earn her keep, whilst earning their trust and respect too. On her arrival she is told to die by surly chef’s assistant Minko Tsurugi, the obligatory tsundere unable to reconcile her feelings for others. Ohana discovers her uncle Enishi Shijima also works at the hotel, a feeble man bullied by his sister and is easily cowed by Sui.

Closer to Ohana’s age like Minko is shy attendant Nako Oshimizu, whilst 20-something head attendant Tomoe Wajima, junior chef Toru Miyagishi, head chef Renji Togashi and elderly grounds man Beans round off the main staff. They are later joined by Taro Jiromaru, a failed novelist living off the hotel through false pretences until his ruse is exposed and he is forced to work off his debts.

This line-up is admittedly a little tropey in places but Okada’s flair for creating interesting characters gives them substance and depth gradually explored as the series rolls on. As a slice-of-life show, it is inevitable that everyone will go through a process of change, maturity and personal growth, but this is charted exponentially through a catalogue of situations ranging from the silly to the sentimental.

An example of the sillier plots comes as early as episode three when Taro’s mendacity is brought to light after he kicks off about losing his next best selling manuscript. Ohana finds it and reads it, discovering Taro writes erotic fiction using the girls at the hotel as his inspiration. It treads a fine line between tacky and pathos, yet feels incongruent when juxtaposed with the overall warmth and gentle vibes permeated through the rural setting.

Okada’s balancing of comedy and domestic drama my prove a challenge for some, given the undulating shift in tone which can’t decide between drastic and subtle. The gentle laughs are the more affecting of the two, summing up the general good nature of the show and the characters. After a rocky start the group begins to gel and yes, Ohana is the catalyst for this, allowing Okada to give everyone a moment in the spotlight and make them all feel like important part of the machine.

P.A Works are the animating studio for this title and their usual high standard artwork is on display, spoiling us with detailed backgrounds and gorgeously rendered architecture and everyday objects. The characters are overall a tad cutesy, with Minko, Nako and Tomoe being a little too similar but the definition of their faces is strong enough not to draw comparison with the casts from other shows.

Reaching the halfway stage, the hotel is in the awkward position of being an attraction for its old-fashioned ways yet needing to change to compete with modern rivals. The support character of business consultant Takako Kawajiri, whom Enishi worships, may or may not be the solution, yet the one resolution still needed, the relationship between Ohana and Sui, is still in its nascent stages.

Despite a few iffy chapters, the abundant charm and earnest drama of Hanasaku Iroha takes hold very quickly, with Ohana being one of the more likeable and infectious anime protagonists. A wholly captivating and edifying first half to what is already a real treat of a show.

 

Extras:

Japanese Language 2.0 DTS HD-MA

English Subtitles

Disc 2 only:

Clean Opening Animation

Clean Closing Animations

Japanese Trailers

Trailers

 

Rating – ****   

Man In Black