Hanasaku Iroha 13

With this episode, the first half of the 26-episode run of Hanasaku Iroha comes to a strong close. And even though [C] ranked slightly higher this season, I consider this my second-favorite of the season, after runaway best, AnoHana. What’s more, I’m actually looking forward to the second half. This series has staying power.

Unlike those two 11-episode series, Hanasaku Iroha really is one of those series that benefits from being stretched out. It’s chock full of great characters, great atmosphere, and great slice-of-life…and has looked consistently awesome. I haven’t seen True Tears, and Canaan was underwhelming, but going forward this definitely could give my standing favorite P.A. Works piece, Angel Beats!, a run for its money.

This week was a family reunion of sorts, as the prodigal daughter Satsuki returns as per Ohana’s request. The horror stories of her little brother Enishi, who stayed by his mom’s side in the business, are really nicely depicted. Satsuki, for her part, has the typical gripes about the place and her mother not having changed a bit. But she isn’t just there to criticize; in fact, she invites her daughter and mother to her room and the three generations of Shijimas have a nice heart-to-heart-to-heart.

During this, a tossed(?) Ohana spills the beans about Ko; her mom and granny both think she’s giving up too easily; but this isn’t the only family reunion that took place. The other was Ohana returning to her family at Kissuiso; her friends Nako and Minko are like sisters to her, and she’s come to love the inn and everyone she works with. This is her life now; a life in Tokyo with Ko just wasn’t in the cards. Of course, this is her mom’s fault for shipping her here in the first place, but what happened happened, something good came out of it, and Ohana is staying put. She misses Ko, but she’s where she wants to be. Rating: 4

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After a phenomenal start and a rather less inspiring middle, the final third of this first season of Hanasaku Iroha is really ‘festing it up’, to borrow a phrase from Ohana. This week picks up where we left off; Ohana plucked off the street by Tohru and Minko. They spend the night in a hotel room, Tohru and Ohana have a late-night chat about Ko, which Minko listens in on. The next morning, Ohana wants them to help her kidnap her mother. Tohru agrees, but only if they bring Ko too.

Before that though, Tohru takes Minko on a dizzying culinary tour of Tokyo and makes her eat way too much. At times she considers this a date, but the fact of the matter is, Tohru may just be doing it to get her acquainted with famous tastes, without an ulterior motive. As Ohana said last night, he is kind, but his manner with women leaves too much to said womens’ imaginations. I feel pretty bad for Minko, since she (and we) know for sure that a part of him likes Ohana, but he won’t make a move. That said, Minko could be a little more forward with him regarding her feelings.

While in Tokyo, Ohana learns that she’s been acting selfishly, without regard to anyone else’s thoughts or motives. This is hammered home for her when Ko tells her he went to visit her but came up empty. This episode marked an even lower mark than was reached last week as far as their future together is concerned. They may both like each other, but they remain firmly lodged in a holding pattern, at best, while both of them have other potentials (Tohru in Ohana’s case; Igarashi in Ko’s). This is probably it for their story, until next season.

I was as surprised as Ohana when her mother had packed to come back with them to Kissuiso. Something finally clicked in her; perhaps the same thing that clicked in Ohana. At times, both of them play the villain in the lives of others (“Deferring her answer for a later time” is pretty villainous). Ohana had so much to yell at her mom for, but chose her bad review of the inn. When she heard the indignation in Ohana’s voice, it reminded her of the arguments she once had with her mother. Now for good or ill, there’s going to be a family reunion. Rating: 4

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Sure, there was a little bit of coincidence in this episode, but I still enjoyed how Ohana’s mission to “Fest it up” with the author of a bad review of Kissuiso turned into a bit of a review of her life so far. She returns to Tokyo, and it turns out her mother wrote it (one coincidence), without even visiting, because a superior told her to. Ohana’s reunion with both her mother and with Ko don’t go well, and by the end, she nearly has a breakdown, when just at the last minute, the van from Kissuiso shows up to ‘rescue’ her (another coincidence).

Never mind how they managed to track her down on the streets of the biggest metropolis in the world, or the fact her mother wrote the scathing staged review – I liked this episode. It was great to get out of the inn and the small town setting and return to Tokyo, if only for an episode. It led me to renew my hate of Ohana’s frankly awful, self-absorbed mom. I’m glad Ohana put up a brave front, and refused trifling bribes.  It also renewed my frustration with Ohana and Ko’s lack of progress in the relationship arena.

They finally meet after so long, but their meeting is soured by Ohana seeing the cute girl he works with at the bookstore. Well, and the lack of a plan going in. She just decided to…meet him, just like that. She’s about to scold him about not giving the smitten girl a firm answer, when she realizes that’s exactly what she failed to do for him. She can’t or won’t express all the pent-up feelings rattling around in her head, and decides the best thing to do is to turn tail…again. With this new low, and the fact that Ko is in Tokyo and Ohana…isn’t, perhaps romance lies elsewhere for her. Tohru, for instance. Rating: 4

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After running around overexerting herself and working so hard the past few episodes, Ohana finally pays for it with what everyone refers to as a “light fever.” Always so chipper and energetic, Ohana finally has to lay in bed and do nothing, and it makes her mind wander. This is is an episode with many strange an dreamy moments, and perfectly depicts the combined feelings of weakness, helplessness, boredom, lonliness, and uselessness being sick can cause.

Ohana dreams of a Ko surrounded by light in a shrine who calls her home. Indeed, laying in bed hearing everyone say how well they’re getting along without her, combined with her delirium, lead her to question her usefulness at Kissuiso. She starts to doubt whether she even belongs there at all. After all, working hard has led to her being in this state; how can she go on?

One by one, the staff visits her. Tohru appears to be more outwardly smitten with her than ever, probably due to Ohana having temporarily losing her sharp edge. Minko notices how he acts towards and talks about Ohana, further complicating that triangle in the future. But in the end, everyone convinces her that she is a vital piece of the puzzle at Kissuiso, and once she’s better, the whole place will be better with her back on duty. Rating: 4

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The longest day at Kissuiso continues with Ohana in a labyrinthene exhibition hall, looking for Tohru. Her search initially proves both fruitless and disruptive, and she retreats to a lonely staircase. Just then, Ko calls her, and tells her exactly what she needs to hear. She and Ko are never quite on the same wavelength, which is a factor of Ko not making it clear what he’s doing and why. If he likes her, and wants to see her, he should just tell her and meet up with her. Instead, he’s intent on keeping crucial information from Ohana, and as a result, he is never able to see her.

I prefer this, his decision to withhold his intentions, to dumb luck and coincidence keeping them apart. Ohana is extremely busy and extremely ditzy; Ko should know this, and spell everything out as clearly as possible. It’s disappointing that he isn’t able to get the words out in the precious few moments on the phone with her, but the fact he’s able to cheer her up at just the right time doesn’t quite seem like enough for either of them. These two are stuck in a long-distance holding pattern, which is a shame, but there’s plenty of episodes to resolve (or not resolve) this.

Meanwhile, the highly-charged energy and kinesis of Kissuiso continues. Ohana’s instincts prove correct, as when she brings Tohru back, the situation matures from barely-contained fiasco it was to a more controlled scenario where everything that needs to be done will get done. She also proves correct in insisting every guest be treated with equal care, as the mystery guests turn out to be different from the ones the consultant lady assumed. The manager returns to a reinvigorated Kissuiso, that can run smoothly in her absense and gained new pride in their teamwork and the service they provide. That should prove a great comfort and great worry to the aging manager. Rating: 4

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Hanasaku Iroha finally arrests its downward trend and comes surging back with an extremely dense yet focused episode that recalled the energy of the excellent early episodes of this series. Like those, a lot of stuff happens in a short time, making the episode feel much longer than it actually was. With seven groups equalling twenty fresh customers descending on Kissuiso all at once, it’s all hands on deck.

But it isn’t: the manager falls ill with old lady syndrome; Nako is off; Tohru is at a wedding somewhere, and the chef, finally in a high-pressure situation for the first time in a long while, is starting to crack. The absences aren’t the only thing that need to be addressed, either. One or more of the groups could be a “mystery guest” from the travel magazines, meaning if their stay isn’t perfect, they’ll write about it with their more-mightier-than-sword pens. And, oh yeah, Ko is coming to see Ohana, but since her phone is off during work (and thanks to an awfully-timed tunnel), she misses potentially crucial calls to meeting up with him.

Throughout all the chaos, Ohana is running all over the place with a glimmer of doubt, like something is “off”, but that’s natural: the head honcho, her grandmother, is out of comission, and Ohana has never had to deal with the inn at this level of busy-ness. When she realizes she’s inadvertently ignored Ko’s calls, she flips her phone back shut; she has a mission to accomplish (locate Tohru), and cannot let her personal problems get in the way of her job and the people depending on her. That’s kind of a raw deal for Ko, but that’s the price of surprising your very busy would-be girlfriend. As for how things will work out at the inn, this is a two-parter, so we don’t know yet. But I damn sure want to find out! Rating: 4

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I’ve been a bit disappointed at Hanasaku Iroha’s decline from excellent to great, and now, these past two episodes, simply good. I’m still enjoying the bathhouse hijinx, but those first couple episodes were truly outstanding, and the newest episodes pale in comparison. They’re too meandering, too episodic. I guess lulls are to be expected with a 26-episode run, but many other series of the same length have managed to impress from episode to episode. This is starting to verge on filler.

When I first saw snipers targeting Ohana and Nako, it was truly a WTF moment, and a worry that the show had already gone totally off the rails only seven eps in. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, as the newest guests at the inn are simply regimental “survivalists” who love hiding in bushes, pursuing targets and living off of rations. They’re really fun to watch. They’re also a clever mechanism for head waitress Tomoe – who is doubting her direction in life at the beginning – to get her groove back, so to speak. Clever, but random: I’d ask why survivalists are staying at a relatively cushy inn in the first place, but I won’t bother. Rating: 3

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Kissuiso has been a bathhouse in decline long before Ohana arrived. Her uncle seems to believe modernization is the key, and that requires a consultant. The consultant has a needlessly dramatic entrance, nearly killing Ohana and Nako and covering them in a cloud of dust, then scolds them for not welcoming her properly. But she’s of little use, suggesting silly gimmicks like tarting up the staff. To be fair though, the manager wants no part of her “consultations”.

This episode makes me wonder what the Japanese definition of “Old-fashioned” entails. Is it so bad that Kissuiso errs on the side of tradition? I’ve been to a TOTO bathroom fixture showroom in Shinjuku, and many of the displays featured Japanese baths, which are pretty much stools with a hose and bucket. This traditional form of bathing actually saves water, because a whole bathtub needn’t be drawn; only a few buckets worth for rinsing. A bath is primarily scrubbing while the water’s off. Thus, it makes sense that a very old-fashioned form of bathing – just like the kind one would do by the river centuries ago – survives in resource-scarce Japan.

So many establishments have decided to go outside their element in an attempt to wrangle customers, but this can easily backfire, as exhibited when Ohana and Nako, dressed in skimpy Chinese dresses, greet a family and end up embarassing the dad (through no fault of his own). Skimpy dresses and other cosplay simply don’t fit with Kissuiso’s image. Ohana’s grandmother isn’t being stubborn simply for stubbornness’ sake; she wants to preserve as traditional a bathhouse as she can; even profits seem secondary to that vision. Rating: 3

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It’s all that damn erotica authors fault…

Ah, a misunderstanding episode. While this series has definitely slowed down since the first two eps, it remains one of my favorites this spring. For some reason, this episode reminded me of an episode of Frasier, one in which a little misunderstanding is blown way out of proportion and everyone emotionally commits to an assumption that turns out to be false. Yeah, a lot of Fraiser episodes (and those of many many other shows) are like that, but for some reason Frasier came to mind first. Dunno why.

At any rate, Ohana is, as always, trying to get into Minko’s good graces, this time by going after Tohru, who the author deduces has defected to rival Fukuya. Combined with Minko and Ohana seeing the Fukuya heiress on a motorbike with him, Minko is devastated. She isn’t kidding anyone with her tough, dealing-with-it face, including Ohana. Of couse, as it turns out, Tohru only filled in for one night at Fukuya, and far from dating Fukuya, she just wanted a ride.

It’s a well-written and acted episode to me, because all of the factual omissions that lead to the understanding are very organic and fit nicely with the individual characters involved: the author’s tendency to jump to conclusions, Minko’s infatuation with Tohru, and Ren’s tight-lippedness. All of the facts they have seem to point to him leaving, and they have no reason to question for how long he’ll be gone, or whether he’ll come back. Those who know what’s really going on stay quiet too, because they have better things to do. While I knew the twist was coming from a mile away, it was still well-played and an entertaining watch. Rating: 3.5

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The school trimester starts, and Ohana ends up in the same class as Minko and Nako. There she quickly learns how a school full of teenagers from the boonies react when a “Tokyo Girl” arrives. She never gave it much thought before now, and neither did we. She even seems to have a boyfriends – of sorts, though she’ll always deny it. That said, all her little inner retorts to the rapidfire comments of the classmates are quite funny…and true too.

A beautiful girl comes to release her from the oglers. She turns out to be Ohana’s sworn enemy, Yuina. Well, not really, just another heiress to a profitable bathhouse, Fukuya. She’s the first to approach Ohana as a regular girl. Ohana learns a lot at school, between the classes: Minko is very popular with the fellas, but rejects them all before they can even get their confessions out.

In her resentful interactions with Ohana throughout the episode, she ends up slipping up, attributing the same qualities she sees in her ideal man to Tohru. This shocks Ohana, who has always seen Tohru as a tiresome tease. But Minko is serious, and Tohru likely has no idea, especially when the twist arrives: Yuina is dating him! All this human drama is nicely punctuated by the presence of a very bold grey heron who is always bumping into Ohana. I’m not sure if there’s some symbolism in that, but it’s intriguing all the same. Rating: 3.5

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Another absolutely masterful twenty-four minutes of coming-of-age drama and slice-of-life. Ohana tries to ingratiate herself with her grandma/manager and co-workers by being pro-active. This serves to show them she knows how to work; her useless mother saw to that. But constantly taking initiatives and surprising people is not always ideal in a business as complex as a bathhouse. It’s more about everyone being a part of a well-oiled machine, not acting independently.

Ohana doesn’t keep acting inconsiderate and spontaneous. She vows to change her behavior. But she’s not going to change who she is, and she isn’t going to allow Minko to keep telling her to die, nor Nako to keep being so shy and tight-lipped. These two girls are still not quite her friends, but with much effort, they’re getting there, slowly. I like how nothing, nothing comes easy for Ohana. That’s what makes it so realistic.

An especially great little moment occurs when she’s relaxing outside thinking about boys the very moment Tohru appears. Their non-flirtation in the van which almost gets them both killed, is kind of a wake-up call to Ohana. She can’t just do things her way. Thoughtful effort can be construed as thoughtless to others. Thus, one shouldn’t tell someone to “die” carelessly.

Finally, this episode is just as gorgeous as the first, if not moreso. Not only is the bathhouse itself an intricately-detailed, labyrinthine feast for the eyes, but the town and the skies above it – be it dawn, dusk, sunset or misty morning, are nothing short of breathtaking. The opening theme is really grating, but I don’t care. The show that follows is a home run. Rating: 4

Hanasaku Iroha – First Impressions

Hanasaku Iroha was instantly enjoyable, wisking you along with Ohana on a semiepic journey from the cramped and monotonous big city to the sprawling grandeur of the countryside, then into a fircely strict and unyeilding work environment the likes of which she’s never seen, experienced, or expected. I also found the character instantly appealing; easily moreso than many others Kanae Ito has voiced.

That her mother essentially abandons her and makes her move away from her life and friends to the home of a grandmother who wants nothing to do with her (and slaps her) and it all happens so fast. Still, as we listen to her inner monologue, she is acting quite mature for a 16-year-old: certainly unprepared for her plight, but keen enough to know it and be ready to adapt, which she’ll have to do.

And while this introductory episode was just about perfectly paced, with nary a dull or wasted moment, it felt like an hour (and I say that as a good thing); so dense was the narrative. It was also exceedingly good-looking, with loving attention to detail and some truly gorgeous vistas, both urban, rural, and, er, town-y. Immediately this series establishes itself as both coming-of-age tale and slice-of-life, and I haven’t seen one as good as this since Working. The bathhouse also brings to mind Spirited Away, though Ohana is older and far less bratty than Chihiro, and its role as a world in and of itself, where everyone has roles to play.

We got a sneak-peak at some of the people who will help shape Ohana’s life, including Minko, a taciturn girl who immediately takes a dislike to her (and is voiced by a toned-down-for-once Chiaki Omigawa) and Nako (voiced by Aki Toyosaki, also voice of Railgun’s Uiharu). These three girls will likely form the nucleus, but the creepy uncle and battlaxe grandmother should prove entertaining supporters. I’m definitely stoked about this one. I don’t often toss out “4”s to first episodes, but this one’s deserving. Rating: 4