“Shakespeare in the park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” ―Tony Stark, The Avengers
A chance encounter with Hana Fountainstand introduces the average Naru Sekiya to the world of Yosakoi. Despite her clumsiness and lack of coordination, Naru is determined to commit to Yosakoi and decides to join Hana on her quest to found a Yosakoi club for their middle school. Their club struggles to gain members, but soon, Tami Nishimikado joins their number after Naru encourages her to be truthful about what she longs for. When Yaya Sasame, Naru’s best friend, suffers a setback after her band disbands, she also accompanies Naru. The club pushes towards their performance, takes on Sari Tokiwa as an advisor and while stumbling along the way, also picks up Machi Tokiwa as a member. Together, the girls pursue a common dream of performing Yosakoi together despite their disparate backgrounds: seeing Naru’s commitment to things encourages and inspires each of Hana, Yaya, Machi and Tami to do their best, as well. When the Hanairo Festival draws near, Hana leaves for America. Seeing her friends’ focus inspires Hana to convince her parents to turn around and grant her the wish of dancing with Naru, Yaya, Tami and Machi, culminating in a successful performance at Hanairo. Hanayamata dates back to the summer of 2014, and for this Terrible Anime Challenge, I find myself watching a show that, while with evident limitations, one that nonetheless managed to exceed expectations. Hanayamata is a visual treat and stands out with its beautifully-rendered settings: the colourful world creates a sense of wonder that is meant to accentuate the joys that Naru and the others feel while dancing, and enrich the emotional tenour of each fall, discovery and experience. Solid from a technical perspective, Hanayamata shines with its thematic elements; ostensibly an anime with little purpose beyond watching a group gather and work towards a shared goal as per the progression of many anime adapted from Manga Time Kirara manga have done, Hanayamata surprises with the message that it leaves viewers with.
Despite its propensity for comedy and funny faces, Hanayamata consciously chooses to give each of Naru, Hana, Yaya, Tami and Machi a unique set of challenges. Naru has never found something to do that defines her, being ever worried about failing after an incident in elementary school. Hana struggles to enthuse others as she pursues something to make the most of her time in Japan. Yaya becomes jealous of Naru’s friendship with Hana and loses a bit of her identity when her bandmates decide to call it quits. Tami has longed to find something meaningful for herself, having lived her entire life trying to earn her father’s praise, and Machi is determinedly trying to prove her sister wrong through hard work, disapproving of the Yosakoi club’s carefree nature. Each of the girls, in a sense, has fallen; it is through Yosakoi, a dancing style characterised by use of instruments known as Naruko but otherwise can be performed in various manners, with different music, props and numbers of people. Hana chooses Yosakoi because of the freedom that it offers, and it is this freedom that draws each of the girls in. Naru wants to be free of failure and find something where she can have fun in the moment. Yaya wants the freedom of setting aside a past commitment and finding a new place to belong. Tami wants the freedom to pursue her own interests, and Machi wants the freedom of making her own path, distinct from that of her sister’s. Regardless of what their initial reasons are, and their initial distance from one another, everyone converges on wanting to do something memorable for one another. In the process of dancing and working together, Naru, Hana, Yaya, Tami and Machi become closer to one another than they’d been previously, with the liberty in Yosakoi acting as the catalyst that inspires each of the Yosakoi club’s members to shine.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Naru Sekiya is Hanayamata‘s protagonist: voiced by Reina Ueda (Hane Sakura of Bakuon!!, which I’d written about in my previous Terrible Anime Challenge, and Infinite Stratos‘ Shizune Takatsuki), Naru reminds me a great deal of Brave Witches‘ Hikari Karibuchi in appearance. Initially, Naru’s one great love is fairy tales, of the sort that would be popular amongst grade schoolers, and she also does Iaidō, the art of sword control, but is otherwise quite unremarkable. Her world irrevocably changes when she meets one Hana Fountainstand at during her town’s Festival.
- The rich colours of Hanayamata and the loving depictions of landscapes is actually why this Terrible Anime Challenge post has thirty screenshots rather than twenty. The high saturation means that from a visual perspective, Hanayamata leaves a very strong impact that compels viewers to continue watching. The animation in Hanayamata was handled by Madhouse, of A Place Further Than The Universe, Chobits and Death Note fame – the visuals are a few years ahead of their time. Hanayamata is directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, who also would go on to work on A Place Futher Than The Universe. The inclusion of this title in her repertoire quickly puts to bed the claim that the use of light is a recurring theme in any of Ishizuka’s work.
- An American, Hana’s surname “Fountainstand” is a bit unusual; I’ve never heard of that as a family name before, and Google-fu finds that this is perhaps unique to Hanayamata. Hana herself is an American interpretation of Kiniro Mosaic‘s Karen Kujo, being energetic, friendly and optimistic. Her lack of understanding of some Japanese customs is why she’s so persistent about getting Naru to partake in Yosakoi with her, and while Naru is initially reluctant, she finds herself drawn to Hana’s positive spirit. This is a setup I’ve seen countless times in other shows, and Hanayamata begins very slowly.
- However, once the party gets started, things really pick up. Here, Hana hauls Yaya to the school rooftop to show her the effort Naru’s been putting in to learning the basics of Yosakoi. A capable student, Yaya also is a member of the band “Need Cool Quality”. In contrast with the “smart and serious” archetype, I found it difficult to empathise with Yaya initially; her clinginess to Naru is a bit reminiscent of Megumi and Mari’s relationship in A Place Futher Than The Universe. One of the great strengths of Hanayamata, then, is being given exposition to Yaya’s story and watching how this influences her decision to take up Yosakoi.
- Student council president Machi is quick to shoot down Hana and Naru’s plans to bring Yosakoi to their high school. She’s seen as a bit of a stubborn figure opposed to Yosakoi, being a highly rigid, structured individual, and like Yaya, is initially not particularly likeable. Once her story is known, viewers will similarly empathise with her and accept her as a part of the Yosakoi club as Naru and the others do. I note that at some point in Hanayamata, a list of clubs is seen that includes a tank club and a romance club: these are references to Girls und Panzer and Love Lab, respectively, although the reason why this remains little more than a curiosity is because their inclusion is of little relevance to the main theme.
- Tami is more enthusiastic about joining the Yosakoi club, but has her own challenges to deal with in that she’s denied herself of fun things to become a proper Japanese woman for her father’s sake, having grown to long for his approval. Parental expectations form a minor sub-theme in Hanayamata, which is an especially relevant topic in contemporary society. I understand Tami’s drive to make her father proud, although in conversations with my parents, I was always told to pursue the path that best suits me with an honest effort. This approach removes pressure from the children to do well and allows them to focus on being the best they can be.
- In the end, it takes a bit of a speech from Naru to convince Tami to stick to her guns. Hanayamata suggests that individualism is important in one’s growth, and it is important to remember the context delivering this message. While in North America, individualism is at the forefront of all things, Japan expects conformity. This approach has placed a great deal of strain on youth, who struggle to express themselves: Hanayamata is therefore suggesting that some individualism and creativity is needed to build well-rounded individuals equipped to handle an ever-changing world. Of course, in North America, nearly unrestricted freedom has resulted in the phenomenon of “special snowflake syndrome”, and the best cure for this is an increased emphasis on teamwork and team play in the curriculum. By making one feel their best while part of a team, people can learn to appreciate that while everyone brings something unique to the table, progress can only be made when all of these things come together.
- While this post on Hanayamata has thirty images, I did not have a chance to include Masaru Ofuna, the owner of a Yosakoi supply shop. While resembling a yakuza, Masaru is actually friendly and inviting, helping the girls pick out their gear. He eventually develops a bit of a crush on Sari after meeting her at a Yosakoi performance, and occasionally will go out of his way to help the Yosakoi Club along whenever she asks. Sari doesn’t seem to mind him, and while the anime ended where it ended, I am curious to see if anything interesting happens between the two: the manga is still ongoing, after all.
- Looking back, Hanayamata is something that I would have enjoyed watching as it aired back in 2014: it ran during the height of the development work for the Giant Walkthrough Brain, during which I was fine-tuning some of the most sophisticated spline tools the Unity app needed for the performance. I think my reasons for not watching Hanayamata at the time was a lack of familiarity with Manga Time Kirara works; I’ve known about K-On! for a while, but remained quite unaware of the magazine it ran in. Anime of K-On!‘s style are up my alley because of their inherent simplicity and usually meaningful messages on the simpler things in life.
- In a manner of speaking, Sari is similar to K-On!‘s Sawako Yamanaka, enjoying the positive influence she has on her students and also can be lazy at times. However, when the chips are down, she’s motivated, caring and determined. Here, she outfits the others with animal ears and tails while trying to work out a Yosakoi costume for the club, leaving Tami and Naru with X-shaped mouths. This particular characteristic is reminiscent of Miffy, a Dutch series of picture books that first appeared in 1955. Because of Miffy’s similarity to Hello Kitty, it is a common misconception that Miffy is also Japanese in origin. The X-shaped mouths seem to represent befuddlement in Hanayamata.
- Once Tami becomes a full-fledged member of the Yosakoi club, focus turns to Yaya. After the band she’s a part of fails an audition and dissociates, Yaya falls into a depression, turning away Naru and the others. I’m not too sure what the progression in the manga was, but throughout Hanayamata‘s run, Yaya continued to invest time into her friends’ band, and so, with this coming to an abrupt end, Yaya is stuck trying to find a new place in the sun. Jealous of Naru and her belonging, Yaya lashes out at her. Yaya’s long viewed Naru as someone to look after, and so, she becomes insecure when Naru begins trying to make her own way about.
- Hanayamata has its characters cry to a nontrivial extent, and here, Naru reacts to Yaya’s tongue-lashing. Naru and Hana later reciprocate and kick Yaya’s ass in a metaphoric sense. Recalling that Naru and Hana have been trying to recruit her into Yosakoi, Yaya realises that she’s always had a place with Naru and the others. From this moment on, Yaya becomes a more dedicated member of the Yosakoi club and contributes to composing its music. The piano piece that she creates acts as a starting point for the song that the girls sing together, and for me, this was the magic moment of Hanayamata.
- I’ve heard some folks say that Hanayamata is Shakespearean in nature, and while it’s been quite some time since I’ve read any Shakespeare, I do not believe that this story can fully be considered a Shakespearean comedy. Hanayamata does deal with youth struggling (often against the problems their elders create), has elements of separation and reunification, a resolution of family problems by the end and there’s a clever servant (Masaru). However, the plot is by no means complex, there’s no frequent puns or romantic love story, nor is disguise an integral part of the plot. In spite of this, I’ve decided to go with a bit of a light-hearted quote from The Avengers to remind audiences of the fact that, despite the dramatic in Hanayamata, the series is ultimately a comedy at the end of the day, and because the Yosakoi costumes do seem to fit Tony Stark’s remarks nicely.
- After one practise, Sari comments on Naru and Tami’s thighs, leading the two to try and lose weight. Sari shares in common with some other instructors an uncommon (and perhaps, unhealthy) interest in students of that age range, and this is primarily intended for comedic purposes. The girls continue to push towards their first performance, and while Sari was initially opposed to it, seeing everyone’s determination causes her to have a change of heart: she even waives Hana’s unsatisfactory test scores. I’m not sure if I’m watching the same anime as some folk, who’ve felt it pertinent to remind other viewers that Japanese exams are different than exams from the west. This has no bearing on how successful Hanayamata is at presenting its story, and I reiterate here that while my talks may be academic-sounding, I’m here to share ideas, not lecture readers on obscure, useless trivia.
- I’ve chosen to stick to calling Sari by her given name rather than her nickname “Sally-sensei” – I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not particularly keen on calling people by their nicknames because that can lead to inconsistencies and confusion in my writing. Fortunately, phonetic similarity means that there shouldn’t be too much confusion, and here, Sari wilts after discovering she was responsible for forgetting the music the girls perform to. Machi retrieves the music just in time for the performance, and while Naru trips during their routine, Hana, Yaya and Tami reassure her that it’ll be alright.
- This is why Naru’s falling was not protracted: with her friends’ support, she recovers very quickly and moves ahead to seize the future. On the other hand, Machi’s decidedly hostile relationship with Sari is a result of her dismissing Machi’s efforts. Long ago, Machi looked up to Sari as an elder sibling, but when Sari wanted to pursue her own interests, she abandoned Machi and her dreams, as well. Machi has since viewed Sari as a selfish individual, and worries that Tami and the others will be hurt. This is why she’s so opposed to the Yosakoi club. However, when Sari demonstrates her commitment to her career choice by passing the certifications to become a full time instructor, Machi has a change of heart and joins the club in full.
- In becoming a fully-qualified teacher, Sari can continue to advise the Yosakoi club, and the girls set their sights on the Hanairo Festival. Tami proposes that they go on a club trip to practise, which one might expect the usual antics from. However, Hanayamata breaks this tradition and shows the girls practising together. Of note is Machi, who’s determined to catch up to the others and puts in a very strong effort to learn everything.
- I’ve primarily focused on the Yosakoi club and their characters in this post, but the artwork and animation are worthy of praise: each moment is vividly rendered. Nights are magical, reminiscent of the romp seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and by day, the bright colours immediately indicate to viewers that they are in the middle of summer. The mind associates intensity with heat, so in anime, brightly-coloured landscapes indicate heat, while dull, washed-out colours similarly convey a sense of coldness. Colours mean a great deal to me: in a good anime, they are used to create a very specific atmosphere and can speak volumes about a scene.
- In the likes of Hanayamata, the use of colour to convey a summer day’s heat is intended to give audiences the impression that youth is a passionate time. Madhouse has evidently not spared any expense in creating beautiful settings, and this is one of the reasons that compelled me to stick around despite my initial inclinations to rage-quit. The series really picks up after Tami’s story is told, and continues at a moderate pace to strike a balance between comedy and drama. The series thus ended up being an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
- A glance at the shadows show the girls’ dedication: the sun is directly overhead, and the girls have been practising since the morning. When a staff member asks the girls to be mindful of the other guests, they take their Yosakoi session outside, and practise until the heat defeats Yaya. The girls agree to take five, but are seen again practising. This subtle detail shows that everyone is dead serious about Yosakoi: improvements are especially noticeable, and even the clumsy, dead-footed Naru is much more coordinated and confident in her ability as the hour grows late.
- As the day draws to a close in the late afternoon (recall that sunsets in Japan are quite early, even during the summer), Hana notices an umbrella. Feeling it would be a fine addition to their routine, the others wonder if it is wise to change their routine so late in the game. The evening lighting creates a wistful feeling, and while the girls decide to leave umbrellas out for the present, they will come back in a big way. This scene, in presenting a visual distance between Hana and the others, also foreshadows the conflict that Hana has to sort out: while easily the most carefree of the girls, and insofar a beacon of joy, Hana’s story will become the topic of a much greater importance towards Hanayamata‘s climax.
- One might ask: if I found Hanayamata solid enough to give it a recommendation, then why would I class this under the Terrible Anime Challenge series? After all, Hanayamata is not a series that has overwhelmingly negative reception, is not something that I stopped watching halfway in and did not have a particularly poor premise to begin with. The answer is simple enough: while received warmly for the most part, I heard that Hanayamata was very serious and at the time, more serious than most Manga Time Kirara works were. I thus set out to see whether or not the drama was meritorious of the individual analysis that some felt inclined to give it.
- When I finished my journey through Hanayamata, my conclusion was that, once again, many have missed the forest for the trees. In being so focused on the minutiae in the drama and struggles each girl face, why the girls can grow and mature in doing Yosakoi is completely missed. The specifics behind Naru’s self-doubt, Yaya’s search for a purpose, Tami’s want for doing something for herself and Machi’s desire to excel are not as relevant as how each girl finds the answer to their challenges through Yosakoi. So no, it is not necessary and certainly not sufficient to analyse each of the girls’ internal conflicts to understand Hanayamata: the entire series is at its finest when considered from a big-picture perspective.
- Hanayamata presents viewers with many a vivid azure sky to enjoy, and at this point in the game, the days of Naru tripping over herself are long past as the girls gear up to perform. My personal insistence on the big picture rather than the small details put me at odds with the old guard part of the anime community that prefers blow-by-blow analysis of things. However, my counterargument is simple enough: as a software developer, I write unit tests to ensure that my modules individually work as expected. However, just because all of my unit tests pass do not mean that my code will pass integration testing. In order for code to be useful, it must also work together. It is here that new bugs might be found. In my analogy, the old guard believe it is sufficient to have all passing unit tests, whereas I know that it is necessary to consider how parts of a system work together.
- With all this being said, the discussions I refer to do date back nearly four years, and four years is a great deal of time, especially for folks to change their modus operandi and outlook. The individual who’d mentioned the Japanese-style tests above, for instance, has since admitted that they’d “…put [their] foot in [their] mouth a lot, especially when [they’d] gush about stuff [they were] not really an expert on. Been called a hack as a result. Can’t blame people for that”. It takes guts to own one’s mistakes, and personally, this means one fewer case where I need to remind readers to always think for themselves as to whether or not a statement on the internet is true or not, which is a win in my books. Back in Hanayamata, the girls decide to practise by the pool when the summer heat makes the rooftop difficult. The age of the girls means that fanservice type moments in the series are very rare, and Hanayamata is very disciplined in this department, which is one more plus.
- With the performance drawing nearer, Naru’s come up with flowers to represent each member of the Yosakoi club. I’ve heard some reviews conclude that Hanayamata is about changing, blooming and presenting one’s best side for the world to see as flowers are wont to do. However, there’s no credit for partial answers; symbols themselves are not the themes in a show, but rather, are physical or abstract representations of an idea that is a part of the theme. The girls’ growth, liberating themselves from their internal conflict, is evident in the series, but the true message is that they find themselves precisely through doing something that is quite open and free. While perhaps speaking of Yosakoi, this activity could be anything that invites exploration: the girls of Hanayamata are largely self-motivated, receiving a quantum of assistance only when required.
- Hana’s conflicts come into the open as Hanayamata heads into its final act. Her parents are divorced but wish to reunite, and Hana, longing for a family, is forced to choose between her friends and family. This is why it was so difficult for Hana to come forward with her challenges, and after spending an evening with Naru, makes her decision to be with her mother and father. She’s seen how much they love her, and so, decides to leave Naru with her naruko before taking off.
- It’s a tearful parting of ways at the airport, and while Hana might’ve been off-putting at the series’ start, it is very clear that Hana’s energy brought everyone together and made everything possible. Naru subsequently picks up the torch, resolving to fulfil her promise of performing with the others to Hana. Even with Hana absent, the Yosakoi club continue to practise, continuing on from the song that they’d recorded with Hana. Preparations are in full force by the time of the finale, and one subtle touch I greatly enjoyed was Masaru enjoying Sari riding on his shoulders. In series such as these, the instructor is depicted as not being unattractive but nonetheless struggling to find a partner, so it was a nice change of pace to see signs of a romance beginning between Masaru and Sari.
- After Hana gives her father a copy of the CD they’d recorded, he realises just how much Yosakoi and by extension, Naru, Yaya, Tami and Machi mean to her. Hana thus returns to Japan, and against the odds, manages to make it in time to perform alongside the others, fulfilling the promise they’d made to one another. This journey was thrilling, at least as suspenseful and tense as when Captain Price leads his squad down the hill in Modern Warfare‘s Heat mission; the stakes are different but just as meaningful. Fortunately, Hana does make it, and as the girls become immersed in their performance, the camera cuts away to their parents proudly watching amongst the audience. Everyone’s come a great ways in overcoming their own internal challenges through the freedom that Yosakoi brings.
- For exceeding expectations, having a surprisingly relatable plot and striking a balance between the comedy and drama, Hanayamata earns a solid A (a 9.0 of 10). I’ve not mentioned thus so far, but the title is merely an amalgamation of the first kana to each of the girls’ names (Hana, Naru, Yaya, Machi and Tami). I am very glad to have given Hanayamata a fair chance, and note that discussions out there do not paint a complete picture of this series. With this post in the books, I remark that May’s flown by, and that we’re very nearly on the eve of Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka??: Dear My Sister‘s release. As well, with the Battlefield V reveal, the latest Road to Battlefield V event has begun, and we’re a few days out from the conclusion of The Division‘s Onslaught global event, where I got my first-ever Urban MDR through an exotic cache earned after finishing Warrengate Power Plant on legendary difficulty.
Like Sansha San’yō, Hanayamata ended up being an unexpectedly enjoyable watch. My experiences of Hanayamata differ considerable from existing discussions, which have largely focused on the individual struggles without their context (such as why Naru’s falling during their first public performance was so quickly resolved), or else have focused on the minutiae surrounding Hana’s characterisation. There is little surprise that discussions of Hanayamata have been as limited as they were, considering that thematic elements have not been considered. If I were to merely go from these discussions alone, I would have learned that Hanayamata is a cliché, generic anime that is “like K-On! done wrong”. A cursory glance at sales figures seems to reinforce this: people were not optimistic that Hanayamata would sell well, but beyond these superficial snippets lies an anime that is rather more meaningful than the community otherwise conveys. Quite simply, those who hold that Hanayamata is K-On! done wrong are evidently in the wrong. The drama aspects of Hanayamata, seemingly extraneous, ultimately serve to underline the fact that everyone has their own challenges, but their common interest in Yosakoi and the intrinsic freedoms in this dance style eventually allow the girls to overcome their own problems together while their sights are set on the prize of being able to dance together. Consequently, Hanayamata earns a recommendation from me: while its aesthetic might give the impression that Hanayamata is nothing substantial, and the direction might seem fraught with more tears and internal conflict than necessary, watching the series in whole affords audiences with a much broader perspective on the journey that Naru has undertaken since agreeing to join Hana’s journey of starting a Yosakoi club; as Yaya, Tami and Machi each note, Naru’s come to take on a brilliance of her own by the end of Hanayamata, illustrating the impact that a single fateful meeting can have in one’s life: why does each of Naru, Hana, Yaya, Tami and Machi fall? So they can pick themselves up again.