Ano Hana is a slice of life anime series that pulls on the heart strings. The show is, for the most part, grounded in characters that act and behave like real high school kids from Japan. Ano Hana follows a broken circle of 6 close friends as they finally come to terms with an accident that took the life of Meiko "Menma" Honma. The five remaining members reunite, despite bitter feelings, to grant Menma's wish so that she can pass on to the afterlife.
Ano Hana's full title translates as, "We still don't know the name of the flower that we saw that day." The title refers to a real incident but is also to how the members lost because they never could reflect on what happened and move forward. Bittersweet and reflective for the most part, the show is part of recent group of anime series that are more like acted dramas and have product placement.
Jinta, Menma and the others used to spend their carefree days up at their secret base having adventures and saving the world as the "Super Peace Busters." All the estranged friends have nicknames from this era. As will be clear, things didn't go horribly wrong just because Menma died. All the bad blood has its roots in this era. Each of the members simply rejected fixing the problems after Menma died and instead turned away from what could have been a better future for all of them.
Jinta "Jintan" Yadomi, the formally charismatic leader, is introduced as an unfocused, reserved and isolated teenager. The only super power he gets to change his life around is the adorable Menma. Being dead and all, there's little she can do but nag Jinta as her presence can only be seen by him. Menma herself seems unchanged in both character and age since her drowning as a child.
Menma's drowning weighed on Jinta considerably because he felt his refusal to confess he liked her set in motion the events that led to the accident. (Note to self: Properly confess if in similar circumstances.) Jinta feels burdened by this responsibility and feels no joy at being the only one able to see and properly interact with Menma. Neither Jinta nor Menma are particularly worried initially about why she's there.
Naruko "Anaru" Anjo is the first of the friends to make an appearance. Outwardly, she's aloof to Jinta and has sworn off childish things. She is deeply conflicted by her jealously of Menma and wanting to atone for her role in asking Jinta to confess.
It's Naruko's visit to drop off Jinta's summer homework that helps kick off the story. Menma is both excited to see her friend and then horribly shocked at Jinta's cold reaction to Anaru. Things haven't gone well in her absence.
Atsumu "Yukiatsu" Matsuyuki and Chiriko "Tsuruko" Tsurumi are both initially very cold to Jinta. They both attend the elite high school that Jinta failed the entrance exam for. The pair are extremely competitive and the demands of their school work make thinking of helping Menma reach Nirvana an unwelcome distraction. Atsumu like Naruko was intensely jealous of Jintan and Menma because he fancied Menma too. Chiriko is loyal to Atsumu to the point of being confused as his lover despite him never being romantically interested in her.
Jinta ends up wandering up to the old secret base when looking for Menma and he stumbles into Tetsudo "Poppo" Hisakawa. Tetsudo has outgrown (in many ways) his awkward youth and his gregarious attitude helps end the group's isolation from each other.
The show touches on a couple parts of contemporary Japanese society. One part is the intense pressure children their age face from the education system. If you screw up one entrance test, you'll miss out on going to a good high school and be left behind as those that succeeded go on to get the prime positions in good universities and then jobs. With a good support system of friends, family and teachers, kids can still thrive but, in the case where a student feels overwhelmed, giving up on society can seem like a good option.
Ano Hana is pretty blunt about bullying. In particular, it touches on how those that don't fit in or drop out get ostracized in Japan. While societal issues are appropriately never blamed, they are outed as being detrimental to mental health of many in Jintan's group. A scene where Jinta overhears the nattering local wives felt uncomfortably real.
Ano Hana deals, of course, in spiritual matters. There is a cute ghost called Menma walking around in it after all. One thing that might be lost on non-Japanese viewers is that Menma has no shoes on. This is not accidental as the removal of the shoes (as is done without fail when entering a house) signifies a detachment with the unclean outside. My opinion on this is that it implies that Menma is at peace with what happened. Instead, the key to her reaching Nirvana is elsewhere.
The theme songs are inspired choices that deserve special mention. The ending theme which is a cover of Zone's original ties in perfectly with the mode of this series. The opening theme by Galileo Galilei is a catchy choice as well. Otherwise, music is used sparingly.
Personally, I found that the characters and story really endured themselves to me. I was there yelling (and crying) along with Jinta's group at the bitter end. The story itself is paced appropriately but is considerable slower than most. If you're looking for comedy or action then your best bet is somewhere else. If you're still thinking you might like to watch this then, since I'm giving a four out of four tissue rating, you won't be disappointed. I highly recommend it.
Movie Release (2013 - Summer)
Ano Hana is being adapted for a theatre release in the summer of 2013 in Japan. The story will likely be much the same but will be told from Menma's perspective. There's one thing I can almost guarantee: Pepsi Co. pays for product placement in the movie as well. I'm hopeful the recycling of this series for film could improve it. It could also be crass capitalization of fans. I suppose we'll get to make that judgement call next year.