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Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below: A Review and Full Recommendation on Makoto Shinkai’s 2011 Film At the Ten Year Anniversary

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” –Haruki Murakami

Ever since her father passed away, Asuna Watase spends her free time looking after the house while her mother works, and listening to music emanating from a mysterious radio that once belonged to her father with her cat, Mimi. One day, she encounters a boy named Shun after running into a Quetzalcoatl, a beast from the ancient world. After tending to Shun’s wounds, Asuna befriends him, but he falls to his death from the cliff ledge. The next day, Asuna is surprised that their new substitute instructor, Ryūji Morisaki, gives a lesson on the legend of Agartha, a world inhabited by the dead, and ends up speaking to him to learn more. Upon returning to her secret spot, Asuna is surprised to find another boy, Shin, there. It turns out he’s here to recover the Clavis fragment Shun had dropped, but the pair are cornered by Archangel, a paramilitary group searching for Agartha. Shin and Asuna manage to escape underground, with Archangel in pursuit. It turns out that Ryūji is leading the operation, and after a confrontation, Ryūji secures Asuna’s Clavis, giving him access to Agartha: Ryūji had been longing to resurrect his deceased wife. Upon arriving in Agartha, Ryūji and Asuna set off for the Gate of Life and Death, while Shin returns to the village and learns that his assignment had been unsuccessful, since Asuna possessed a Clavis fragment of her own. When Asuna is captured by the Izoku, monsters that fear the light, she encounters a little girl named Manna. Shin rescues them, but after Ryūji locates the two, Asuna persuades Ryūji to allow Shin to accompany them. In the village, the elder reluctantly allows Asuna and Ryūji to stay the night as repayment for having saved Manna, but warns that outsiders have always been an ill-omen in Agartha. The next morning, Asuna and Ryūji continue with their journey, while Mimi stays behind and passes away peacefully. After Manna offers Mimi’s corpse to a Quetzalcoatl, Shin notices the village’s soldiers riding out to intercept Asuna and Ryūji. He sets off after them with the aim of saving Asuna, but is promptly defeated in combat. The commander notes he’s betrayed Agartha and leave him to die, while Asuna and Ryūji arrive at the Gate of Life and Death. Unable to carry on, Asuna sets off and makes her way back to the surface, leaving Ryūji to climb to the bottom of the pit alone. As night falls, Asuna is tailed by a horde of Izoku, and laments having accepted this journey because she’d been feeling abandoned. Before the Izoku can kill her, Shin arrives and save her. They grieve Shun’s loss together and return to the Gate of Life at Death. Here, they encounter the Quetzalcoatl who’d accepted Mimi’s corpse, and learn it too is dying. Before it dies, it sings a song and offers to carry the pair down to the Gate of Life and Death. Upon crossing the barrier, they find Ryūji preparing to make his wish of bringing his wife back. However, the cost of resurrecting those from the dead is immense, and Ryūji loses his right eye, while Asuna is sacrificed to act as a vessel for his wife’s soul. Shin manages to destroy the Clavis and stop the process, saving Asuna but leaving Ryūji inconsolable. However, Shin notes that all living things come to an end and implores Ryūji to continue living for his wife’s sake. The pair accompany Asuna back to the portal leading to the surface and bid her farewell: Ryūji’s decided to remain behind in Agartha. Later, Asuna glances at the cliff where she first met Shin and Shun, before heading off to school with a smile on her face. This is Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, literally “Children Who Chase Stars”, and from here on out, Children Who Chase Lost Voices for brevity), Makoto Shinkai’s 2011 film that remains his longest work and treads on territory that is is explored nowhere else amongst his repertoire.

At its core, Children Who Chase Lost Voices represents a bold new direction for Makoto Shinkai: although distance and separation still figures in the film’s central themes, as it had in his previous works, Children Who Chase Lost Voices deals predominantly in death and moving on. The film opens with Asuna, whose days are peaceful but lonely. When she encounters Shun one day, only for their time together to be cut short after Shun dies, she finds herself longing for a world where she could be together with those important to her again. That Ryūji appears as a substitute instructor shortly after is no coincidence, and more so than Asuna, Ryūji is seeking out what appears to be impossible, in locating a way to Agartha, the underworld, and its supposed means of bringing the dead back to life. This meeting sends Asuna on a journey into the fantastical realm that had hitherto been the stuff of legends, and through this adventure, Asuna comes to terms with her own desires. Meeting Shun had temporarily stemmed her feelings of loneliness, a consequence of living lengthy days without her father, who passed away when she’d been younger, and her mother, who works long days at a local clinic as a nurse, so it was natural that Asuna had desired more concrete relationships with people. Travelling through Agartha, and speaking to the underworld’s inhabitants, helps Asuna to accept that death and departure is a natural part of life, not to be lamented or feared, but accepted. Indeed, when Asuna leaves Mimi behind, she shows that she is able to let go of attachments in life. Conversely, Ryūji is unable to achieve the same, and his single-minded determination to reach Agartha and resurrect his deceased wife is a tale of tragedy. While he is knowledgeable and measured, he is also obsessed, and this obsession binds him to what should be obvious: that wishes contradicting the natural order will exact a heavy toll. He alone is able to reach the Gate of Life and Death to issue his wish, but the process leaves him disfigured and very nearly costs Asuna her life. Because Asuna is able to do what Ryūji could not, Children Who Chase Lost Voices indicates that our impressions of life and death are shaped early on, and while children may not be fully aware of the ramifications surrounding things like loss, they are also more open-minded and are more perceptive than adults believe. As such, when children ask about things like death, it is important to answer difficult questions truthfully and to the best of one’s knowledge, while at the same time, allowing children to also draw their own conclusions.

Beyond exploring a new theme in a novel setting, Children Who Chase Lost Voices also acted as a trailblazer for Shinkai; in his older works, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Five Centimetres Per Second, the female leads were ethereal and delicate. Sayuri and Akari wound up being abstractions rather than full-fledged characters in order to facilitate Hiroki and Takaki’s growth. Conversely, Asuna has a much larger role in Children Who Chase Lost Voices compared to her predecessors; although she’s accompanying Ryūji, Asuna is shown as being very energetic and cheerful, even taking the initiative to do what she feels is right in a given moment. When they first arrive, Asuna heads off and finds sweet potatoes for herself and Ryūji. Later, she tries to rescue Manna when the Izoku begin appearing, and she is the first to accept that saying “goodbye” is a part of life, when she parts ways with Mimi. This is significant, marking a return to female characters with strength and agency. Asuna isn’t swept away by her circumstances, but instead, takes charge in making her own decisions, and for this reason, is able to find the answers she’d sought by visiting Agartha. This is in complete contrast with Sayuri, who falls into a coma and serves as Hiroki’s reason to fly up to the tower, or Akari, whose feelings for Takaki remain unanswered when she and her parents end up moving. Giving Asuna agency changes how Children Who Chase Lost Voices feels compared to its predecessors, and indeed, Shinkai would apply these lessons into the future: The Garden of Words‘ Yukari, Your Name‘s Mitsuha and Weathering With You‘s Hina each demonstrate the same autonomy and seize on a chance to change their situation, and even though circumstance steers them towards trouble, everyone winds up finding their own path anew. This creates more variety in Shinkai’s films, and indeed, having a female lead capable of making her own decisions and judgement would leave Shinkai’s works stronger than before. They’re no longer about separation and distance, but instead, depict the incredible lengths people go to make the most of things. While Children Who Chase Lost Voices might be among Shinkai’s lesser known works, especially when it stands in the shadows of The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You, this film remains highly significant and opened Shinkai up for more uplifting, optimistic stories about how people can take charge even when a situation appears to prohibit any sort of agency.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Today marks the ten year anniversary to when Children Who Chase Lost Voices released to BD: back then, I was an undergraduate student, and I remember that term particularly well. After a brutal semester the year before, I came into the new year filled with resolve. Children Who Chase Lost Voices would’ve come late in the semester, just a few weeks before exams were set to begin, and I still remember writing about it at my old site, as well as sharing a handful of screenshots showcasing the incredible landscapes in what was then Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie.

  • Whereas most of Shinkai’s works are set in an urban area, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is completely rural; the movie opens with a day in Asuna Watase’s life, and although her days are quite lonely, she definitely has her game together, looking after the housework while her mother is at work. Par the course for a Shinkai movie, the visuals in this film are stunning, and ten years later, the artwork hasn’t aged a day. There’s a sense of coziness in the Watase residence as Asuna collects the laundry by evening; I’ve always had a fondness for this aesthetic, and there’s a certain romance about sleeping with an open window.

  • My area only allows for this about three months of the year, although when it does get that nice, it is downright pleasant. It’s now been ten days since I took possession of my new home, and during the past weekend, I spent both afternoons cleaning out every square inch of the place. It’ll be a while yet before we can move in, since there’s the matter of buying the furniture; it’s been remarkably fun to browse through catalogues and see what’s available. After the move, one thing I am looking forwards to will be spending more time honing my craft in cooking: I can cook well enough to get by, but it will be exciting to try out recipes I see in anime and films (the pan-fried fish and Japanese rolled omelettes Asuna is enjoying here look quite good, for instance).

  • Having tried out some outrageous recipes on occasion (my favourite being a double burger topped with caramelised onions, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg), I am getting old enough to feel that an afternoon doing housework or spent making something tasty is much more relaxing than trying to unlock weapons and attachments in hacker-filled multiplayer servers. A decade earlier, I had the reflexes to keep up with gamers, but nowadays, single player games are the only games I’ll seriously consider; they allow me to play at my own pace, and I can put the brakes on at any time to go anything else, whether it’s housework or go get some exercise.

  • Asuna’s days of solitude come to a quick end when she encounters a beast on the bridge leading to her hideout. Fortunately, a young man, Shun, shows up and saves her. Although Shun has no intention of harming this beast, it turns out that said beast is in pain, so Shun shifts gears and decides to put it out of its misery. In the aftermath, Shun and Asuna become fast friends, with Shun being especially interested in the radio that Asuna is rocking. It turns out that, since Asuna’s radio uses a special crystal, it picks up broadcasts from another world, one that Shun is familiar with.

  • Being able to appreciate the music means that a connection forms between Asuna and Shun. The events of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, in a bit of irony, mirror that year: I met the person I’d come to fall in love with in Japanese class, and things began in a similarly unexpected manner, when I showed up in Japanese class wearing a full suit after giving a presentation at the university’s undergraduate symposium. We subsequently paired up on a project, and while rehearsing for the presentation, some of my classmates from health science wondered if I’d met someone special because they’d spotted us on break, and watching this movie together on my iPad.

  • At the time, I replied ‘no’ to my health science classmates; we’d been a great team and did well enough on the project, but we were merely classmates in Japanese at the time. Thus, we parted ways after term ended. However, as fate would have it, after the year ended, and I began studying for the MCAT, that this individual came back to my life – she’d started several summer courses, and I was wrapped up in studying for an exam far tougher than any I’d previously faced, so we supported one another through those busy times, getting to know one another better in the process. In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Asuna’s time with Shun ends up being even shorter; he came up to the surface to seek out something, but falls off the cliff edge and dies in the process.

  • The encounter with Shun might’ve been short, but the ‘blessing’ he provides for Asuna causes her heart to flutter. Timing is irrelevant in a romance, and people can indeed fall in love very quickly. At the opposite end of the spectrum, falling in love can sometimes occur only after a lengthy period of rediscovery and patience. Naturally, there’s no right or wrong approach; here, Asuna’s mother has returned home from her shift and is curious to know why Asuna appears to be preparing two servings of lunch. Asuna’s conversation with her mother suggests that despite spending little time together, the two remain quite close.

  • Because she’s unaware of Shun’s death, Asuna ends up waiting for him, to no avail. Mirroring Asuna’s uncertainty, it is raining quite hard; from The Place Promised In Our Early Days onwards, Shinkai begins making extensive use of lighting and weather to convey a certain atmosphere and aesthetic. This is most apparent in Five Centimetres per Second, where snowfall comes to denote longing and separation. By The Garden of Words, however, Shinkai suggests that there is a romance surrounding light rain; it is only on rainy days where Takao meets Yukari at Shunjuku Koen. Being set before The Garden of Words, the rainfall in Children Who Chase Lost Voices is used in a more conventional manner.

  • I remember seeing this scene in an early trailer for the film in late 2010, and altogether, the trailer had been remarkably captivating. Back then, Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer had just become available, and I was still a complete novice to anime movies. Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer had actually been the exception to the rule in that, while the anime movie had premièred in Japan in September, the home release became available just three months later, in December. Children Who Chase Lost Voices followed a much more conventional pattern: the film was premièred in May 2011 and hit the shelves a mere six months later.

  • The length between a theatrical première and home release has steadily increased over the past decade, going from an average of six months to eight months. More popular movies, such as Shinkai’s more recent movies, Violet Evergarden, Girls und Panzer: Das FinaleHai-Furi and SaeKano: Fine, had waits exceeding eleven months. Beyond being a bit of an annoyance, and something I’m fond of vociferously griping about, the gap actually has no bearing on my excitement about a given film; I’ve found that being able to watch a film at my own pace is really all that matters.

  • As it turns out, Asuna’s father had died when she’d been young. Back then, she hadn’t quite been able to grasp the enormity of such an event, beyond the fact that her father wasn’t going to return. Shinkai chooses to set things during the winter, both to provide a vivid contrast to the warm weather of the present, as well as to show the extent of despair and sorrow in the moment. When Asuna’s mother explains that Shun had died, denial immediately sets in; Asuna’s certain that Shun is fine even though there’d been reports of a corpse found earlier.

  • With Asuna’s original instructor preparing to head off on maternity leave, her class receives a substitute teacher in the form of Ryūji Morisaki, who provides a lesson about the world of the dead in Japanese folklore. Folklore and literature becomes an integral part of each of Shinkai’s subsequent works: after Children Who Chase Lost VoicesThe Garden of WordsYour Name and Weathering With You each incorporate elements of classical Japanese mythology into details of his own creation. This creates a much more intricate, immersive world, and suggests that for Shinkai, his belief is that while things are always advancing, there are some traditions and values that shouldn’t be forgotten, either.

  • The topic of an underworld from which the dead can be revived intrigues Asuna, who begins to believe there might be a way to see Shun again. She heads over to the library in pursuit of more knowledge, and although today, the consensus is that the planet’s interior is solid, composed of a rocky mantle and metallic core rather than being hollow, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a story; fiction represents a space to explore what could happen if our wishes were realised, and more often than not, it turns out that having the power to do things like returning the dead to the world of the living often exacts a terrible cost.

  • After classes end, Ryūji speaks with Asuna’s instructor and learns that Asuna is a focused, well-behaved student. Meanwhile, Asuna’s classmate suggests that Ryūji’s wife had died long ago when Asuna remarks that she has a few questions for Ryūji surrounding the day’s lessons. Although the conversation is incomplete to viewers, it solidifies the idea that Asuna’s life is a lonely one; Children Who Chase Lost Voices is an excellent example of a film where things are slowly laid out for viewers to follow, providing enough depth to be compelling, but at the same time, does not demand that the viewer have a solid background in Japanese folklore and beliefs.

  • The precedence that Children Who Chase Lost Voices set carry forwards into Shinkai’s later works – Ryūji has been chasing the myth of Agartha since his wife had died. Delving through countless scrolls, tomes and commonplace books, he learnt that there were patterns throughout history to suggest Agartha was indeed real – originally, ancient beings known as Quetzalcoatl guided humanity, but humanity eventually reached a point where it could fend for itself, so the remaining Quetzalcoatl retreated underground and a few humans accompanied them.

  • Ryūji deduces that Asuna had been the one who encountered Shun, and believes that Asuna’s interest in Agartha similarly stems from a desire to bring someone back from the dead. The visual clutter in Ryūji’s apartment shows the extent of his interest in the underworld; the interior is filled with books, maps and charts. Of note is a confidential report whose contents are rendered entirely in English. After his radio lights up, Ryūji sends Asuna home and asks her to not take any detours, but on her way back, Mimi appears, and Asuna heads off in pursuit. She spots a glint from her hideout and rushes up here, where she encounters a young man no older than herself.

  • As it turns out, this is Shin, Shun’s younger brother. Their encounter is interrupted when an AH-1 Cobra shows up. The extent of Ryūji’s obsession with Agartha is such that he leads a paramilitary outfit known as Archangel to search for its entrance, and the fact that they possess a Cobra speaks to the extent of their resources – one could suppose that Archangel has investors who are curious about the wealth that Agartha possesses. When I first watched Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I initially thought that this was an AH-64 Apache, but the Cobra lacks the Apache’s distinct T700 turboshaft engines and single-barrel M230 30mm chain gun. Instead, one can spot the AH-1’s chin-mounted M197 20mm electric cannon.

  • Members of Archangel corner Asuna and Shin at the cliff’s edge: two soldiers accompanying Ryūji are armed with the Uzi. Even now, I can’t readily identify the sidearm that Ryūji himself is carrying, but I remain impressed with the acrobatics Shin is capable of: surprising the soldiers, he carries Asuna and leaps down into the forests below in an attempt to shake Archangel and return to Agartha’s entrance. However, his actions also lead Archangel straight to said entrance: the AH-1 Cobra follows in pursuit and quickly determines where the pair ended up.

  • The Clavis allows Agartha’s residents to carry out feats of superhuman strength and agility; with its magical properties, Shin moves a massive boulder to block off the entrance, before squaring off against a Quetzalcoatl he refers to as the Gatekeeper. This Quetzalcoatl was originally a guardian meant to keep outsiders from entering Agartha, but the Gatekeeper’s age means its senses are no longer as acute as they once were – it attacks Shin, forcing Shin to defend himself. However, using the Cobra’s 20 mm rounds, Archangel destroys the boulder with ease and enter the cave. Ryūji’s two soldiers then execute the Gatekeeper, and Ryūji identifies himself for Shin and Asuna’s benefit.

  • While Shin had been intending to fight Ryūji and his soldiers, once Ryūji explains that he’s here to seek out the Gate of Life and Death to resurrect his wife, Shin relents and lets Ryūji and Asuna be – outsiders had previously came to Agartha to plunder its treasures, but Ryūji’s wish is something for Agartha’s gods to pass judgement on. Moreover, Shin’s original assignment had simply been to retrieve Shun’s Clavis fragment. After Shin leaves, Ryūji gives Asuna the choice to turn back or accompany him. Having come this far, Asuna makes the choice to follow Ryūji, yearning to bring Shun back to life and see what lies beyond.

  • Ryūji leads Asuna onwards into the barrier separating the surface from Agartha: the Interstitial Sea. According to the legends, Agartha lies beneath this sea, which is composed of a fluid called aquavita, which is curious because aquavitae is the name for distilled spirits in reality. In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, this fluid possesses properties that allow for liquid breathing, and once Asuna adjusts to the unusual sensation, she and Ryūji follow a path that leads deep into the planet. The sheer scale of the constructs underground far surpass anything that modern humans have the capacity to construct, suggesting that ancient humans and the Quetzalcoatl would’ve worked together to make their underground realm.

  • Asuna reawakens and is surprised that Mimi had accompanied them through the Interstitial Sea to Agartha. They find a Quetzalcoatl guarding the front entrance into Agartha, and Ryūji prepares to shoot it, but Mimi manages to convince the Quetzalcoatl that they’re visitors. As Ryūji and Asuna gaze upon Agartha’s landscape, the music crescendos majestically. The incidental music in Children Who Chase Lost Voices is composed by Atsushi Shirakawa (better known as Tenmon), who had previously worked with Shinkai on all of his films. Children Who Chase Lost Voices marks the last time Tenmon scores the music to Shinkai’s films, and to match the scope and scale of this film, the music has a much richer sound.

  • Although Agartha is doubtlessly wonderous, the choice to have the entrance set in the open plains also serves to emphasise how vast and empty the underworld is. This disconnect creates a sense of melancholy: while Asuna and Ryūji might’ve arrived in Agartha, this land might not hold the answers to the questions they possess. In the skies above, the Shakuna Vimana passes by. These vessels originate from Hindu texts, and as Ryūji notes, they’re the chariot of the Gods. The fact that Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below draws from so much mythology would suggest that the world’s myths, at least in this universe, have a common origin in Agartha.

  • While Shinkai’s previous films had been gorgeously animated, and his latest films surpass all expectations when it comes to visual detail, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is unique because it marks the first film set in a completely different world. This allows Shinkai and his animators to really explore landscapes and scenery from a fantastical world. In this regard, I do wish that Shinkai and his team would take a chance on settings beyond Tokyo: The Garden of WordsYour Name and Weathering With You feature Tokyo as its main setting, and as intricate as Tokyo appears, it would be interesting to see how Shinkai and his team’s advancing craft might portray other parts of the world, or other worlds.

  • After reaching some stone ruins, Ryūji sets down and consults his notes to determine their next destination, while Asuna ends up going exploring and finds Agarthan potatoes that end up being surprisingly tasty; it turns out that Asuna was able to find some salt in the stone ruins. Surprised with Asuna’s high spirits, Ryūji asks about how she’s feeling, and she replies that she’d been feeling amped since their arrival because there’s something she’s seeking out. Viewers can conclude that a part of Asuna still yearns to reunite with Shun, and the excitement she’s feeling comes from this possibility.

  • Back in a temple, Shin is debriefed by the elders; his original assignment had been to retrieve the Clavis that Shun had brought to the surface with him, and although he’d been successful here, the fact that is that Asuna and Ryūji have entered their world with another Clavis fragment in hand is worrying, suggesting that outsiders may yet interfere with things in Agartha and bring more troubles with them. To this end, the elders set Shin with recovering the Clavis fragment that Ryūji and Asuna possess. It turns out that Shun always been the preferred sibling for his powers, but possessed a desire to see the surface, which is what led him to Asuna. While Shin lacks the same power, he attempts to carry out his duties as best as he can.

  • While Shin had been set the goal of recovering the Clavis in Ryūji and Asuna’s possession by any means necessary, and remarks to another girl in the village, Seri, that if required, he’d consider lethal force, the reality is that Shin is torn between doing his duties, and doing what’s right. Their conversation supposes that exposure to the surface accelerates any illnesses one may have, and that both Shun and Shin are orphans who were raised by the village. His loyalty to them is a result of wishing to pay back the village’s kindness, although these loyalties do begin shifting.

  • Meanwhile, Ryūji and Asuna have taken refuge underneath a boulder to escape a rainfall. When Asuna makes an offhand comment about how Ryūji has come to be a father figure, Ryūji later dreams about the events that led them to Agartha. It turns out that his wife had died before he returned from his tour of duty during a war, and despite his efforts otherwise, Ryūji never moved on from his loss. The exact war is not known: while it would appear that Ryūji is fighting in the European Theatre during World War Two, he’s armed with an M4 Carbine with a Close Quarter Barrel Receiver. The M4 entered service in 1994, which complicates identifying which war Ryūji would’ve fought in, although since this is a dream, the smaller details would be secondary to the idea that Ryūji greatly misses his late wife.

  • When Asuna falls asleep, she ends up being taken by the Izoku, enigmatic monsters who can only travel through solid surfaces in the shadows while there is light (but when it is dark, they can roam freely). These beings are a part of the natural order in Agartha, although for the purposes of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, they exist to act as a reminder that life in Agartha has its own challenges. When Asuna comes to in the stone ruins, she finds another girl, Manna, here. The pair attempt to escape, but to no avail; the area is sealed off, and the nearest exit is too high to reach.

  • Fortunately, Shin arrives at the last possible second to save both Asuna and Manna. They manage to escape the ruins, but with the Izoku closing rapidly, Shin orders Asuna to jump into the river below; the Izoku have an aversion to water and will not traverse where water flows. The determined and plucky traits seen in Asuna bring to mind the likes of female leads from Studio Ghibli’s movies, marking a welcome new direction for Shinkai’s movies. Until now, I’d found that in his earlier films, the female leads were more passive, and lacked agency.

  • Conversely, in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Asuna is driven and takes the initiative to make her own decisions. These traits carry over to The Garden of WordsYour Name and Weathering With You; a part of why these films are so successful is because female leads are impacting the story to a greater extent. Here, Asuna attempts to prevent Shin from being swept away in the river’s fierce currents, but Shin ends up taking an Izoku’s claw to the back and is swept off. Asuna leaps off after them in an attempt to rescue the pair, but the currents end up overcoming her, too.

  • The currents end up washing everyone downstream, where Ryūji finds them. Ryūji is relieved that Asuna is okay, but when Shin comes to and confronts Ryūji for the Clavis, he gets pistol-whipped. Disappointed with how Ryūji treats Shin, Asuna declares that they’ll bring Shin with them. Ryūji does not object, and upon arrival, their presence is almost immediately noted. The presence of outsiders prompt the local armed forces to appear; Agartha’s residents are deeply mistrustful of people from the surface, and here, a little more information is also provided regarding Manna: she’s mute as a result of having witnessed her mother’s death.

  • The commanding soldier initially turns Ryūji and Asuna back; the outsiders are treated as an ill omen in Agartha, and despite Asuna’s requests to get Shin looked at, the soldiers stand firm. Ryūji has no quarrel with the people of Agartha and makes to comply, but the village’s master, who also happens to be Manna’s grandfather, requests that the group be allowed to rest for one evening as recompense for having saved his granddaughter. The soldiers leave, and the elderly man bring them back to his home, where Shin is looked over and allowed to rest. As it turns out, Manna’s mother was from Agartha, and her father was from the surface; this is why the soldiers refer to Manna as “defiled”.

  • Speaking with the village’s master provides vital exposition that fills in remaining gaps about Agartha, and he explains that the antipathy for outsiders stems from a history where outsiders had arrived in Agartha to pillage and burn. Amongst historical figures who have done this include Julius Caeser, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin; it is implied that it was through the wealth of treasure and knowledge from Agartha that they were able to amass the resources to rule the world, but their expeditions also caused a great deal of harm and suffering to Agartha’s people. To prevent outsiders from returning, Agartha’s remaining residents sealed the gates that were once opened.

  • The fact that people from the surface brought death and destruction with them, enough to annihilate Agartha’s once-great civilisation, explains why there is so much hostility towards outsiders, and why ruins litter Agartha. With their birthrate declining, Agartha’s once-mighty people are now scattered in a vast, empty land. The village Master is surprised that Mimi (technically a Yadoriko rather than a cat), is so friendly with Asuna. These beings are said to accompany humans while they live, and then return to the Quetzalcoatl in death. This revelation does seem to reinforce the idea that Asuna’s father had a connection with Agartha. Here, Asuna is surprised to be offered a bath, and the sharp-eyed viewer will have noted that Asuna’s not really had the comforts of home since arriving in Agartha.

  • Being able to immerse herself in warm water and rest would seem like an unbelievable luxury after the trek she’d been on. Floral baths aren’t unique to Agartha, nor are the flowers present just for show. It turns out that taking a floral bath has some health benefits, and depending on the flowers used, different effects can be enjoyed, from improving circulation and skin hydration. Such a setup does look remarkably comfortable, although I’ve always been more of a shower person owing to the fact that a quick shower conserves water. After finishing up, Asuna gets dressed in an Agarthan-style outfit, and runs into Ryūji, who says the clothes don’t suit her, causing Asuna to pout.

  • Agartha’s cuisine appears to have an East Asian influence: Asuna had been seen peeling a daikon earlier, and they use chopsticks. Dinner proves delicious, and Asuna spends it savouring every bite. Over their meal, Ryūji asks the Master about his desire to resurrect the dead; he reasons that while this act is verboten in Agartha, that it is prohibited must imply there is a way to do so. The Master’s attempts to turn Ryūji from his desires to no avail, and is unable to convince Ryūji that life and death are a part of the natural world. I imagine that Ryūji does end up getting some answers, but this is not shown: the Master asks Asuna to look after Shin, who’s awake now and becomes worked up after Asuna mentions Shun.

  • The Master rightly notes that people who come to Agartha do so because of a great loss, and that a great many misunderstandings could have been avoided if said people had someone to talk to. This is true of Ryūji, and certainly true of Asuna. Through Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai aims to show how “adventure” is really just another way to say that after sustaining a loss, people wander. Without guidance and support, people can become lost in their own thoughts and venture down a path they might come to regret. As such, it becomes important to be compassionate and empathetic towards those who do suffer loss in their lives, while at the same time, giving them the space they need to recover.

  • The next morning, Ryūji and Asuna prepare to head off by boat, but to Asuna’s surprise, Mimi stays behind. This is shocking because Mimi had remained faithfully by Asuna’s side all this time, and as such, the unexpected change in behaviour is a result of Mimi preparing for death. For Asuna, being able to say goodbye to Mimi and part ways is a turning point in her character; she’s able to make peace with the fact that she won’t be with Mimi forever, and this sets the precedence for letting go of Shun, as well. Ryūji and Asuna travel under a gorgeous sunrise, and this moment captures the peaceful atmosphere within Agartha, as well as the fact that it is a world in decline: a massive ruin can be seen in this distance.

  • Mimi passes away, and after the Master reassures Manna it’ll be okay, the Master takes Manna out to a vast field, where Mimi’s remains are offered to a Quetzalcoatl. The one that arrives is an ancient one; one of its arms are blown off, although it accepts the offering and consumes Mimi. The Master notes that this is how Mimi returns to the world, and given the way things work in Agartha, one can suppose that here, the secret to immortality is simple enough: life is still finite, but what lingers after death, is what confers immortality.

  • The vastness of the field where Manna returns Mimi to the world is a visual metaphor for life and death itself; Shinkai indicates that the openness of such a space allows one to see great distances, and in this way, being out here corresponds to one accepting that what lies beyond life is not something to be feared. While Manna cries for the loss of Mimi’s life, Shin speaks with the Master and wonders if Asuna is able to accept life and death as two halves of a whole. The idea that death is not something to be tampered with is a theme that has long permeated fiction, and authors generally agree that those who attempt to raise new life from the dead or cheat death itself will face inevitable punishment.

  • The stakes increase when the village soldiers set off at full tilt for the same destination that Ryūji and Asuna are headed towards. The Master feels that their intention is to stop Ryūji and Asuna from reaching the Gate of Life and Death at all costs, even if it means killing them: Shin has spotted that the soldiers are carrying firearms, a sign that they mean business. When Ryūji spots them, he opens fire with his Uzi, but Shin uses his own dagger to knock the submachine gun from Ryūji’s hands before he can land any shots.

  • Noting that he’s acting to save Ryūji and Asuna, freeing himself from the debt he’d owed them, Shun now faces off against the soldiers in combat. Going from the single-shot weapons the soldiers are carrying, they would be easily bested by anyone carrying repeating firearms; repeaters first appeared in 1630 with the development of the Kalthoff repeater, and by the 1800s, revolvers and lever-action rifles had become commonplace. Since reloading presumably takes a while, the soldiers switch over to their swords and duel Shin one-to-one. Shin’s prowess impresses the commander, but he is ultimately beaten back.

  • The opening Shin creates allows Ryūji and Asuna to reach Finis Terra, a massive pit housing the Gate of Life and Death at its bottom. When Asuna glances over the ledge, the pit’s depth is such that the bottom cannot even be seen. This location likely was what inspired Your Name‘s scenery, when Taki and Mitsuha were finally able to meet one another during evening. However, Finis Terra (literally “end of the land”) possesses none of the warmth: it is raining here, and the skies are rapidly darkening as the sun sets. Tenmon uses an unearthly choir to convey the otherworldly feeling at this spot, which is easily the most unsettling place in the whole of Agartha.

  • As Asuna attempts to climb down what is a vertical cliff shear, a current rushes upwards and threatens to dislodge her; the effort proves too much, and Asuna decides to turn around and return to the village at Ryūji’s suggestion. The moment had been quite unnerving, and viewers get the sense that whatever lies at the bottom of the cliff does not want any surface-dwellers present. Even ten years later, this part of Children Who Chase Lost Voices remains quite tense, speaking to the incredible effort that went into the aesthetics for this film. While many things in my world have changed in the past decade, that anime films can still elicit the same response speaks to their staying power.

  • The extent of the changes to my world became clear earlier today, when I participated in a virtual panel to discuss career paths for alumni of my major. Joining me were my old program head, programme coordinator and two other panelists. While answering questions the students posed, I was sent down memory lane, recalling iconic health science moments, such as joining the lab that ended up being the basis for my graduate work, the various research symposiums I attended (and their free pizza), and the exams I studied for with my classmates. I was surprised to learn that there had been a question directed at me specifically, inquiring how I ended up as a mobile developer despite having started in health science.

  • The answer I gave was simple enough: while health sciences is about medical science and health policy, the inquiry and analytical skills students cultivate are versatile enough to be utilised in other disciplines, and health science has always encouraged the multidisciplinary approach towards problem solving. Coupled with the fact that I already had basic understanding of programming and software development, the transition wasn’t as abrupt as one might imagine. It did come as a bit of a surprise to me that the other panelists had a similar career progression, but as the department head stated, it’s okay not to know of one’s destination early in the game.

  • For Asuna, she set out for Agartha with a similar lack of destination in mind, and only vaguely knew that she wanted to speak with Shun once more. However, when the final leg of her journey becomes too much, she isn’t able to continue and turns back around. While this decision nearly costs Asuna her life, it also shows that Asuna is able to spot when things aren’t working. This is something that, during the panel, I mentioned as being an important thing to know – forcing ahead with something, as Ryūji does, can prove to be detrimental. However, Asuna’s journey is not meaningless, and her time in Agartha does prove instrumental in shaping her thoughts on life and death. Similarly, it is the case that one’s experiences, both good and bad, shape one’s current self, so if and when I’m asked, I do not regret taking a more crooked, uncertain path to the present, either.

  • Unfortunately for Asuna, the creek she’s traversing runs dry, and this allows the Izoku to finally capture her. In desperation, Asuna trains the sidearm Ryūji had given her, but unaccustomed to its recoil, she misses her shot. The aurora borealis here are especially visible: the night skies in Agartha are aglow with the ghostly dance of the northern lights. In reality, aurora result from the interaction of solar wind with oxygen and nitrogen atoms (which cause electrons to jump orbitals and release photons when they return to their ground state). Under ground, one would suppose that, since the skies of Agartha are blocked off by Earth’s crust, solar wind would never interact with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms down here. However, since the sun is visible down here, one must suppose that there are other forces at work, too.

  • I’m not here to break down the series for its faithfulness to reality because it is a meaningless exercise: just when Asuna is about to succumb to the Izoku’s grip, Shin shows up and kills the Izoku attacking her. The sun rises shortly after, forcing the remaining Izoku to retreat. With the morning here, both Shin and Asuna do feel as though there is new hope, now that the sun has risen. While the Izoku are a terrifying foe, Shin is able to kill one with a knife, leaving me to wonder if firearms would’ve been useful against them. The Izuko only show up in certain areas after night has fallen, and since the villages are safe, one must imagine that Agartha’s inhabitants have simply adjusted to their presence and placed their settlements away from the Izoku’s turf, rather than wage a campaign of extermination as contemporary humans are wont to doing.

  • After Shin and Asuna share their memories of Shun, they allow one another the time to cry themselves out. Asuna had been holding back her feelings, but here, she finally lets her emotions out. While society has reservations about tears, crying is an effective means of flushing out sorrow and grief: the process releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, which are hormones that create a feeling of calm. In the aftermath, both Shin and Asuna determine that they need to get Ryūji back – while he’s kept calm by his single-minded focus, this stubbornness has left him blind to the costs of resurrecting the dead.

  • After finally reaching the bottom of Finis Terra, Ryūji locates the Gate of Life and Death and ventures inside. The Shakuna Vimana feels the presence of a Clavis crystal and makes its way over to hear whatever wish Ryūji has in mind. Thanks to numerous warnings, both from the village Master, and common knowledge about the costs of raising the dead back into the world of the living, viewers will immediately gain a sense of unease at what Ryūji is trying to accomplish. What follows is then simple enough; Shin and Asuna must get back down and reach the Gate of Life and Death to stop Ryūji.

  • The same Quetzalcoatl that had accepted Mimi’s corpse has come here to Finis Terra to pass on, as well. Spotting Asuna and Shin, it offers them a ride down to the bottom, allowing the pair to bypass the treacherous descent that Ryūji would’ve had to had made. Coupled with Shin’s Clavis, the pair float down safely after the Quetzalcoatl vanishes from this world. I would imagine that the gap between Ryūji’s enormously difficult descent and the comparatively straightforward one Asuna takes is meant to be a metaphor for how sometimes, the things that are meant to be present much less resistance compared to the things we were not meant to have.

  • Once inside the portal, Shin and Asuna spot a faint glow coming from Ryūji: he’s managed to contact the gods’ vessel, which transforms into a monstrous, multi-eyed being. After regarding Ryūji, it prepares to grant his wish. However, recalling someone from death is not an easy feat, and the gods must first use a vessel in order to carry out the process. Asuna is immediately seized, and she slowly begins taking on the appearance of Ryūji’s late wife. Even Asuna’s sacrifice isn’t enough: the energy involved draws out Ryūji’s life force, and he becomes scarred in the process.

  • It is here that Shin chooses to act; to Ryūji, Asuna was expendable, and to grant Ryūji’s wish, Asuna would have to give up her life in order to allow Ryūji’s wife to come back. The question of sacrificing the young for the old is a very difficult topic, one that I’m certainly not qualified to discuss, but in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai suggests that this isn’t up for debate: the outcomes of this film indicates that Shinkai hedges his bets on youth and giving them a shot at the future. To this end, Shin attempts to shatter the Clavis and stop the process, but Ryūji overpowers him, allowing the process to reach completion.

  • Ryūji thus reunites with Lisa, and Asuna’s spirit is sent onwards, although Lisa appears to retain Asuna’s memories: she feels Shin to be familiar. Asuna’s spirit ends up meeting both Mimi and Shun; having found the strength to do so, Asuna manages to properly bid Shun farewell, and in this moment, Shin also shatters the Clavis. In her remaining moments, Lisa apologises for having lacked the strength to protect Ryūji and prepares to depart once more, leaving Ryūji to suffer the loss of death anew. By toying with forces beyond human comprehension, Ryūji ends up losing Lisa twice – this time would’ve hit even harder because Ryūji had, until now, been working towards this one moment, so to see everything taken away again would’ve been particularly devastating.

  • Although Ryūji desires death to escape the pain of loss and asks Shin to kill him here nad now, Shin implores Ryūji to live on instead. Asuna soon comes to, and unlike Ryūji, who’d come to Agartha with a very clear goal in mind and was unwilling to listen to those who tried to turn him away from his path, Asuna’s lack of preconceptions and singular objective in Agartha means that she was able to venture into this realm and gain something invaluable: knowledge and wisdom. Having now had the chance to properly say goodbye to Shun and Mimi, Asuna is finally ready to take a step forward and leave the deceased to rest.

  • The three prepare to make their way back to Agartha’s gateway: Ryūji elects to stay behind and learn from the Agarthans in order to find peace and come to terms with his wife’s death. Here, they make use of a ramp that leads back to Agartha’s surface – it is not lost on me that, had Ryūji been more patient and bothered to research this detail, his descent would’ve been less difficult, but then again, had Ryūji appreciated something like this, he might have never made the journey to Agartha at all. As Children Who Chase Lost Voices draws to a close, Anri Kumaki’s Hello, Goodbye and Hello begins to play. This song brought a solitary tear to my eye when I first watched this movie, being both upbeat and melancholy at the same time.

  • Some time later, Asuna returns to her old life on the surface, and having fully accepted that death is a natural part of life, is able to move on – she smiles before heading out the door for school, bringing the film to a close. While the themes in Children Who Chase Lost Voices are easily discerned, the me of ten years ago struggled to write about this film. I still had considerable difficulty with this post a decade later, but looking back, I would contend that, having ten more years of life experience and knowledge of Shinkai’s latest works together, is what allowed me to better convey how I feel about what is one of Makoto Shinkai’s lesser-known films. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is completely overshadowed by Garden of WordsYour Name and Weathering With You, but relative to its successors, is no less enjoyable and compelling, being an indispensable Makoto Shinkai experience. With this ten-year anniversary post in the books, I’ll return to wrap the month up with a talk on The Aquatope on White Sand after twenty-one, and remark that the MG Kyrios I ordered arrived today. I am looking forwards to building it once I confirm the status of the vacation time I’d requested a few weeks earlier.

Altogether, Children Who Chase Lost Voices represents Makoto Shinkai’s boldest, most daring film to date. New themes and new character traits come together in a fantastical story portraying a setting none of his works have ever portrayed. Whereas Shinkai focuses on Tokyo in his films, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is set in rural Japan and the legendary world of Agartha, a place of rolling hills, ancient ruins, endless plains and a treacherous crater housing the Gate of Life and Death. Each setting is rendered in stunning detail, whether it be the interior of Asuna’s house and classroom, to the village and landscapes of Agartha. The end result of this level of detail is that Agartha is brought to life, becoming as convincing as any real-world location Shinkai traditionally sets his stories in. Bringing out the best in Agartha makes it clear to viewers that this world is as real as the one we’re familiar with, and consequently, the learnings that Asuna picks up here are certainly applicable in the real world, as well. In an interview, Shinkai states that he wanted to create a more optimistic messages about parting ways, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a film that completely succeeds in this regard. It is unsurprising that after its release, the film was universally acclaimed; in fact, some people even began comparing Shinkai to the works of Hayato Miyazaki (although Shinkai himself dislikes this comparison, feeling it to be an overestimation of his own abilities). While Children Who Chase Lost Voices is overshadowed by its successors’ success, as well as the fact that in 2019, Sentai Filmworks lost the license to the film, the film remains a worthwhile watch owing to its trailblazing elements that would become commonplace in his newer films, as well as for its wonderful depiction of Agartha and a moving story that shows how, distance or not, people can persevere, overcome and learn. This film might no longer be as accessible as it was a few years earlier, but its contributions are nontrivial, and as such, fans of Makoto Shinkai’s works will greatly enjoy this journey to Agartha, one journey that should not be forgotten.

Masterpiece Anime Showcase: Celebrating Ten Years of Hanasaku Iroha and Bonburi’ing a Path to the Future, How People Blossom from Self-Discovery, Adversity and Hard Work

“You may come to a standstill or get irritated because things don’t work out the way you want them to, but what you gain from hard work will never betray you.” –Tōru Miyagishi

When high school student Ohana Matsumae’s mother, Satsuki, decides she wants to elope with a man, Ohana is sent to live at her grandmother’s inn, the Kissuisō. Although this change in circumstances leaves Ohana discouraged, working at the Kissuisō pushes her to better herself. As Ohana falls in love with her work and what she learns, she comes to know the Kissuisō’s staff better, as well. From serving customers, to learning about her coworkers, Minko, Nako, Tōru, Renji, Tomoe, Enishi and Denroku, Ohana stumbles and falls during her learnings, but always comes out with more resolve and spirit than before. In the process, Ohana influences those around her to be at their best, comes to terms with her old life, and determines that she wants to shine in whatever her endeavours are, the same as her grandmother had done. Thus, Ohana is able to take things in stride when her grandmother announces that Kissuisō is set to close. The staff part ways for new positions but promise to return the day Kissuisō can re-open, and Ohana returns to Tokyo with a new lease on life, with her world no longer unremarkable and drab. 2011’s Hanasaku Iroha was P.A. Works’ fourth production, and the first time they’d presented a series about coming-of-age through the workplace. Sincere, honest and gritty, Hanasaku Iroha pulls no punches; Ohana is thrown into the harsh realities of work, and despite losing her way, Ohana’s unquenchable sense of optimism allows her to pull through and become someone who takes pride in her work. This spirit was evidently infectious; the other staff at Kissuisō find it difficult not to get drawn into Ohana’s way of doing things; Minko, Nako, Tōru, Renji and Tomoe each come to appreciate what Ohana brings to the table, and with twenty-six episodes of runtime, there is plenty of space to flesh out each of the characters, who all have their own aspirations and desires. In time, the seemingly cold and hostile staff open up and become irreplaceable allies, all of whom support one another as they strive to follow Sui Shijima’s vision of running the best possible inn for their customers. This in turn opens Hanasaku Iroha up to explore its themes: while the series’ first half deals prominently with the reality of the workplace and depicts seemingly-disconnected stories, Hanasaku Iroha opens the throttle in its second half and boldy went where the studio had not previously gone. The end result is nothing short of touching, and for this reason, Hanasaku Iroha joins the ranks of series that changed my worldview after I’d finished with it.

There are two central elements to Hanasaku Iroha that unify the entire anime’s story together. The first of this is evident in how Sui receives Ohana during the first episode: Ohana’s first mistake earns her a triple-slap to the face, and Sui notes that as an innkeeper, the customers are first and foremost without exception. Ohana had arrived at Kissuisō expecting a færie tale of sorts, but this moment leaves her in tears, resigned to the fact that things will only get more difficult from here (her coworkers seem distant, as well). However, after Ohana and the Kissuisō’s staff save writer Tarō Jirōmaru from committing suicide, Ohana comes to realise that Tarō’s seemingly-dubious writings brought out something she never spotted in herself; having went through her life without direction, and always resenting her mother for being absent from important moments of her life, Ohana now wants to shine, to be the best that she can be. To this end, Ohana subsequently undergoes a dramatic change, improving greatly as a waitress, and in time, comes to fall in love with her job. The desire to reinvent herself manifests as Ohana’s catchphrase, to “bonbori” things up; to work hard with a clear purpose in mind and visibly benefit those around her. Seeing how her effort directly impacts those she serves gives Ohana something tangible to work towards, and waitressing at Kissuisō becomes more than a job to Ohana: it is a way of life, giving her purpose. However, Ohana isn’t merely just expending effort: having taken her grandmother’s words to heart, Ohana expends the right kind of effort. The sum of her experiences at Kissuisō makes Ohana more mindful of those around others, more empathetic, and more efficient. This accelerates Ohana’s growth, and time away from Tokyo allows her to gain new perspective on the problems she’d left behind in Tokyo. Ohana now understands her mother a little better, and realises that she’d been unfair to Kōichi Tanemura, a friend who’d confessed to Ohana but never got a straight answer. With the newfound outlook on honesty, Ohana ultimately resolves to return Kōichi’s feelings, too. Ohana’s efforts benefit her immensely, but also has a profound impact on those around her. Minko becomes more honest about her feelings, while Nako becomes more assertive. Meanwhile, Tōru develops a minor crush on Ohana and in spite of himself, finds himself looking forwards to seeing what crazy stunts Ohana brings to the table whenever a challenge falls upon Kissuisō. Being encouraged by hard work lies at the heart of Hanasaku Iroha, and here, P.A. Works is suggesting that all change begins with hard work. One must have that internal drive to better themselves above all else, and here in Hanasaku Iroha, it was because Ohana desired this change, that she ultimately ends up becoming more capable, dependable and mature.

Throughout Hanasaku Iroha, it is also shown that while change is prima facie an intimidating thought to entertain, once the events are in motion, it actually becomes easier to adapt and roll with the punches. The reason for this is that, while a circumstance may change, one will reliably enter with the skills and experience they’d previously accrued. For instance, it is the case that, once Ohana sets her heart on doing something, she goes to extraordinary lengths to get it done. In the beginning, Minko and Nako both irritate her, and she decides the best way to sort them out is to watch them eat their least favourite foods. This was something she’d done when her mother skipped out on a school activity, leaving her hanging. By applying past solutions to current problems, Ohana finds that skills become transferable in a variety of contexts, and that the determination to get things done, no matter what (equivalent to Takako’s “never give up!”), ends up being to Ohana’s favour. On several occasions, Ohana simply pushes into a situation with her typical stubbornness, and for her efforts, there is a result. When Kissuisō is swamped by visitors one weekend, Ohana manages to retrieve Tōru from a wedding. Later, she travels to Tokyo with fire in her heart after learning her mother had written a devastating review about Kissuisō, and despite her mother’s resistance to admitting any wrong-doing, Ohana ultimately does manage to convince Satsuki to show up and experience Kissuisō as a professional. Ohana’s tendency to stick her nose into business she has no business in always seems to leave a bad situation in a more manageable position: during a class trip, Ohana decides to help the inn her class is staying at. While the inn and their processes might be different, the things Ohana learnt from Kissuisō allow her to ensure the inn can keep up with the volume. Finally, it is Ohana who suggests that Enishi and Takako have their wedding at Kissuisō, and while this created more work for everyone, it also demonstrated that Kissuisō’s staff do have what it takes, allowing the newly-weds to save money and have a memorable wedding. Ultimately, the sum of their experiences is what allows the staff to accept Kissuisō’s closure: while everyone has grown fond of working at this inn, their skills are most definitely applicable elsewhere in life, as well. The accrued learnings and capabilities over time mean that oftentimes, the prospect of change can appear scarier than the change itself. However, one’s skill never leaves them, and so, by rising to the occasion, adversity simply becomes an instrument of helping one to advance themselves further. Hanasaku Iroha is speaking to viewers here and reminds them that while circumstances may appear insurmountable, help from both within and without mean that one is never truly alone.

Skill, hard work and the rewards these virtues give rise to are a central piece of Hanasaku Iroha, presented in sufficient detail as to make the anime a masterpiece already, Hanasaku Iroha goes above and beyond with its second theme, which concerns Sui’s personal belief about Kissuisō and her staff. Sui’s intention of closing down Kissuisō for the present stems from her desire to see everyone follow their own aspirations, and this initially created conflict amongst the staff, who’ve come to view Kissuisō as their home. As a result of Sui’s own devotion to her career, she created an environment where excellence was the standard, and appropriate effort was rewarded. This inspires Kissuisō’s staff to put in their best no matter the situation, all in the name for the customer. Ohana, Nako and Tomoe become better waitresses. Minko, Tōru and Renji thrive as chefs, and even writer-turned-staff Tarō becomes an integral part of the team. It is at Kissuisō everyone cut their teeth, and it is understandable to see everyone as being loyal to the inn. However, as Sui rightly puts it, staying put here would only serve to hold everyone back from unlocking their fullest potential. Familiarity breeds complacency, and complacency engenders stagnation. Hence, Sui indicates that each of Ohana, Minko, Nako, Tomoe, Tōru, Renji and Enishi would be giving up their dreams to fulfil her dreams. This is true in a manner of speaking: the original Kissuisō was, after all, built for Sui’s happiness. In order to truly develop their skills, everyone must embrace new challenges and explore new directions. There is an analog for me: when I began my career, I desired to stick with a company because above all else, I sought practical experience with software development. In my case, the combination of the companies running low on funds, and my skills reaching a ceiling of sorts, meant I was compelled to seek out new opportunities. While intimidating to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there to see what new opportunities I could captialise upon, the end result was that over time, I would settle into my new role and therefore have a chance to continue improving myself. This is what Sui meant for Kissuisō’s staff to realise: granted, everyone works wonderfully as a team and are completely loyal to Kissuisō, but at the same time, a majority of the staff are still young and therefore have much to learn. Kissuisō’s closing therefore ends up being a blessing in disguise, and as Hanasaku Iroha entered its final phase, the anime clearly sought to convey to viewers that life is full of surprises. While it is tempting to follow the familiar, well-worn path, true growth and learning comes when one is pushed out of their comfort zone. Ohana had been dropped into a new environment at Kissuisō and rose to the occasion despite initial hiccoughs, but came to love her duties and her coworkers at the series’ beginning. Thus, when Kissuisō closes, armed with a better sense of who she is, Ohana is now better equipped to deal with her future, as are each of Minko, Nako, Tomoe, Tōru, Renji and Enishi.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I first watched Hanasaku Iroha, and what’s more, this anime hasn’t aged a day in terms of its themes and visuals. When I finished this series, I was just beginning the academic semester, having come out of one of my favourite summers of all time. I wrote that this anime had been about coming to terms with one’s identity and aspirations through hard work. The themes of Hanasaku Iroha aren’t deep and mysterious by any means, and the me of ten years earlier had readily identified what P.A. Works had sought to convey through this anime.

  • However, in the decade that has passed, my appreciation of Hanasaku Iroha has increased primarily because I’ve now lived through the things that Ohana experienced. Ten years earlier, I’d been a student, and my life had always been ordinary, allowing me to focus purely on my studies. I thus approached Hanasaku Iroha from a less learned perspective. Looking back now, and armed with a full decade’s worth of stories, it’s really hit me as to just how meaningful and well-done this anime is. For this reason, I’ve decided to go with a much larger post to articulate my thoughts on Hanasaku Iroha and its impact. On top of my usual themes and commentary, I am going to also reminisce a little about this past decade.

  • Out the gates, Ohana is pushed into a completely different world. While she’d come into the countryside and Kissuisō looking for change in her life, Ohana is by no means spoiled or lazy – she’s worked hard for herself back home in Tokyo, and had been hoping the change of scenery would lead her on a journey of self-discovery. However, her hard work at Kissuisō is not always met with praise, and Ohana earns herself three slaps to the face from her grandmother for degrading a customer’s experience. Immediately, Hanasaku Iroha sets the tone for what reality is like; there is precious little space to make mistakes, and errors are met with a firm reprimand.

  • Moreover, Ohana’s new coworkers aren’t exactly shining rays of sunshine: Minko is openly hostile towards Ohana, and Nako is too shy to be an effective mentor. Frustrated that no one at Kissuisō seems to be willing to show her the ropes, Ohana ends up confronting Minko and Nako directly, determining that she’ll only get to know them better by forcing them to eat something they dislike. While Ohana’s relationship with her coworkers starts out rough, one of the best parts about Hanasaku Iroha was that, once Ohana got to know everyone better, she came to see everyone as an integral part of Kissuisō and her own life.

  • After Ohana mistakenly clears out author Tarō Jirōmaru’s manuscripts, the entire Kissuisō’s staff hunt for them. Ohana ends up finding them, but gets “kidnapped” in the process. While Tarō appears a loser who overplays his ability, his attempts to get inspiration help Ohana find her footing: in a rather risqué draft, Ohana reads that her character should sparkle more. Tarō had meant it in a more questionable way, but Ohana interprets this to mean that she should do her best, too. When Tarō’s truth comes out, he attempts to run away, and he even attempts to commit suicide, but Nako ultimately saves him, and Ohana slaps sense into him, saying that his writing has at least inspired her to do better.

  • Ohana had already been a decent cook and possesses a range of skills as a consequence of her mother, Satsuki, working late and leaving Ohana to handle the household chores. As a result, Ohana is very hard working, and once she gets into her stride at Kissuisō, she is able to impart her personality on those around her. While Nako is able to accept Ohana and begins to change, Minko adamantly refuses to admit that Ohana has impacted her and remains angry wherever Ohana is concerned.

  • While Ohana’s mother may have never been much of a positive role model for her, this hasn’t stopped Ohana from being optimistic and cheerful. In this way, she is able to make the most of her time at Kissuisō, and when it comes time to transfer to Nako and Minko’s school, she takes in everything with energy, too. Hanasaku Iroha shows that Ohana has no trouble getting along with her new classmates, who initially find her Tokyo background fascinating. Over time, however, they come to respect Ohana for how much she’s capable of accomplishing.

  • The Bonbori Festival is mentioned early in Hanasaku Iroha – Nako explains that it was born as a festival to allow a local deity to return to the heavens, and in exchange for help, the deity grants people’s wishes. Ohana is fairly pragmatic, and approaches problems in her life head-on, but where her friend, Kō, is concerned, Ohana cannot help but wish for a bit of magic. Hearing about the Bonbori Festival also inspires Ohana to adapt a new catchphrase: to bonboru (a portmanteau of bonbori and suru, indicating a verb), or give one’s best efforts towards a goal. As memory serves, the variant of Hanasaku Iroha I watched back in 2011 translated bonboru as “fest it up”. Although perhaps capturing the spirit, I would give this only partial credit, since it doesn’t convey the effort Ohana is thinking of, to give it one’s all.

  • While Ohana initially is perplexed about her grandmother’s credos, of always putting the customer first, over time, she comes to understand what Sui had meant. There is a sense of pride in doing a proper job; I’d long believed in giving one’s best no matter what, and even prior to Hanasaku Iroha, I embodied this concept, knowing that no matter the outcome, trying my best meant there were no regrets after. Hard work and effort are closely related: putting an effort to do well lessens the mental schlepp, and increases the feeling of accomplishment when one’s finished their work.

  • Effort is something that I’ve always respected; this is something about me that hasn’t changed in the past decade, and my belief in effort impacts everything I do, from my work to how I run this blog. Like Sui states, effort isn’t just expenditure of time towards a task: it is about efficiency, succinctness and hitting one’s intended aims. I have heard people hold this against the blog: they argue that my posts’ length does nothing to impact validity because effort doesn’t equate to correctness. However, I counterargue that the effort I put into my post isn’t mirrored by post length, but rather, the accuracy and authenticity of what I say. The length comes about simply because I need the extra space to articulate the appropriate details.

  • Ohana is surprised to be getting paid alongside the other Kissuisō staff: twenty thousand Yen is a lot for Ohana, especially considering that her allowance back home is only eight thousand Yen. Ten years earlier, I’d never actually worked any summer jobs in the traditional sense; in my programme, I applied for scholarships and made bank during the summer by doing research for labs at the university. Looking back, I think it would’ve been a valuable life experience if, during my time in secondary school, I’d applied for a position at the local bookstore or similar; back then, I was a member of the local Chinese school’s staff and helped with various things instead.

  • The conflict between tradition and innovation is occasionally explored in Hanasaku Iroha, as Enishi and Takako attempt to bring new ideas to the table in an effort to increase customer count and customer retention. Sui’s intent is to do what works, while Takako believes that new visitors need incentive to show up. Having been on both sides of the fence, I’ve found that incremental innovation is usually the most successful: people desire a product that is familiar but does just enough differently to justify going with it. As a university student, I was all about the innovation, at least until I took a fourth-year course on iOS development and had the chance to appreciate why the expression “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” holds water: some traditions endure precisely because they work.

  • Yuina is the granddaughter of a rival innkeeper, but despite her position, she struggles to decide whether or not to inherit the family business or pursue a career of her own choosing. Her manner and personality comes across as a bit eccentric (she’s fond of switching accents at the drop of a hat), but this doesn’t stop her from gaining a large pool of prospective suitors among the male classmates. She getting along with Ohana, who also is the granddaughter of an innkeeper. Unlike Ohana, who has no qualms about getting her hands dirty and helping out, Yuina seems disinterested in the day-to-day aspects of running an inn.

  • When Ohana comes across the wa maid uniforms Sui herself had made decades earlier, she decides to give them a go. These uniforms show that Sui herself also once looked to the future and wondered if there were ways of livening things up a little. It’s certainly different enough to be noticed by the customers, who find the change refreshing. Subtle changes like these can often make a world of difference: as a software developer, I’m attuned to these sorts of things. This time of year, for instance, sees the release of Apple’s latest version of iOS, and I still vividly recall back in 2011, when iOS 5 came out. iOS 5 introduced the notification center and iCloud. Fast forward ten years, and we’re now rocking iOS 15.

  • I’m still getting used to iOS 15 so far, so I don’t really have much to say about it yet, so we’ll return to Hanasaku Iroha, where during one particularly hilarious segment, Tomoe attempts to drive off some rather troublesome customers who are into wargaming and airsoft after they begin frightening Nako and Ohana. At this point in time, Tomoe is looking for a change of scenery and imagines that she might as well get fired in the process. However, without really realising it, Tomoe’s “antics” are right up the wargamers’ alley, and they compliment Kissuisō for having improved their experience in an unexpectedly pleasant way. Sui praises Tomoe for going the extra mile to keep the customers happy, and Tomoe realises that there’s more to being a waitress than she’d previously seen.

  • When I watched Hanasaku Iroha for the first time, I was only a shade older than Ohana, Minko and Nako. On my revisit now, I’m older than Tomoe and Tōru: the struggles that Tomoe face (her mother can be heard bugging her about getting married and doing some matchmaking) are, incidentally, the same struggles I have. During this watch-through of Hanasaku Iroha, I came to appreciate Tomoe doubly so: while she’s a little sensitive about being single whenever the topic is brought up, these worries are professionally set aside whenever she’s waitressing at Kissuisō as she strives to make sure the customers are happy, and that her juniors are doing things properly.

  • It seems like that adversity continues appearing at the most unexpected of times; right when Kissuisō receives an influx of customers one weekend, Sui herself falls ill and is admitted to hospital. Even then, her main concern is for the customers’ well-being. At this point in time, Ohana still has a bit of trouble separating her personal and professional concerns. However, she does understand that her grandmother has a point, and heads back to Kissuisō with the goal of ensuring all of the customers are properly cared for.

  • When Takako and Enishi hear that a reviewer is scheduling a stay at Kissuisō, they attempt to make their visit as pleasant as possible with the hope of scoring a favourable review. This goes against how Sui runs things, and Ohana manages to push the other employees at Kissuisō to treat all of the guests equally, as her grandmother would do, so that the reviewer would have an experience that is most truthful to what guests can expect from Kissuisō. Ohana’s sense of integrity is wonderful; while she’s determined and driven, she never once considers using underhanded techniques to get ahead. Techniques or no, the surge of customers puts a massive strain on the staff.

  • Whenever the going gets too rough, Denroku Sukegawa is always on hand to offer advice for Ohana. Denroku is an elderly man who’s worked at Kissuisō since Sui and her husband took it over from the previous owner, and over the years, has steadily worked in the background to keep the inn’s HVAC and mechanical systems up and running. Previously, I’d not been too sure where Denroku’s nickname came from: I do hear various characters refer to him as 豆爺 (Hepburn mamejii, jyutping dau6 je4, literally “Bean Gramps”), but it turns out that his name was similar to the name of a well-known company that specialised in beans. Translations of his name vary from “Beanman” to “Mr. Beans”.

  • Spurred on, Ohana decides to request reinforcements from Nako, and to bring Tōru back herself. While she is unsuccessful, she receives a phone call from Kōichi: after she’d left Kōichi hanging when he’d attempted a kokuhaku, Ohana finds it difficult to speak with him, embarrassed about what she’d done. However, in spite of this, Kōichi continues to support Ohana as best as he can, and this support in turn leads her to do her best. While Tōru is taken aback, seeing that Ohana present shows him just how much he’s needed, and he hastens to get back to Kissuisō and help keep the kitchen going.

  • With the whole of Kissuisō firing on all cylinders, the staff are able to keep the ship upright. Hanasaku Iroha‘s first few episodes are a little chaotic and are only loosely connected, showcasing more critical moments as Ohana adjusts to life here and makes her presence felt. This approach is something that P.A. Works would carry forwards into their later workplace and coming-of-age series; Tari Tari, Nagi no Asukara, ShirobakoSakura Quest and The World in Colours all focus on unrelated but pivotal moments for the protagonists early in the game, before switching to a much more cohesive and driven story towards the end.

  • While Enishi and Takako were quite worried about pleasing the reviewer, it turns out that they had a wonderful time, impressed with the traditional but attenuative services that Kissuisō offers. Towards the end, Sui also returns from the hospital, impressed that her staff were able to keep things going despite how busy it’d gotten. By this point in time, Hanasaku Iroha had firmly established that Sui’s strict, no-nonsense attitude and methods in keeping Kissuisō ship-shape encourage her employees to do the same, and in turn, Sui also meets excellence with encouragement, creating a tightly-knit staff that are willing to give their utmost to their work.

  • Looking back, I’m not too sure how I got into Hanasaku Iroha, and I’m doubly uncertain as to when I actually started the series. What I do recall is that I began watching the series after some screenshots captured my interest, and it was a captivating ride for me. At the time, I would’ve just come out of what I feel to be one of my favourite summers of the 2010s; after a particularly rough semester that saw my GPU slide down to 3.29, just below the minimum for staying in the Health Sciences Honours programme, I resolved to relax and regroup that summer, spending my days building a renal model in Objective-C, and watching anime by evenings. In this way, I ended up building the foundations of my undergraduate thesis, and also had enough developed so that I could participate in the undergraduate research symposium.

  • By the time term started, I had my abstract and poster prepared for the symposium, and on the day of the event, I was fortunate in that my slot was scheduled in between classes. In university, missing even one lecture can be devastating, so I was lucky not to have missed anything. Here, Ohana develops a fever after overexerting herself: she collapses while attempting to shoo a bat from the rafters. The others immediately send Ohana to bed for some rest so that she may recover.

  • One interesting side-effect from Ohana’s fever is that Tōru begins to develop a minor crush on Ohana – Ohana is the only person who outright says that she needs his help, and was the one motivated enough to personally bring him back to Kissuisō. This creates all sorts of conflict later down the line with Minko, whose crush on Tōru is a badly-kept secret. Dynamics like these mean that Hanasaku Iroha never has a dull moment, but unlike soap opera drama, where characters are endlessly subject to suffering because they are never allowed to learn from their experiences, the characters in anime like Hanasaku Iroha do learn over time, making it far easier to root for Ohana et al.

  • When Ohana overhears that Kissuisō is running fine even though she’s down for the count, she becomes tearful at the prospect of having been sidelined. As it turns out, Nako’s particularly bad with words, and the way she puts things can be unintentionally hurtful; combined with Ohana’s tendency to take things at face value, misunderstandings can occur. I had mentioned this in an earlier post about the bus factor; for the most part, Kissuisō’s staff are capable enough to offset smaller inconveniences like losing a single member of their staff.

  • When Ohana recovers, Kissuisō finds itself facing another crisis: a scathing, blistering review of all the inns in their area threatens business, and Ohana sets off for Tokyo with fire in her heart. She is surprised to learn that her mother was responsible for the review, and stubbornly insists on forcing Satsuki back to Kissuisō so that she may properly experience things. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and the difficulty of the assignment is enough to make Ohana cry. I’d never really thought about this on my first run of Hanasaku Iroha, but despite her generally cheerful demeanour and optimistic outlook, Ohana is also prone to moments where even she feels overwhelmed.

  • As a bit of double damage, Ohana earns that one of Kōichi’s coworkers also has feelings for him, and her world begins unravelling after spotting the two being seemingly close at the bookstore. Fortunately for Ohana, Kōichi’s feelings for her never waver, and here, the other girl confronts Ohana, asking her to be forthcoming about how she feels out of fairness to Kōichi. This does become a bit of a sticking point throughout Hanasaku Iroha – originally, Ohana was not my favourite character, but with ten years of life experience, I now understand why many of the men in Hanasaku Iroha respect Ohana; despite being nosy and noisy, she’s hardworking, honest and determined, all of which are traits I respect in people.

  • Tears are the norm in Hanasaku Iroha for Ohana; they are present to show that Ohana is not without her weaknesses. A lifetime of counting on herself means that Ohana is reluctant to depend on others, but in Tokyo, this is ultimately what saves her from calamity, as Tōru and Minko end up stopping by and giving her a chance to regroup. In the aftermath, Ohana’s mother does end up coming with them to Kissuisō – Ohana’s raw stubbornness and determination is something that runs in the family. In reality, things turning in one’s favour through force of will alone is quite rare, but in an anime like Hanasaku Iroha, it is encouraging to see things work in Ohana’s favour, especially considering how she puts her heart into everything she does.

  • It turns out that Satsuki never particularly saw eye-to-eye with Sui; although Sui had intended Satsuki to inherit Kissuisō, Satsuki never really saw the in as a career path for herself, leading to a rift in the family. It turns out that Satsuki is a journalist who writes what higher-ups ask of her, and there had been indeed a plan to drive interest in a new inn in the area. This revelation might’ve only been a small part of Hanasaku Iroha, but it does underline a longstanding problem with mass media and journalism in general, specifically, can be manipulated to suit the interests of a few. In this case, Satsuki is a cog in a machine; she’s not responsible for the article’s tone per se and would likely face reprimand if she were to write something that didn’t suit the higher ups’ objectives.

  • I have a feeling that the host of negative anime movie reviews at Anime News Network are likely the result of something similar, which accounts for many slice-of-life movies are harshly, but flimsily, critiqued: the reviewers themselves are simply told what verdict should be reached at the film’s end, similarly to how Satsuki is asked to write a scathing tear-down about Kissuisō. Although Sui is reluctant to have Satsuki back, she determines that Satsuki is another customer and suggests to the Kissuisō team that there’s nothing special or challenging if they proceed as they normally do. This particular event helps Ohana bond with Sui more closely; while both are approaching this from a professional perspective, being able to iron out how to optimise Satsuki’s experience helps the pair to learn about Satsuki, and one another, better.

  • Sui reluctantly accepts Satsuki’s invitation to share a drink, viewing it as a part of her duty as Kissuisō’s landlady, and things quickly become a family reunion of sorts. Here, it turns out that despite their dramatically different outlooks on life, daughter and mother alike share the same inextinguishable spirit and determination to make something of themselves. This helps to close the distance between the three: Ohana had spent the whole of Hanasaku Iroha viewing her mother as inconsiderate and self-centred, unable to make time for her own daughter, while Sui has similarly felt her daughter to be irresponsible and unpredictable. However, despite Satsuki’s shortcomings, she doesn’t strike out a hundred percent of the time: this is something both Ohana and Sui are able to pick up now that Satsuki’s actually here.

  • Hanasaku Iroha marked the first time P.A. Works utilised what I would come to know later as “funny faces”: highly comical and exaggerated facial expressions that spoke volumes about how a given character was feeling. Their usage in P.A. Works’ other anime would come and go: they were largely absent from Tari Tari and Nagi no Asukara, made a big return in Shirobako, but were otherwise absent in Sakura Quest and The World in Colours. There’s a time and place for funny faces, but I’ve always enjoyed them, since it emphasises that no matter how serious a given anime gets, the characters are still human. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana is the only character seen with funny faces, similarly to how Aoi Miyamori was the only person in Shirobako to be rendered with features indicative of anger, frustration, stress and sorrow.

  • The end of Satsuki’s stay at Kissuisō marks the halfway point to Hanasaku Iroha: Satsuki remarks that it’s been a fun excursion from her daily routine and leaves Ohana with a review properly articulating how she really feels about the place as a professional, citing the attentiveness of the staff as being the biggest strength, and how the inn’s preservation of tradition allows visitors to appreciate things from an older time. Once half of Hanasaku Iroha‘s episodes are in the books, the series had clearly delineated that Ohana has not only settled in to life at Kissuisō, but has wholly embraced things in her pursuit to excel.

  • On its own, this would already be a satisfactory story; P.A. Works thus sets about pushing things to the limit and really showing what’s possible during Hanasaku Iroha‘s second half. I believe this marked the first time P.A. Works had done a two-cour anime; True TearsCannan and Angel Beats! each ran for thirteen episodes. Armed with a new opening and ending song in its second half, Hanasaku Iroha no longer focused on adapting to new environments; instead, the series was now about taking advantage of what one has learnt and applying it to their life’s challenges.

  • When it comes to things like backgrounds and lighting, the art style seen in Hanasaku Iroha is reminiscent of what was seen in Angel Beats!: lighting is extremely vivid, and reflections are very noticeable. Sharp contrasts in the palette help to make elements in an environment pop, and altogether, brings the world to life. This same visual style would return in Tari Tari, although over the years, P.A. Works would also utilise a wide range of different styles in their background art to better fit the story at hand: shiny surfaces and slick-looking buildings may not always line up with the aesthetic a series requires.

  • While on vacation with her class, Ohana stays at another ryōkan-style hotel. It turns out Yuina knows the assistant manager, Yosuke, and he’s about as harsh as Tōru on his subordinates, eventually causing them to quit right as things get busy. Ohana again intervenes, telling them off, but decides that she should help out. Although the assistant director and the hotel’s management state it would be unfair to Ohana, since she’s a customer on a school trip, Ohana’s determination eventually wins out: the staff allow her to help upon learning that she’s Sui Shijima’s granddaughter. Even when the automated cart breaks down, Ohana, Nako and Minko continue to pitch in as temporary waitresses and do what they can.

  • This aspect of Ohana’s character is something I’ve come to greatly respect, and it was for this reason that it becomes easy to see why people take an interest in Ohana: she brightens up the setting no matter where she goes, gets things done and isn’t afraid to go the extra mile once she sets her heart on something. In the end, Ohana even suggests changing up the schedule so that her classmates bathe first before settling down for dinner, buying them time to get everything set up: this was something she’d picked up while looking after Satsuki, and moments like these exemplify why I appreciate Ohana’s character considerably more than I did the first time I watched Hanasaku Iroha.

  • Yuina actually winds up a little jealous of Ohana after Yosuke figures it’d be nice to get someone like Ohana into the family and continue running the inn together that way. Truth be told, aside from Ohana’s tendency to be rather noisy (excellent voice acting on Kanae Itō’s part; she’s also voiced Ika Musume!‘s Sanae, Ayasa from Harukana Receive and Sword Art Online‘s Yui), she’s the sort of person I’d fall in love with; there aren’t many people around who can endure difficult times and face adversity with a smile. I’ve refrained from dating precisely because the times I’ve gone through have been very rough owing to my involvement with start-ups and the associated financial realities of being with a start-up.

  • I imagine that it’d be one-to-a-trillion where I would’ve found someone willing to put up with that sort of thing. These days, things are more stable now, so I suppose it is time to keep two eyes open and see if I can turn this part of my life around, although I wouldn’t consider it a loss if I continue to strike out because I can always better myself in the process. Ten years earlier, I would’ve begun the Japanese class where I’d met someone I ended up developing a crush on and had hoped to ask out. Folks who’ve read my stuff consistently know how that story turned out (elevator version: it didn’t work out so well for me). At the end of the school trip in Hanasaku Iroha, Yuina and Yosuke leave on better terms; they’ve known one another since childhood, and were originally set to marry one another. Yosuke promises to better how he trains staff, and Yuina determines that she should make a more sincere effort at determining what she wants to get out of her life.

  • This does lead to the inevitably question of whether or not I regret taking the route that I did. The answer remains a resounding “no”: when I left graduate school, I was half the developer my peers were (in a literal sense, since I only took half of the computer science courses that computer science majors would as a result of being in the health sciences programme), and I needed a chance to get some industry experience. Working with startups meant I became a self-taught iOS developer, and this has provided me the background needed to solve problems (or at least, know how to begin approaching problems). As it is, I’m probably a little behind in life, but I feel that I have, at the very least, found my footing, and that means what happens from here on out is up to me, which is an encouraging thing. Here, Enishi speaks to a director who’s looking to film a movie at Kissuisō.

  • Even a decade later, watching Nako become so distracted by the prospect of being in a film, subsequently mangling one of Kissuisō’s bonsai trees as a result and her resulting look of shock remains hilarious, a moment that has earned a spot here in this discussion. Filming subsequently begins in earnest at Kissuisō, with camera crews and actresses hustling about for principal photography. The director even brings in an editor so that footage can be put together on-site, and the project’s progress gives Kissuisō’s staff something to look forwards to.

  • Because the director had intended to use the pool for a scene, Enishi asks the staff to clean the pool up and make it screen-worthy. This assignment gives Minko, Nako and Ohana a chance to see a part of Kissuisō that had hitherto remain unused, and also gives viewers a chance to see Minko smile for the first time. While Minko is presented as being all-business and frowns more than she smiles throughout Hanasaku Iroha, it turns out that she has a dazzling smile where the moment allows for it. Minko’s cold personality was later revisited in Tari Tari: Wakana is her equivalent, and like Minko, is quite and devoted. Unlike Minko, Wakana is a bit more empathetic, and once she opens up to Konatsu, Sawa and the others, she becomes a reliable source of support for her friends.

  • While the film itself looks like an exciting opportunity for Kissuisō, it turns out that the director had used it as a scam, with the goal of taking the funds and paying off his debts. This element was meant to show how Hanasaku Iroha is willing to explore the ugly side of business, and how in reality, there are unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of anyone they can. In this case, Enishi is still a beginner, and as such, might not be fully equipped to handle such situations. Learning in this way is harsh, although in my case, I prefer listening to people before pulling any triggers: wisdom from my seniors and elders exists for a reason, and trusting their experience can save me a lot of trouble in the long run.

  • In the end, after a confrontation that sees Enishi and Takako fall into the pool, the pair reconcile, and Sui comes to respect Enishi for standing up for Takako and doing what he felt was right. The question of what happens to the money lost lingers, but for the time being, the learnings are apparent. Throughout these segments, Enishi recalls during his childhood, he felt that his older sister had always overshadowed him, and felt that she was someone who he might only attempt to catch up to. I imagine this is what the aircraft are meant to symbolise: Enishi will always trail because he’s the younger sibling.

  • From here on out, however, Eishi has his own life to life out, and isn’t bound to his sister’s fate. Folks wondering what aircraft are in the skies will be pleased to know that they aren’t difficult to identify: the aircraft from Enishi’s flashbacks are the F4 Phantom (based on its engine profile), while the fighters Ohana spots are the F-15J (based on the twin engines and shape of the real horizontal stablisers). The JASDF have a smaller collection of aircraft, making them easy to identify, and here yes another moment where P.A. Works is able to show off their craft: the afternoon sun glints off Kissuisō’s roof and creates a sense of warmth, accentuated by the afternoon sky’s deep blue hues and billowing clouds.

  • When I went through Hanasaku Iroha back in 2011, Nako was my favourite of the characters: I’d always had a penchant for sky, soft-spoken characters. Nako’s figure, and the fact that she’s voiced by Aki Toyosaki, makes her a very interesting character to behold. As it turns out, Nako is actually quite assertive while at home, since she manages her younger siblings and even keeps an eye on her parents so they eat properly. Conversely, while at work, Nako is quiet and reluctant to speak; for the longest time, Nako had longed to be more assertive and open with her coworkers at Kissuisō.

  • When Nako receives a bonus, she begins to grow worried that Sui might be expecting more of her. However, it turns out that the extra level of effort Nako had went for a visiting couple had been exemplary: Nako had been too nervous to convey to them that there’d been a beautiful meadow a short hike away, but feeling that it was worth the effort, draws the couple a map. The couple would take her up on this and found themselves with an adventure of a lifetime and mention this to Sui, who was impressed with Nako taking the initiative.

  • Ultimately, Nako’s ability to be more true to herself while at Kissuisō is a consequence of Ohana’s influence: Nako has long admired Ohana’s ability to speak her mind with conviction, and spending time with Ohana imparts this change on Nako. In the end, after an episode spent exploring what her best self is, advice from Sui allows Nako to be comfortable with herself, and she resolves to do things in her own manner. Hanasaku Iroha generally gives the characters a chance to shine, and although the time each character gets isn’t even, everyone does get their time in the spotlight. P.A. Works would later rectify this and give characters focus based on their contribution to the main story, but as Hanasaku Iroha was a trailblazer in this area, I won’t hold it against P.A. Works or this anime.

  • With Nako’s growth in the books, eyes turn towards Minko and the challenge she faces during the school’s culture festival. Having long held feelings for Tōru, Minko spends the preparations at odds with the cooking team when they ask to make omurice – one of the girls on the team had hoped to impress her crush, while Minko is trying to impress hers and feels that preparing a proper dish is not feasible given their gear. While the conflict is a messy one, Ohana ends up stepping in, and helps the two parties to compromise: she knows of a recipe that can be prepared with a hot plate, and it turns out to be a delicious one. With this issue addressed, both parties end up happy enough to go forwards.

  • On the day of the culture festival, Tōru shows up as planned, and Minko decides to go all in with her decorations. One aspect of Tōru’s character I relate to, now more than ever, is the fact that he seems quite unaware that Minko has a crush on him. With the wisdom I have now, I have a feeling I’ve probably lost a handful of people because of this part of myself; back then, I wasn’t exactly ready for a relationship, between trying to keep abreast of my studies and then pouring my full efforts towards my work. I am confident that I now possess the maturity needed to build a healthy and happy relationship, although the tradeoff is that the set of people with the traits I value is practically nil.

  • I am fond of problem solving (my occupation speaks volumes to this), but the challenge of dating at my age isn’t something I can sit down, design a set of solution candidates on a whiteboard and then test in a systematic fashion. Further to this, there is a much smaller tolerance for failure (if I mess up a method, I can simply adjust it, recompile it and have another go at things). Hanasaku Iroha captures in full the challenges of relationships: Minko and Ohana struggle with their feelings, and Tomoe is outright single despite being rather attractive. Even Enishi, who fell in love with Takako, has problems of this own to deal with: he worries that Sui won’t accept Takako.

  • Hanasaku Iroha‘s infamous bathroom fight embodies the sorts of problems the road to a meaningful relationship presents; Minko all but admits defeat after a conversation with Tōru seems to suggest that he’s into Ohana, while Ohana believes that Minko hasn’t even made a serious effort yet. In this case, Ohana is absolutely in the right; relationships are a game of selfishness, although I will append that timing and a bit of luck is also necessary. Regarding the young lady I met in Japanese class, there was no happy end there, since she ended up heading over to Japan for an exchange programme and began seeing someone from her host family. While love stories often make heroics out of people who are willing to drop everything and fly across an ocean to persuade their crush, I’m not that sort of person: I don’t go to war and then seek to win later, and it seemed foolish to burn an excess of three thousand dollars to pursue someone who’d all but forgotten about me.

  • It turns out that Sui had approved of Takako: she’s pushing Enishi to follow his own judgement, which was something that he is shown as lacking early in Hanasaku Iroha. While Takako had fully expected Sui to say no, Sui instead hands her the same ring that her husband had given when proposing to her. Moments like these speak to the incalculable power of love, and as Hanasaku Iroha demonstrates, when things line up, a proper relationship is one where there is synergy amongst the two partners. This is something that I’ve come to look for before even considering a relationship; to me, a worthwhile relationship is where I simultaneously knowing I am loved, and have frequent chance to express love, where the pair of us to be more than the sum of our parts. This is something Sui likely spotted in Takako after seeing her with Enishi.

  • Sui reminisces about how Kissuisō came to be: her husband had intended the inn to be a place where she could be happy. The flashback shows the young couple at the Bonbori Festival, hinting at the festival’s significance in the story. While Hanasaku Iroha had begun all over the place and gradually worked towards a coherent, compelling story, the Bonbori Festival is a unifying element that connects all of the pieces together, acting as a tangible endpoint for the story. The events of Hanasaku Iroha are set in Yuwaku, a resort located in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, and while the festival was originally fictional, an inspired bit of lore to really motivate things, the hot spring resort did end up bringing the Bonbori Festival to life. P.A. Works initially spearheaded the festival, but since then, Bonbori has become an annual tradition in the Yuwaku resort area.

  • This speaks to the power that anime can have: while the Bonbori Festival was originally intended for fans, it eventually became a full-fledged local event in time, creating new traditions rooted in hard work, determination and optimism. In a way, the Bonbori Festival in Yuwaku is an embodiment of Ohana’s spirits. On closer inspection, this is an impressive achievement: while The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya might’ve had a wider reach, the outcome of Hanasaku Iroha is more tangible, rivalling the likes of Gundam and Studio Ghibli’s works in terms of impact on society.

  • As Enishi and Takako’s wedding draws nearer, Kissuisō’s staff put the petal to the metal for preparations. It was on Ohana’s suggestion that Kissuisō host the wedding as an economical solution, speaking again to Ohana’s ability to put practical but exciting ideas out for consideration. Kissuisō’s open area becomes the wedding pavilion, and the staff can tend to the reception and banquet. While the wedding dress might be expensive, Ohana and Yuina put their efforts together to make their own dress. The entire wedding between Enishi and Takako is the perfect embodiment of what frugality can accomplish: while attention is paid to detail, and the quality of everyone’s contribution is high, it’s not breaking the bank, either, allowing for a cost-efficient and memorable wedding to occur.

  • From a symbolic standpoint, being married at the inn they’re working at shows that Takako and Enishi are completely devoted to their work as much as they are one another. I’ve found that the things that the best works P.A. Works have delivered have their roots in Angel Beats! and Hanasaku Iroha: the former showed P.A. Works as being able to handle fantastical settings and stories to create emotionally moving stories, while the latter indicated P.A. Works could also excel in bringing the mundane and oft-overlooked life lessons to the forefront. At the time of writing, P.A. Works has produced twenty-four anime series, and of these series, the ones that stuck with me the longest are their workplace and coming of age stories.

  • When I first saw Hanasaku Iroha, I was closer to Ohana, Minko and Nako in age. A full decade later, I’m now just a few years younger than Enishi, and a few years older than Tomoe. Watching Hanasaku Iroha from this different perspective meant that I was able to empathise with and appreciate what Takako, Enishi and Tomoe were thinking. However, it also increased my fondness for Ohana: I don’t think I’ve met any youth quite as spirited and as determined as she is, and while Ohana might be labelled a disturber of the peace, there is no doubting the impact she’s had on Kissuisō ever since she arrived.

  • Throughout Hanasaku Iroha, there’s a large number of emotional moments, and P.A. Works ensures viewers are aware of this through Ohana. However, perhaps speaking to my age (and the accumulated experiences I’ve picked up over the past decade), watching Enishi and Takako getting married actually did bring a solitary tear to my eyes (followed by several more solitary tears): P.A. Works did a wonderful job of capturing the joys of a wedding, a time where the future feels like it could brings limitless joy and possibility.

  • The wedding provides Kissuisō’s staff a chance to really show what they’re made of, and one of the consequences surrounding Ohana’s suggestion is that the whole of the team end up putting their best into everything. From Ohana and Yuina helping make a custom dress for Takako, to Tōru and Renji outdoing themselves with the cooking, preparing for the wedding is simultaneously exciting and hard work, as well. Along the way, Minko grows a bit sensitive to the fact that Ohana seems to be stealing Tōru away from her without realising it, but ultimately, a more assertive Nako defuses this fight, and by wedding day, Kissuisō’s team moves as one cohesive unit.

  • By getting creative, Takako and Enishi’s wedding is one to remember without introducing sticker shock: this moment in Hanasaku Iroha shows how a bit of lateral thinking can make even the impossible possible. A quick glance around shows that the average Canadian wedding rolls for around 30000 CAD, which is, when one thinks about it, an eye-popping price. Wedding planners suggest that it is possible to have a superb wedding for around 9000 CAD by doing things like going with fewer guests, not having an open bar deferring the honeymoon, as well as picking which aspects of the wedding can be scaled back and which areas are higher priority.

  • In Hanasaku Iroha, Sui provides the engagement ring, Kissuisō provides the venue, and Ohana hand-crafts the wedding dress. Overall, assuming 1200 CAD for the ring, 20000 CAD for the venue and 2000 CAD for the wedding dress, Ohana’s suggestion has saved Takako and Enishi an impressive 23200 CAD (a decent starter vehicle like the Mazda CX-30 or Subaru Crosstrek). Altogether, aside from a rather unconventional bit of entertainment during the banquet, courtesy of Tarō and Denroku (in turn leading to looks of shock from Ohana and the others), the event proceeds very smoothly. However, as a bit of a shock to the staff, Sui announces that with Denroku retiring, Kissuisō will be shutting their doors.

  • Altogether, the wedding story in Hanasaku Iroha was very moving, more so than it had been ten years earlier when I’d first watched it. It is not lost on me that ten years is a great deal of time, and in that period, a lot has happened: I’d earned two degrees, became a nidan, and have accrued a shade over five years of industry experience. In this timeframe, I’ve also begun looking towards becoming a homeowner. The ongoing global health crisis has had a nontrivial impact on the housing market, and housing prices have dropped in my area. Moreover, interest rates for mortgages are relatively low: it’s a buyer’s market at the time of writing, and this means beginning to examine the options available.

  • House-hunting is, of course, a very time-intensive process: from browsing through listings, sending out requests to book property viewings and even daydreaming about what to do with a given space, I’ve had little time to do my usual blogging. This is why I’ve been a bit more scarce of late: like anything worth doing, house-hunting requires time, and the hours of a day are limited, so I’ve reprioritised what I’d like to do with my free time. Admittedly, there is a certain amount of fun in doing this stuff, and I do see myself rolling back on the blogging as I begin going through the steps of purchasing a property; it is important to make sure for the processes, I follow protocol and ensure that all i‘s are dotted, and t‘s are crossed.

  • While this inevitably means I’ll be quite busy, I won’t leave readers behind, either: I’ll still be writing, albeit at a reduced rate. Back in Hanasaku Iroha, Takako and Ohana head back to Tokyo. It turns out with Satsuki’s help, Takako was able to track down the director who’d scammed them, and Ohana has a chance to seek out Kōichi and make her feelings known to him. This proves to be a monumental task for Ohana: she’s concerned about Kissuisō’s future, but also wishes to make amends with Kōichi and be upfront about how she reciprocates his feelings for her.

  • As such, when Ohana actually ends up running into Kōichi, she’s no longer coy or hesitant, and openly puts her cards on the table with her inviting Kōichi to the Bonbori festival. It’s a bit of a tearful moment, and although Ohana doesn’t outright deliver her kokuhaku here, it’s clear enough as to what’s going down. Ohana’s monologue reveals that she’d never been appreciative of what she did have: Tokyo was never dull, but rather, she’d come to take the positive things in her life for granted and failed to count her blessings. At this point in Hanasaku Iroha, it is evident that working at Kissuisō helped Ohana to change her perspective and come out more mature.

  • Back at Kissuisō, it turns out that Tarō had been the author of a little-known cooking manga that had inspired both Tōru and Minko to become chefs. While Tarō had appeared an arrogant but incompetent author at Hanasaku Iroha‘s beginning, he’s also a hard worker who accepts responsibility for his mistakes and agrees to work off his debts to Kissuisō. The revelation that his works did indeed inspire people positively shows how unlikely circumstances and fate can really bring people together, and for viewers, it’s a sign that given the right inspiration and effort, Tarō can pick himself back up and continue on his career as a writer. Of course, Tōru and Minko are devastated with this revelation: Tarō did, after all, come across as a little lecherous (unintentionally so).

  • After returning to Tokyo, Satsuki had written a sincere and honest review about Kissuisō, leading to a large uptick in reservations ahead of Bonbori. Sui’s plans to close Kissuisō shortly after the festival leads her to ask that they not accept more reservations than they have space for, but desperate to keep Kissuisō open, Enishi goes against this and determinedly presses forwards with livening Kissuisō up. This creates friction between Sui and the staff: the latter have long regarded Kissuisō as the place where their dreams are being realised and see it as a second home, wishing to work with one another for as long as possible to pursue new heights.

  • When Sui becomes exhausted after a visit to the family’s graves, Ohana looks after her. Ohana and Sui have come a very long way since the beginning of Hanasaku Iroha, from employer and employee to grandmother and granddaughter. Sui reveals to Ohana that with Denroku planning to retire, she feels that Kissuisō has been taken as far as she can carry it, and that she’d been remarkably selfish in bringing others along in the pursuit of her dreams. Having come this far, Sui thus feels that the other staff should also pursue their own dreams and become their best self. Ohana immediately understands what Sui is getting at, but the other staff are adamant about staying.

  • Ohana ends up being caught in the middle again, and is completely unsuccessful in conveying what Sui had told her. As the number of guests increases with Bonbori’s imminent arrival, things get pushed to the breaking point after Tomoe falls and sprains her ankle. Because the whole of Kissuisō is committed to their guests, all differences are set aside. Sui steps in to fill in for Tomoe, noting that before she became Kissuisō’s landlady, she was a waitress, too. All leadership is passed over to Enishi, and he finds this an opportunity to direct the staff in a way that ensures all the customers are looked after.

  • Seeing three generations of the Shijima family fulfilling their waitress duties side-by-side was therefore quite touching in that it shows how challenges can bring people together: it had been clear that Sui and Satsuki do not get along, similarly to how Satsuki and Ohana do not get along, but unified by a common goal (in no small part, thanks to the sheer optimism and determination Ohana brings to the table), grandmother, mother and daughter work together, keeping things at Kissuisō ship-shape prior to the Bonbori festival. With the guests looked after, the staff can finally turn their attention towards the Bonbori festival.

  • Ohana sets off to place her wish on an ema before heading off to meet Kōichi. Under the gentle glow of lanterns lining the path up the mountain, Ohana finally gives Kōichi her kokuhaku while the pair purchase yakisoba at a street-side vendor during the series’ climax. The vendor tactfully draws a heart on their yakisoba, and it speaks volumes to excellence on Hanasaku Iroha‘s part that things were timed so well. The aesthetics and atmosphere surrounding the Bonbori Festival makes it the perfect place for a moment as monumental as a kokuhaku, and the lore behind it, that making wishes here will see them granted, belies the amount of effort that go towards every wish.

  • Through the Bonbori Festival, what Hanasaku Iroha suggests is that behind every wish is a lot of blood, sweat and tears: those who are utterly dedicated to pursuit of their goals doubtlessly encounter untold adversity along the way, and as such, one cannot help but wish that a little bit of luck and external help might be what it takes to push them along just far enough for said dream to become a reality. Ohana had longed to find her place in the sun, and this is her wish at Bonbori, but even without her wish here at the festival, she’s put in the effort to improve herself; viewers thus come to feel that Ohana does deserve to find her success and make her dreams a reality.

  • Throughout the Bonbori Festival, a song called “Night of Bonbori”, which was composed by Shiro Hamaguchi and performed by the Suginami Children’s Chorus. This was custom-written for Hanasaku Iroha using traditional Japanese style, bringing the festival to life. Hamaguchi’s resume is absolutely impressive: besides other of P.A. Works’ titles (Tari Tari and Shirobako), he’s also scored the musical pieces to Ah! My Goddess and Girls und Panzer, demonstrating competence in a variety of styles. Unsurprisingly, the whole of the Hanasaku Iroha soundtrack is an aural treat to listen to, consisting of sixty-three tracks that cover off the more introspective and slice-of-life moments, to chaos and tension that accompanies life at Kissuisō. Like Kenji Kawai, Hamaguchi has a distinct style, and some of the motifs and tone from Hanasaku Iroha‘s soundtrack can later be heard in Tari Tari and Girls und Panzer.

  • With the Bonbori Festival in the books, Hanasaku Iroha prepares to wind down with Denroku’s retirement. By this point in time, the staff have accepted that Kissuisō is closing, and have prepared themselves to part ways for the present. Everyone is leaving on excellent terms with one another; Renji is seen fighting back tears, and Tomoe is openly bawling her eyes out on the day of departure. However, this isn’t the end: Enishi promises to further hone his craft as an inn’s landlord and reopen Kissuisō some day, and upon hearing this, everyone remarks, with conviction, that they’d be happy to be a part of any inn Enishi is managing.

  • Kōichi had struggled to get in touch with Ohana during the course of Hanasaku Iroha and had come close to reaching Kissuisō on several occasions, but self-doubt had led him to turn back every time. At the end of things, Ohana is finally able to show Kōichi the Kissuisō that changed her. Hanasaku Iroha wrapped things up in a highly satisfying and definitive fashion, leaving no stone unturned. During its twenty-six episode run, Hanasaku Iroha had demonstrated what was possible within the space of two-cour anime: in the present day, production studios often go with seasons, deciding whether or not a given anime will get a continuation based on sales figures. Two decades earlier, two-cour anime were more common, and four-cour anime lasting an entire year also existed, speaking to changes in market trends.

  • The longer runtimes mean that anime are given a chance to properly explore the characters, but at the same time, if not properly done, they can also drag on. Back in Hanasaku Iroha, once the staff have headed off for their separate ways, Sui takes some time to walk through the now-silent halls at Kissuisō, with memories of both good and bad times returning to her. She subsequently runs into Ohana, who missed the train and is giving Kissuisō one final cleaning while waiting for the next one.  Sui and Ohana share a little bit of family time together, as grandmother and granddaughter, before Ohana heads off for the train station.

  • Ohana might’ve started Hanasaku Iroha with the vague dream of reinventing herself, but by the series’ end, she still retains all of the optimism and energy she did previously. The difference now is that, having channeled so much of her effort towards something bigger than herself, Ohana is better attuned to the feelings of those around her, and is able to direct her effort towards things that make it better for others. Before she departs, Sui hands her one of Denroku’s journal logs, and Ohana cherishes it, promising to one day pick up where they’d left off.

  • The new Ohana is still Ohana, but with a more mature outlook on life: she prepares to leave for school with a smile on her face, knowing her life has always been colourful, and that she has much to be grateful for. Hanasaku Iroha might’ve been P.A. Works’ first shot at the coming-of-age/workplace genre, but with an execution defined by finesse and care, Hanasaku Iroha set a very high bar for what sorts of stories are possible within the genre. Possessing relevant and critical themes for viewers, relatable characters, artwork and animation that withstood the test of time and stories that pull one in, Hanasaku Iroha got everything right. In fact, a decade later, I better appreciate all of the messages Hanasaku Iroha strove to convey as a consequence of my own experiences, and it is reassuring to know that, even if my path towards tomorrow isn’t so clear-cut, hard work and optimism will help me see what’s upcoming, one step at a time.

Hanasaku Iroha presents two immeasurably powerful themes during its runtime, wrapped up in a story of self-discovery and self-improvement; on these merits alone, the series is a masterpiece. In conjunction with still-gorgeous visuals and aural work, and the fact that emotions are so-well conveyed that I cried alongside Ohana on several occasions Hanasaku Iroha earns its “masterpiece” status several times over. Of course, Hanasaku Iroha does have one further contribution to anime that is meritorious of praise – the unique premise achieved by combining the workplace and coming-of-age stories in Hanasaku Iroha was unheard of for P.A. Works at the time. Striking a balance between two different settings cannot have been easy, but P.A. Works managed to achieve this. Ohana’s story is simultaneously a tale of pursuing one’s best self, acclimatising to and fitting in with her new workplace, as well as how her work contributes to personal growth. As a result of the success from achieving this, Hanasaku Iroha‘s left a lingering legacy on P.A. Works which impacted the sort of series they produce to this day. As the forerunner in combining seemingly-unrelated, and evidently multidisciplinary elements together, Hanasaku Iroha would set the precedence for what was possible. Tari Tari was about a choir-and-sometimes-badminton club’s journey to end high school with a bang, as well as reconcile the gap between dreams and reality with familiar characters (Konatsu is Ohana minus the love story, Wakana is a more honest version of Minko, and Sawa is a more assertive, determined Nako). Sakura Quest and Shirobako both told stories of how people adapt to and overcome challenges in their workplaces, with Sakura Quest similarly running Yoshino against a timeline, and Shirobako had Aoi grow into her responsibilities, much as how Ohana and Kissuisō do in Hanasaku Iroha. The World in Colours showcased another multidisciplinary club as Hitomi strove to learn the meaning of friendship and the worth of magic with her grandmother, Kohaku. Hanasaku Iroha sets the stage for what P.A. Works would explore for a decade after it finished airing, and indeed, some of P.A. Works’ strongest titles had arisen from the successes and learnings derived from Hanasaku Iroha. Today, The Aquatope on White Sands is continuing on in the legacy Hanasaku Iroha had created: in its first half, this series impresses with its story of self-discovery in the workplace. There is no denying the impact Hanasaku Iroha had on P.A. Works – this is on top of the series’ already extensive list of strengths. For this reason, Hanasaku Iroha is exceptional, a cornerstone anime that raised the bar for what’s possible and moving viewers, and as such, I am more than happy to count it a masterpiece for having changed the way I view the world, given me moments to become tearful about and for setting the groundwork for several more titles that similarly inspired and encouraged me to give my best in what I do, a credos that continues to impact how I conduct myself a full decade after Hanasaku Iroha finished airing.

Masterpiece Anime Showcase: Gakkō Gurashi, Finding the Courage to Graduate and Reflections on an Understated Survival Series

“There are days when nothing goes right. There are days when you stumble and fall. There are days when you just want to cry. To cry a lot. To sleep a lot. Or even eat a lot. It’s alright, as long as you pick yourself up again.” –Yuki Takeya

After a biological weapon is accidentally released, Yokohama’s citizens succumb to an infection that renders them as the living dead. Yuki Takeya, Kurumi Ebisuzawa, Yūri Wakasa and Miki Naoki are a part of the School Living club, where they carry out normal, everyday activities to ensure their survival, whether it be going out to fetch supplies or cleaning the reserve water tank on the school rooftops. When Yuki begins making a scrapbook for graduation, Miki recalls how’d she had first met the School Living club, and the unusual condition Yuki is afflicted with. While securing provisions, Yūri and Miki encounter a manual that their former instructor, Megumi Sakura, had been holding onto; the manual detailed survival measures and protocol for dealing with localised infections. Kurumi later sustains a bite from the remains of Megumi while exploring their school’s basement, and while Miki searches for the vaccine in the school’s basement, she also becomes overrun. A thunderstorm disables their school’s power supplies, as well. Yuki manages to summon up the courage to save her friends, and after eluding hordes of the undead, manages to activate her school’s PA system. She encourages the students to head home, now that the day’s done. In the aftermath, Kurumi is saved, and following a graduation ceremony, Yuki, Kurumi, Yūri and Miki leave their school, headed for a point that Megumi had previously marked as a potential safe zone. During its original run in 2015, Gakkō Gurashi aired to general surprise, combining the undead apocalypse genre with moé aesthetic; I myself came upon the series a few months after its airing and was haunted by the efficacy of the first episode’s ability to betray very little about how extensive the undead infestation had become. In fact, after the unexpected turn of events at the first episode’s conclusions, I became convinced that I was seeing ghosts out of the corner of my eye. Upon finishing Gakkō Gurashi, my immediate impressions were that this anime had done a superb job of conveying how group survival conferred numerous advantages, specifically how despite Yuki believing herself to lack any skills for helping out, what she’d brought to the table had been raising everyone’s morale, and how her phantasmagorical view of the world actually helped to allow Kurumi and Yūri a sense of normalcy, giving them something to focus on in the short term so that they can maintain perspective on a longer term goal.

However, when one of my best friends crossed the finish line for Gakkō Gurashi a few weeks earlier, the series’ emotional impact had evidently been considerable. The anime had left numerous questions which needed answering, and in our discussion, I came to realise that during my first watch-through some six years earlier, I’d missed a key message in Gakkō Gurashi that my friend had spotted immediately. Gakkō Gurashi is about developing the bravery to move on, and graduation was the metaphor for this route. This was hinted at early in Gakkō Gurashi, when Miki and her best friend, Kei Shidō, became trapped at a mall the day the outbreak began. While they were able to evade the undead and barricaded themselves into a small room, Kei eventually became anxious to leave and see if she could get rescue herself, feeling it preferable to waste away in that room forever. Eventually, the School Living Club are forced into a similar scenario, too: supplies begin dwindling, and their school’s power generator fails. Gakkō Gurashi thus indicates that one cannot remain trapped at one location forever, and that for better or worse, one will eventually need to move on. Survival situations and life events are no different in this regard; while moving on will always entail a certain amount of risk, staying put at one location or milestone results in stagnation and death. Through the use of graduation as a metaphor, Gakkō Gurashi suggests that while moving on can be intimidating, it also opens up people to the possibility of new discoveries and better survival. For Yuki’s sake, Gakkō Gurashi puts on a small graduation ceremony for Yuki and her friends, reminding them of the time they’ve spent together but also congratulating them on having made it thus far, which is no trivial milestone. While perhaps a bit more dramatic in presentation, the underlying themes in Gakkō Gurashi are quite forward; undergoing any first steps on a new journey can be troublesome, especially since one won’t know where the path leads, but together, any challenges encountered can be faced down and overcome where everyone contributes their skill set and perspectives. Similarly, it is together when the excitement from each triumph is amplified. While graduation as a metaphor for possessing the resolve to take those next steps is at the heart of Gakkō Gurashi, I’d missed that in my original discussions despite the fact it was out in the open; this is a consequence of how much Gakkō Gurashi does during its twelve episode run.

What made Gakkō Gurashi so captivating was the fact that the premise and world-building had opened the series up to a myriad of directions. Gakkō Gurashi shows how busying oneself and attempting to make life as normal as possible is integral to survival, whether it be camping in the clubroom or hosting a sports festival. Watching Megumi interact with her students prior to the outbreak shows her as being someone who was utterly devoted to her duties and central to Yuki, Kurumi and Yūri’s initial survival. Her final actions help the three to save Miki later, as well, by instilling in them the desire to survive and move on. Yuki’s hullicinations, a product of her mind attempting to cope with extraordinary conditions dull her sense of safety, but also give her friends a constant reminder that there’s still things in life to enjoy, even though the world has completely shifted from what would be considered normal. The entire catastrophe is unknown in origin, but mention of the shadowy Randall Corporation and their preparedness for such an outcome speaks to both the questionable ethics large corporations take, as well as how certain projects can backfire on those who would conduct them. Each of these directions in Gakkō Gurashi opens the floor up for considering humanity’s innate resilience and ability for survival, as well as how immoral intentions can create unintended, but unprecedented destruction. However, despite having so many elements incorporated into its story, Gakkō Gurashi never once falters; the central theme is as clear as day, and instead, the topics touched upon briefly become things for the viewer to consider as they watch each of Yuki, Kurumi, Yūri and Miki survive. There is, in short, something for everyone in Gakkō Gurashi: folks looking for a coherent life lesson will find it as easily as someone who is fond of considering corporate conspiracies, and psychology is just as integral to the story as disaster engineering. While the breadth of topics in Gakkō Gurashi is large, what is impressive is that each topic is given satisfactory depth, as well. Yuki’s hallucinations and mental state is a double-edged sword, while investigation of the school’s facilities shows that thought was given towards designing a plausible, yet low-profile installation for riding out a calamity. As such, it is therefore unsurprising that on my first run, I was swept up by the survival aspects in Gakkō Gurashi, which does a phenomenal job of covering all of its elements in such a short time while simultaneously leaving the door open for exploration.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Gakkō Gurashi‘s anime incarnation was predestined to be endlessly compared with the original manga from the first day that it aired, and those who picked up the anime with a priori knowledge of the manga were oftentimes disappointed by how the former completely altered the pacing and character focus. Since my experience in Gakkō Gurashi was with the anime first, I cannot speak to this experience, but what I can speak to is the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this series upon watching it for the first time, back when I was still a graduate student.

  • In those days, C# and C++ were my programming languages of choice, being the respective languages for Unity and Unreal Engine. I’m not sure how I came upon Gakkō Gurashi (my original post never covered that particular detail), but what I do remember was that the first episode proved to be much more than I expected. I had started Gakkō Gurashi a ways into December; when Gakkō Gurashi was airing during the summer, I’d focused all of my efforts into my research project and had just enough time to follow Non Non Biyori Repeat, so I’d not even glanced at Gakkō Gurashi.

  • While how I came to pick up Gakkō Gurashi is lost to time, I do vividly remember that the first episode had an impact on me quite unlike anything I’d seen before. Since I’d come in knowing nothing about the series besides the pre-airing synopsis, I was not prepared for the big reveal at the first episode’s conclusions, which sent a chill down my spine. Out my peripheral vision, I saw a filmy figure. I left my desk and headed out into the corridor, where I ran into my supervisor. It turns out he’d been interested in presenting a new inclusion into one of the conference papers I’d been working on, but was waiting for me to finish lunch first.

  • I promptly apologised, shook thoughts of Gakkō Gurashi out of my head, and focused my attention on the suggested additions to my paper, which would go on to win Best Paper at Laval Virtual 2016. However, that day, thoughts of Gakkō Gurashi lingered on my mind, and I immediately knew that this was no ordinary series. My enjoyment of this anime came precisely from having no prior knowledge of what was going to happen, and while episodes would subsequently swing between slice-of-life and survival, they remained very engaging despite progressing at a very slow pace.

  • Upon finishing, I found the survival piece to be the strongest component in Gakkō Gurashi: while having the right gear, fitness level and knowledge is important, per Survivorman‘s Les Stroud, the will to survive is the most vital piece of all. Gakkō Gurashi successfully delivered this message in spades: while Yuki is presented as lacking the physical strength that Kurumi has, or the leadership skills Yūri brings to the table, her upbeat and positive attitude forces Yūri and Kurumi to take a step back and accommodate her, which encompasses doing club activities like outings and sleepovers.

  • By creating this sense of normalcy for Yuki, Kurumi and Yūri also find comfort in doing the sorts of things they’d done prior to the outbreak. Here, Miki accompanies the School Living Club as they prepare for a short excursion to resupply and pick up textbooks from the library. Miki’s being around much earlier than she’d been in the manga threw manga-readers off completely; the original simply had Yūri, Kurumi and Yuki on this excursion, which is presented as a test of courage for Yuki. Having taken a look at the manga up to where the anime wraps up, I conclude that the manga’s story is much more focused and has a quicker pace than the anime.

  • However, the anime itself is successful with its messages, and by drawing out moments that otherwise took a few panels within the manga, Gakkō Gurashi is able to really emphasise the importance of being able to live in the moment. In this way, I count the anime as actually being more effective than the manga at telling a story about moving onwards in life by means of graduation. Of course, this isn’t to say that Gakkō Gurashi‘s anime is outright superior than the manga (or vice versa): both presentations of Gakkō Gurashi have their own merits, and it is only going through both where one can have a complete experience.

  • While the apocalypse is serious business, the charm in Gakkō Gurashi lies squarely with how the School Living Club do their best to live a normal and happy life. The anime especially excels at this: even munching on hardtack is something to be savoured. Thanks to their school’s solar powers and internal generators, plus water purification equipment, the School Living Club are assured of the minimum necessities, allowing their story to focus on the psychological aspect of survival. While Yuki laments that she brings nothing to the table, her naïveté is actually vital to keeping the others focused, and here, after their power supply suffers an interruption, Yuki figures it’s a good idea to pitch a tent and act as though they were camping.

  • The manga’s story is told in a linear fashion, but in the anime, Gakkō Gurashi has Miki already present at the series’ beginning. She originally was out shopping with Kei, her best friend, when the outbreak occurred, and while the two managed to escape the infected, they found themselves barricaded in at the mall. Although their necessities were taken care of, over time, Kei grows restless and desires to leave, believing that proactive survival would be better than being trapped in that small room for the rest of their days.

  • Gakkō Gurashi placed its characters under a great deal of stress, and this was conveyed in virtually every aspect of the characters’ actions. Something as simple as holding hands while falling asleep really drives home the idea that survivors from the outbreak had little more than one another early on. When Kei leaves Miki in search of rescue, Miki very nearly succumbs to despair. This was more apparent in the manga: while she tried to maintain a routine in her day, the combination of loneliness, worry about Miki’s well being and a future that was very much uncertain drove her to despair.

  • Kei’s words to Miki ultimately convinced me that Gakkō Gurashi was indeed a story about moving on; my revisitation of this series actually comes at the behest of my best friend, who similarly was moved by the series and wanted to hear my thoughts on it. Our conversations led me to realise that on my original run, I’d been so focused on the survival piece that I failed to consider the broader themes at play. To this end, I ended up rewatching Gakkō Gurashi front to back, and this time around, was able to gain a different perspective on what the series had aimed to accomplish. Kei is intended to represent the consequences of rushing out to face the future without consideration of the risks involved, as well as the limitations of what one person can do.

  • This was sharply contrasted with the School Living Club’s way of doing things: together, Yuki, Kurumi and Yūri keep one another going. When provisions dwindle, they decide to hit the local mall, and Kurumi figures she can take the wheel. Without any additional traffic on the road, Kurumi is able to arrive at their destination quite handily. During its airing, I’ve heard that Gakkō Gurashi generated quite the bit of speculation owing to the sheer amount of unknowns the series had presented, but unfortunately, in those days, almost all discourse around Manga Time Kirara series was dictated by a handful of individuals, leading discussions to suffer from tunnel vision.

  • One example that stood out was a question from Victor-Tango-Victor’s very own “local Kirara person”, which asserted that the broken windows should be impossible. The resulting speculation was wild, with each theory becoming more implausible than the last, but said “local Kirara person” didn’t even bother adding their thoughts to things. To answer this individual, per Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, after the power goes out, birds would begin colliding with windows on buildings, forming cracks. Since the buildings aren’t heated, extremities of weather would soon cause the cracks to expand and result in the windows shattering within the space of a few months. The shattered lower floor windows could be explained as a consequence of the infected walking into them, since they’re shown as possessing only limited awareness.

  • A little bit of rational thinking is enough to justify the aesthetics seen within Gakkō Gurashi: it certainly wasn’t the JASDF doing low-level bombing runs (presence of explosives damage is completely absent, and there’s no evidence of fire damage either). This sort of thing is why I’m glad to have watched Gakkō Gurashi at my own pace, and here, the School Living Club take a breather after their outing. Megumi “Megu-nee” Sakura can be seen here, and while she was once a well-liked instructor who did her utmost to look after her students, it turned out that she’d died sometime before the series started, after the School Living Club was created to keep Yuki happy. She lives in on Yuki’s memories and offers strength to her when all other lights go out, but her limited presence (a running joke in the series’ lighter moments) continues to confuse viewers until Miki joins the School Living Club.

  • After hearing Yuki and the others, Miki attempts to hail them but finds herself surrounded by the infected. A team effort allows for Miki to be rescued; this is how she’d come to be a part of the School Living Club. Initially, Miki had a hard time accepting that Yuki’s hallucinations were legitimate, and came to clash with Yūri, who believes that Yuki should be looked after rather than scorned. Miki had been completely taken aback when she finds Yuki chattering away to someone who wasn’t there in the music room, and the scene had been quite haunting for it.

  • A longstanding question that anime viewers and manga readers alike wondered about was why Yuki’s uniform colour was different from the others. One Japanese viewer, going by the Twitter handle @mikko367, claimed that the blue and green were perfect inversions of one another, meant to indicate the different mental states between Yuki and the others. Inverting a triple T(r, g, b) representing the colour produces the results I(255-r, 255-g, 255-b). Yuki’s uniform is originally T(133, 128, 184), whereas the green on the others’ uniform is T(121, 135, 70). Inverting Yuki’s uniform yields a green of I(121,135,70), and inverting the green uniforms give a blue of I(133, 128, 184): even without an algorithm doing the work, it should be plain that the inverted colours don’t match.

  • As such, @mikko367 had completely missed the mark in their theory: the colours may appear “close enough” to the naked eye, but it won’t fool a function that compares RGB values. With this being said, “close enough” means that I could go the route of colour symbolism and note that blue is a colour for peace, calm and depression, while green represents health and service. However, I won’t go this route because that’s not what the creators had intended. In an interview with illustrator Sadoru Chiba, it turns out the colours were simply chosen so Yuki would stand out visually from the others because her personality is not consistent with the chaotic and apocalyptic state of their world. The widespread popularity that @mikko367’s theory enjoyed despite being wrong, however, would not last: in a bit of comeuppance, @mikko367 was suspended from Twitter.

  • Conversely, the interview I refer to is factual because it is retrieved from the Gakkō Gurashi official TV guidebook, which offers unparalleled insight into the design elements and production choices behind the anime. Being able to see the concept art for the characters and setting, as well as cast and producer interviews makes it clear that, while Gakkō Gurashi had been intended to promote the manga, a great deal of effort went into making the series stand on its own merits. This accounts for why so many changes were made to the series: in order to maximise the voice roles that Ai Kayano (GochiUsa‘s Mocha, Saori from Girls und Panzer) and Rie Takahashi (KonoSuba‘s Megumin and Yuru Camp△‘s Ena) had within the series, both were written to have more prominent roles, which is why Gakkō Gurashi proceeds in a non-linear fashion.

  • In spite of the dramatic changes to the progression of events, Gakkō Gurashi nonetheless manages to smoothly tell its story in a manner distinct from the manga’s, and this contributed to my enjoyment of the series. The anime lacks the manga’s sense of urgency and proceeds more slowly, so in order to space things out, a greater emphasis is placed on everyday moments like sharing a meal together. This in turn really shows how a sense of normalcy is vital in surviving trying times, and how simple things like looking forwards to breakfast can provide a major boost in morale. The effect of emphasising everyday moments also provides juxtaposition for when things do hit the fan: when Yuki wonders how on earth they were able to fit everyone into Megumi’s car, which is a four-seater, the illusionary world she crafted begins falling apart. Whenever this happens, Yuki loses her happy-go-lucky demeanor and becomes panicked, requiring some time to regroup.

  • While seemingly frivolous, the act of sending letters serves an important purpose and represents hope: if someone else out there were to find the letters, it would be a sign that other groups of people had survived. While helium-filled latex balloons look fragile, the average party balloon can reach altitudes of around nine kilometres, and moreover, can be blown great distances by high-altitude currents. Assuming they don’t burst from the low air pressure, it is thought that helium balloons can travel upwards of two thousand kilometres from their point of origin, and so, it’s not inconceivable that somewhere else in Japan, survivors might be able to pick up the letters from Yuki and her friends.

  • Of everyone in the School Living Club, Kurumi’s character was the most familiar: she’s a carbon copy of GochiUsa‘s Rize, from hair colour and a preference to wear her hair in twintails, to a boisterous personality, love of physical activity and being in above average condition compared to her peers. Unlike Rize, who was voiced by Risa Taneda, however, Kurumi is voiced by Ari Ozawa, who had played in Hai-Furi as Runa Suruga and YU-NO‘s Yuno. In spite of these differences, Ozawa captures Taneda’s style very well. One wonders if the choice of casting is intentional, since Gakkō Gurashi has an all-star cast: Inori Minase is Yuki, and MAO plays Yūri.

  • Of the girls, Yūri is the most mature and level-headed, acting as a big sister figure for those around her, even when the situation is grim. Despite not getting along with Miki initially, they quickly reconcile after Miki comes to understand what sort of role that Yuki has within the School Living Club. As Gakkō Gurashi continued, hints of a much larger mystery began unfolding after Miki finds a key that doesn’t go to anything Megumi was previously known to have. The thought that their teachers were concealing something from them weighs heavily on Yūri and Miki’s minds, and one evening, unable to sleep, they head off to do a thorough search of the staff office.

  • Yuki ends up joining the party, and while she initially seems to be an impediment rather than an asset, drawing Yūri and Miki’s attention to unrelated materials constantly, she’s ultimately the one who locates a hidden compartment in one of the wall cabinets, which contains a lockbox that holds a special manual detailing the school’s facilities and contingency protocols for the eventuality of an outbreak. This manual ends up being a game-changer in Gakkō Gurashi: had the outbreak remained unexplained, the series’ focus would’ve remained purely on the girls’ everyday adventures.

  • The revelation that the outbreak was the consequence of a freak accident (or carelessness) completely changed the stakes in Gakkō Gurashi, and it was here that, anime or manga, things became much more compelling. It is mentioned that the Randall Corporation was responsible for researching the pathogen that introduces undead-like traits in humans, and moreover, ahead of their research, they’d spent decades and hundreds of millions constructing designated shelters around Yokohama as a contingency against an unintended release of the pathogen. Gakkō Gurashi‘s authors had intended the Randall Corporation to be a reference to Steven King’s Randall Flagg, who appears after a deadly plague eliminates most of the world’s population and plunges the remnants of the world into further chaos.

  • Because Steven King is referenced elsewhere in Gakkō Gurashi, it stands to reason that the Randall Corporation are still very much up and running despite the outbreak; per Randall’s namesake, the Randall Corporation may reappear and cause future havoc at some point in the future. It’s a clever bit of foreshadowing, especially for Steven King fans, although for me, the first thing that came to mind was the RAND Corporation, which was founded in 1948 to drive scientific innovation for the armed forces and said to be a contributor to the rise of the military-industrial complex, which heavily impacts US policy-making in the present.

  • It is not inconceivable that, behind closed doors, there is a fervent desire to manufacture genetic bioweapons designed to only target specific groups of people; Gakkō Gurashi would therefore suggest that under-the-table agreements between governments and corporations may potentially escape and create catastrophe of unprecedented scale. I’ve always been drawn towards the idea that the Randall Corporation’s, dubbed “Omega” in Gakkō Gurashi, was the result of joint Western-Japanese research designed as an ace-in-the-hole for a potential Sino-Pacific war of sorts, but thanks to carelessness or other factors, was released into Japan before it was completed.

  • The serious adverse effects it has in Japan therefore becomes a cautionary tale about how malicious intent will always have consequences and backfire on those who intend. However, this is well outside the scope of what Gakkō Gurashi actually covers; the anime and manga don’t concern themselves with the political or techno-thriller elements of the genre because this isn’t the story’s theme, but the fact that it opens up the floor for discussions of this sort contributes strongly to why I’ve had such a good time with the series. Of course, period discussions were less interested in these elements, and by the time the infamous pool cleaning episode rolled around, all eyes were on how hot Yūri and Kurumi are.

  • The pool episode, for all of the fun times it allows Yuki and the others to share, serves a critical role in Gakkō Gurashi: it provides a distraction for Miki, Yūri and Kurumi. Having found the emergency manual the previous evening, thoughts of their next move occupy their every waking moment, so when Yuki and Taromaru become covered in green shit (algae) from the pond, Yūri figures it’d be a good idea to take a step back and do something else to clear their heads. This is a powerful problem-solving technique in reality, where particularly vexing problems are handled by giving them some time. This is where the expression “sleep on it” comes from; in practise, I’ve found that doing this allows me to return with a fresh set of eyes.

  • Kurumi and Yūri end up having an epic water fight, only to be interrupted by an irate Miki. I suppose now is a good time as any to mention that Gakkō Gurashi‘s soundtrack is an enjoyable one: the opening song is fun, the ending songs are heartfelt, and the incidental music captures both the tenour of everyday life along with the abject terror accompanying encounters with the infected. In particular, the slice-of-life tracks sound like they come out of a fantasy RPG game, and the best songs have a very wistful feel to them. 優しいめぐねえありがとう (Hepburn Yasashī megu nē arigatō, “Thank you for your kindness, Megu-nee”) and 言いたかった言葉 (Hepburn Iitakatta kotoba, “The Words I Want To Say”) are my two favourite songs on the soundtrack, which released as a part of the BDs in the autumn of 2015.

  • The last quarter in Gakkō Gurashi is all business: when Taromaru disappears one rainy day, Kurumi sets off to look for him. Rainy days present the School Living Club with problems, since the infected still retain enough of their neurological functions to evade the rain and take cover inside the school. Moreover, it was during a rainy day where Megumi was lost to the infected: she became infected trying to keep Yuki and the others safe, and after she was lost, Yuki’s mental state deteriorated to the point where she fabricated a reality where Megumi was still alive. This is why Megumi continued to show up early on in Gakkō Gurashi: she’s a part of Yuki’s imagination, although Kurumi and Yūri continue to play along for Yuki’s sake.

  • In the school’s bowels, Kurumi finds Taromaru, who is now infected and much more aggressive than he’d previously been. While she’s able to lock him in one of the storerooms, coming face-to-face with what’s left of Megumi causes Kurumi to hesitate for a second, resulting in her sustaining a bite. Gakkō Gurashi really amps things up, and as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. With Kurumi infected and locked down, Yūri begins losing her composure, as well. The School Living Club is down to two operational members now, and the infected are making their way to the school in hitherto unseen numbers.

  • From what supplementary materials have suggested, the Omega pathogen is a bloodborne disease and is transmitted by means of infected blood. Once contact is made, the afflicted individual has about twenty four hours before their body undergoes a complete and irreversible change. Knowing this, Miki heads off into the school’s basement to secure a vial of the theriac, which halts infection if administered early enough. Unlike Kurumi, Miki lacks the same combat prowess and instead, uses strategy instead. She’s the brains to Kurumi’s brawn, and of the School Living Club, is the most likely to count on solving problems through reasoning.

  • While Yūri might act as the team leader and keeps everyone in line on a good day, her endurance is tested after Kurumi is infected; Kurumi had asked her to finish her off in the event of an infection, and while Yūri does her best to oblige, her heart wins out over her promise. I hear discussions surrounding Yūri’s final choice to not kill Kurumi were particularly fierce: on one hand, killing Kurumi would’ve been necessary to stop the infection from spreading to the School Living Club and outright eliminating their chances of survival, but on the other, Miki had gone off to secure a counteragent which could still save her yet. In Yūri’s position, seeing Kurumi suffer leads her to prepare for the worst.

  • Folks with more years under their belt would exercise longer-term decision making and act based on the information available: if they were past a certain deadline, then euthanising Kurumi would be appropriate, but until then, one would wait. Of course, Miki runs into trouble of her own in the basement as hordes of infected approach her position. She’s backed into a corner and wonders if this is how her time comes. However, right as all hope appears to fade, a familiar voice comes over the PA system, asking the students to head home now that the day’s over. Miki is shocked to see the infected retreat and wastes no time returning to Yuki and the others.

  • Yuki had managed to overcome her fears to save her friends, and by capitalising on the fact that the infected still retain some of their memories, decides to make an announcement to send everyone home. The hordes thus begin receding, allowing Miki to return to Kurumi and administer the drugs she’d located. Yuki might possess the least practical skillset of the School Living Club’s members, but when the moment calls for it, she can come through in a big way. The idea that everyone in a group brings something unique and valuable to the table is a common theme in survival anime, especially if the anime’s themes are more optimistic. Yuki’s courage here is what gives this discussion its quote: as Yuki says, in the face of adversity, one’s worth is judged not by how often they fail, but by how often one picks themselves back up afterwards.

  • It is to general relief that Kurumi survived, but despite the girls’ efforts, Taromaru succumbs to exhaustion and dies shortly after. While Taromaru may not have directly helped in the girls’ survival, his presence similarly lightens up the atmosphere and provides joy in an otherwise challenging situation. Yuki and Miki look after Taromaru the most, and especially for Yuki, this responsibility helps to keep her mind busy. Thus, when Taromaru dies, Yuki offers to leave her old hat with him, symbolising a willingness to let go of the past and potentially, the illusionary world she’d created following Megumi’s death.

  • There’s a catharsis as the girls give Taromaru a burial and make peace with the fallen; once Kurumi has recovered, Gakkō Gurashi enters its denouement. The peaceful weather mirrors this and also brings to mind the weather we had yesterday. Since my vaccine’s now been given the two weeks it needed, I spent yesterday at a local mall to pick up some stuff ahead of returning to the office, before swinging by an A & W to enjoy their grass-fed beef burgers, Yukon potato fries and sugar-cane root beer. We ended up picking up roast duck and crispy roast pig for dinner, which we enjoyed under clearer skies than had been present for the past while – forest fires in the province over have filled our skies with smoke, and the extent of the devastation was such that I ended up donating to help with recovery efforts there.

  • Back in Gakkō Gurashi, after studying a map Megumi had left behind, Yūri decides that St. Isidore University is their next best bet for survival: during the storm, a lightning strike had damaged their school’s generators, and while the backup batteries are still online, their power won’t last forever. The manga presented this as a helicopter crash, but the outcomes are identical – the School Living Club’s runway is running out, and it’s time to move on to improve their survival. However, beyond this, Yuki had also wanted to see themselves off in style via a graduation ceremony. It was this act that led my best friend to request that I revisit Gakkō Gurashi – after finishing the series off, said friend noted that the series’ themes of graduation and resilience were particularly moving.

  • After learning that I’d previously seen this anime, our conversations indicated that there were numerous small details that would make it worthwhile to revisit. I also ended up picking up the Gakkō Gurashi TV Anime Official Guidebook: our conversations led me to realise that this anime had done a great deal more than people give it credit for. Upon finishing my revisit and looking through the guidebook, the amount of effort that went into making the anime a compelling experience became apparent. The reason why I count Gakkō Gurashi a masterpiece is because of how the series is because of how the series was able to tell a clear story while at the same time, open the floor to so much potential discussion. Further to this, the anime did succeed in giving viewers to root for the characters and their survival – my best friend and I ended up spending a few weeks exchanging thoughts on the series and its depths.

  • Coupled with the world-building, Gakkō Gurashi demonstrates that the moé genre can continue to be full of surprises. However, it was a little surprising to learn that Gakkō Gurashi‘s anime was designed to be a standalone experience from the start – the series had been intended to promote the manga and as such, the ending where a girl picks up the letters Yuki and the others had written was meant to be a hint to check out the manga, which continues the story. As of 2019, the manga is complete, so folks interested in seeing what happens next have an avenue to do so. It was disappointing to learn that there won’t be a continuation of Gakkō Gurashi in anime form, but in retrospect, given how the anime presented its themes, the ending was more than satisfactory; Gakkō Gurashi told a very coherent, meaningful story despite deviating so dramatically from the manga, allowing the adaptation to define its own identity and distinguish itself from the manga.

In addition to the breadth and depth of topics covered, Gakkō Gurashi ultimately became an anime of note because of its portrayal of the emotional components of survival; dealing with secondary school aged young women, Gakkō Gurashi portrays each of the characters faithfully. The characters have moments where fear and doubt set in completely; this is most noticeable when Kurumi is forced to kill her crush with a shovel, the psychological scarring this has on Yuki, and later, Yūri’s becoming backed into a corner when weighing whether or not to mercy-kill an infected Kurumi. However, these moments of abject terror and despair are offset by the fact that there remains something worth protecting, and at their best, the dynamics among the School Living Club’s members allow them to not only survive, but thrive in such a hostile environment. The act of collecting helium for balloons (or Kurumi’s successful attempt at capturing a pigeon) and cleaning the aquaponics tank in their swimsuits does much to lift the girls’ morale, keeping them from ruminating on their losses or becoming overwhelmed by the prospect of a difficult journey forwards. The sharp contrast between the happiness that everyone experiences together on good days, and the horrors they face at their lowest was very tangible, to the point where several moments had me thinking that, had I been present with a good rifle, I might’ve been able to help the School Living Club sort things out. For this, Gakkō Gurashi captures the full spectrum of emotions one might reasonably expect to see in such an apocalypse, bringing each of Yuki, Kurumi, Yūri and Miki to life. This in turn creates a powerful connection to the characters, and viewers thus become invested in their survival, hoping that everyone remains safe regardless of what their next steps are. As such, Gakkō Gurashi is a powerful milestone in the realm of moé anime, demonstrating that the genre is robust enough to cover stories beyond the usual CGDCT genre if the producers so desired. For breaking out of a mold that characterises the genre, Gakkō Gurashi was full of surprises, and while the series remains quite unknown today, it would be unfair to consign it to the set of forgotten anime: anime such as these really demonstrate what is possible within moé, and to dismiss anime on virtue that their aesthetics are not to one’s liking entails the risk of missing out on series that are much more than they outwardly appear to be. Gakkō Gurashi thus earns its place as a masterpiece in my books, being a significant (and oft-overlooked) anime by showing what is possible within a genre largely defined by comedy.

Masterpiece Anime Showcase: Slow Start, Remarks on Making the Most of Gap Years and the Beauty in Accepting Slow Blooming Flowers

“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” –Alfred Pennyworth, Batman Begins

When I began my rewatch of Slow Start, I found that I’d skipped the ending sequence, Sangatsu no Phantasia’s While Listening to the Wind’s Voice, during my first viewing three years earlier. With its moving lyrics and an adorable animation of Hiroe pitifully wiggling on the ground like a newborn caterpillar, I swiftly realised that Slow Start had been trying to do something remarkable; although this was lost on me, and both Japanese and Western viewers three years earlier, I now found the answer I was looking for regarding why Slow Start always felt like it had been more than it appeared to be. It seems quite unnecessary to retread the events of Slow Start in the knowledge that I’d previously written about the series three years earlier, but as a bit of a refresher, Slow Start follows Hana Ichinose, who’d missed her high school entrance exams when she contracted the mumps and therefore began high school a year later than expected. While initially hesitant to start a year after her classmates, Hana comes to make new friends in the process and learns that both her neighbour and landlady were in similar situations. Despite its meaningful messages and gentle atmosphere, Slow Start was widely criticised from its onset: reviewers skated over the themes in this series and immediately criticised Slow Start as “the palest of several similar shows to debut thus far” possessing “uninteresting topics and the overly sweet art style encompassing the episode without a hint of realism to ground it”. Reception to Slow Start in Japan was similarly cool: BD sales averaged around 1661 disks per volume. All signs point to a series that prima facie appears unsuccessful with its messages, and I myself indicated that Slow Start dealt with the tried-and-true message of how friendship is integral in helping people overcome adversity in broad terms upon the series’ completion. However, having had a chance to recently revisit Slow Start, it becomes apparent that I missed several integral aspects in the series during my first watch. With this newfound appreciation for Slow Start, I therefore feel it appropriate to revisit the series and consider why I feel the series to have aged so gracefully over the past three years, to the point where I count it worthy of joining the ranks of my all-time favourites.

The answer to Slow Start‘s magic lies within two components. The first of these are support characters Hiroe Hannen and Shion Kyōzuka. While seemingly unrelated to Hana’s struggles to adapt to life in high school after a year’s hiatus, both Hiroe and Shion represent critical figures in Slow Start‘s themes about failure, and about picking oneself up. Shion had lost a job offer and is currently regrouping by acting as a landlady. Hiroe’s story was particularly pitiful: as a high school student, she’d been outgoing and academically capable, but when she succumbed to illness and missed her entrance exams to post secondary, unable to bear the thought of facing her friends honestly, she shut herself away from the world. By the events of Slow Start, she’s reduced to living along in her apartment, ordering everything online and refuses to go out. Hiroe is a hikikomori, an individual who has withdrawn from society as a result of unbearable pressure and failure to meet expectations creating a deep-seated sense of shame. The whole condition evokes a feeling of sadness in me: bright and driven individuals, overwhelmed by expectations and a feeling of never being able to stand up, retreat the only way they can and fall into a hole that becomes increasingly difficult to climb out of with each and every day that passes. I felt bad for Hiroe because I’d been where she was: when my first start-up failed, I found it difficult to get excited about meeting up with my friends, and spoke rarely about my work to those around me. At the beginning of Slow Start, Hiroe’s someone who’d lost so much confidence that even going to the convenience store is too much to bear, and she hardly dressed up for anything. Every setback sends her to the ground, grovelling for forgiveness. However, as Slow Start wore on, and Hana’s friends began entering Hiroe’s life, Hiroe begins regaining her old confidence. By helping Hana and her friends study, and allowing Eiko to help polish her appearance, Hiroe begins to recall her old strength. She takes the initiative of venturing outside again, and by Slow Start‘s end, is able to enjoy a summer festival with Shion, as well as summon the courage to take a summer course and set herself on a path towards post-secondary. Slow Start does seem to suggest that having the right encouragement and human contact in life is the single most important step of recovering from a great fall, and while for hikikomori, who’ve been out of the game for years or even decades, rather than months, some programmes have successfully helped some individuals back into society.

Slow Start, however, is not purely a story about Hiroe: its focus is on Hana and her concerns about how the gap-year might affect her. As Hana gets to know Kamuri, Eiko and Tamate better, the distance separating her and her classmates begins to lessen to the point where no one really knows that Hana is a year older than they are, and Hana begins having memorable experiences with her newfound friends that give the impression that her gap-year had never happened at all. Hana’s fear of the gap-year being a social impediment is a well-founded one, and especially among students, ages are a quick way of grouping people, to the point where there is a degree of awkwardness when inteacting with folks older or younger than oneself. Her fear here mirrors the idea that people have social expectations to meet at certain ages. Folks who enter high school seek to define their identity. As adults, people set great store in milestones like graduating from post-secondary, landing their first job, buying their first home and having their first serious relationship. Pressure to conform means that missing these deadlines can leave one feeling like a failure, and as things feel increasingly out-of-reach, it becomes more difficult to regroup: all one sees is what they could have and ended up losing. However, resilience is very much a central part of being human, as is the importance of never comparing oneself to others. Again, having the right people in one’s corner is pivotal in helping one to realise this. With Eiko, Kamuri and Tamate, Hana comes to realise that her friends greatly care for her, gap-year or no. In this way, Slow Start speaks to the idea that it’s perfectly okay to be a little behind in life. Finishing a degree a few years later than one’s peers, or being single when everyone else seems to be married is not the end of the world: it doesn’t leave one completely unprepared for real life, nor does it leave one a failure in any way. Not everyone will have a smooth path to a career, home or marriage as fæiry tales suggest, and this is understandable because of the constantly changing demands the world has on people. Instead, as Slow Start shows, one’s path forwards to a productive and fulfilling life is to progress at one’s own pace, and allow for good company in one’s life to act as encouragement towards the future one seeks out. Whereas society is breakneck and demands speed of most everything and everyone, it is held that arriving later to one’s destination is preferred to never arriving at all. Slow Start completely and totally succeeds with conveying this idea.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Slow Start joining the ranks of CLANNAD and Your Lie in April might raise a few eyebrows for some, but I’ve never been one to worry about what popular opinions are: my anime enjoyment largely exists in a vacuum, and at best, recommendations and suggestions from the community are merely thus. I find that making one’s own call for anime and demonstrating patience are two virtues that maximise one’s enjoyment of a given series, as well as one’s enjoyment of being in a community.

  • Because Slow Start aired during the same season as Yuru Camp△ and A Place Further Than The Universe did, it quickly fell by the wayside as Winter 2018’s other slice-of-life series. Lacking the same distinguished use of setting and masterful coverage of the respective topics in Yuru Camp△ and A Place Further Than The Universe, as well as a cast of distinct characters whose personalities were carefully crafted to speak to very specific life lessons, Slow Start‘s characters do prima facie feel more generic, and their adventures are much more mundane, unremarkable by comparison. However, Slow Start is not a bad show in and of itself: Hana, Tamate, Eiko and Kamuri are likeable and friendly characters whose traits serve to create humour.

  • The events of Slow Start are set in Karuizawa, a resort town located in Nagano. I identified the location a ways into the series, and even now, three years later, there’s been no equivalent of a location hunt anywhere surrounding the show. A cursory search turns out no relevant results, and this paves the way for me to try and change that: I would find it enjoyable to take up the Oculus Quest to do another location hunt of the spots that Hana and her new friends visit during the course of Slow Start. The deciding factor will be whether or not such a post will be written depends on whether or not there’s enough spots to showcase.

  • One of the details that people don’t mention about Slow Start is the fact that the music is amazing. Composed by Yoshiaki Fujisawa (YuruYuriA Place Further Than The Universe and Rail Wars!), the soundtrack features a variety of pieces, from the bossa nova vocals that Marie Kocho provides and gentle everyday pieces, to more wistful and melancholy tracks that capture Hana’s doubts about her everyday life with friends who don’t know she’s a year older than everyone else in her class.

  • As an anime, Slow Start is under-appreciated: looking beyond the fluffy cute-girls-doing-cute-things setup, the psychological elements of being a year behind forms a majority of the conflict within the anime. After she misses her exams, Hana initially worries that she’ll be an outcast and refuses to leave home, leading her parents to suggest moving out and living on her own to gain a new start on things. This change of scenery allows Hana to spend her days studying, and she thus enters her first year of high school well-prepared for the academic component.

  • Indeed, being able to do something like studying with Eiko, Kamuri and Tamate helps Hana to settle back into a routine. Her parents’ assistance prevents Hana from being a hikikomori, an individual who has withdrawn from society and spends an overwhelming majority of their time at home. Stories surrounding hikikomori are always sad: these individuals were once bright and energetic people with a passion and drive, but challenges of the real world, whether it be academic success or the job search, sap these people of their confidence. It’s a vicious cycle, and people feel as though there’s only the choice to run away and shut themselves away from the world.

  • One particularly heartbreaking story tells of a man who had a solid job and was on the path to marriage, but when the relationship fell apart, he lost his confidence. Initially declining invitations to hang out with his friends, he eventually changed his phone number and severed ties with his friends, retreating to his room and the internet. While he’d wanted to recover, days turned to weeks, and weeks to years. Slow Start‘s Hiroe follows this exact route: she fell ill prior to the university entrance exams, and because of her reputation, had lost the courage to face her friends and be truthful about what happened, eventually withdrawing into seclusion.

  • When Hana first meets Hiroe, the two get off to a rough start, and Hiroe’s state becomes apparent: she uses the internet to order most everything and doesn’t even swing by the local convenience store for food. The propagation and ubiquity of the internet has made it easier for hikikomori, and experts suggest that the increasing ease of use for ordering things, from fully-cooked, ready to eat meals to computer hardware, books, groceries and clothes, will mean that more people will trend towards a hikikomori lifestyle. The global health crisis has certainly accelerated this process: during the past year, as the virus forced people to spend more time at home.

  • Hana completely sympathises with Hiroe, and in fact, is the first person that she opens up to about being a year behind. Seeing how hard Hana is trying to make things work would eventually compel Hiroe to push herself a little harder. After introducing Hiroe to her friends, Eiko figures that what Hiroe needs is a new wardrobe, and with new clothes, Hiroe begins to consider making visits to the nearby convenience store her objective. What happens next is hilarious and adorable: Hiroe does manage to go out and eventually has the confidence to visit any convenience store within ten kilometres of home.

  • With time, Hiroe is able to turn that towards more ambitious goals. However, she still has moments where self-doubt and uncertainty kicks in, and it is with Hana’s friends that Hiroe is freed from her rut. When Slow Start first aired, I chose to focus on other elements of the show beyond the yuri that most of the community was concerned with. This left a fair number of readers dissatisfied: Slow Start undoubtedly has a nontrivial yuri component, whether it be Eiko’s propensity to flirt with everyone she meets or Tamate’s preference for female relationships, but I always got the impression that this was done for comedy rather than as something directly related to the series’ main themes.

  • Folks with a more extensive background on yuri would naturally be able to do a better job of explaining its relevance, and as such, I’ve chosen to focus on the themes that I have more confidence in writing about. The idea for revisiting Slow Start came a few months ago: I’d just wrapped up updating a series of view controllers to use a new aesthetic for my previous position, but a sense of hollowness filled me in place of my usual sense of accomplishment when this task was completed. Coincidentally, an article about hikikomori and the pandemic was trending on social media, and I decided to take a look out of curiosity.

  • After reading through the article, it hit me as to why I’d been feeling so empty: the pandemic had hit my last company hard, and funds were dwindling, since our customers were small businesses and e-commerce merchants, many of whom had been (understandably) less willing to spend money owing to their own circumstances. Working from home on a project whose future was uncertain had left me quite depressed. I completely empathise with the hikikomori, having spent a over a half year working in near-isolation on iOS projects, and it was ultimately this feeling that sent me in search of new opportunity. Working with a team now means more collaboration, and even though we’re working remotely, knowing there’s people to talk to is a massive psychological boost.

  • A large number of people have suggested that the global health crisis has exacerbated the hikikomori phenomenon, which likely increased in prevalence since the pandemic began, and it is not difficult to see why this holds true. Being made to not spend in-person time with friends and family has had a nontrivial impact on people, and while technology has bridged the gap somewhat, there is no substitute for the real deal. I therefore look forwards to the day when the proportion of vaccinated individual reaches a point where I can work out of the office again and go for poutine weekends.

  • Taking that first dose is merely the first step in returning to the world as we’d known it previously, and while a lot of folks are sharing their vaccination visit as a hero’s journey, I personally find that this first dose is a starting point; until the second doses are available, we’re not quite ready to open the throttle yet. It’s now been two days since my first dose, and while my arm ached mildly yesterday, I think the worst is behind me. I am a little nervous about the second dose, which is said to knock people out of their game if they’d gotten past their first dose without trouble, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

  • Before delving into the heart of Slow Start, namely, Hana’s journey and the anime’s assertion that it’s okay to be delayed, the elephant in the room that’s worth addressing is the yuri piece. With Eiko and instructor Kiyose Enami, Eiko finds her usual charms and tricks are completely ineffectual on her – in fact, Kiyose is wise to Eiko’s tricks and oftentimes, completely turns the table on her. The manga covers this more thoroughly, but what is known is that Eiko soon develops a crush on Kiyose.

  • Kamuri of Slow Start is an amalgamation of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid‘s Kanna and GochiUsa‘s Chino Kafuu in appearance and manner. Eiko dotes on Kamuri, who becomes shy in other people’s presence, and Kamuri’s thoughts never stray far from Eiko – she attended Hoshio Private Academy because she figured Eiko would be going, too. Despite her quiet personality, Kamuri opens up to Hana and Tamate, even making comebacks during their conversations.

  • When Kiyose gets hammered one evening, Eiko ends up taking her back home. While under the influence, she ties up Eiko to prevent anything weird from happening. The next morning, Kiyose’s completely forgotten what happened the previous night, and although Eiko teases her about what’d happened, she’s quite unexpected for what happens next, likening it to the opposing team scoring a pair of goals after pulling their goaltender with less than a minute left in regulation time. The surprise this imparts causes Eiko’s heart to flutter in ways that messing with her peers do not, and I expect that the pursuit of this novel experience is what leads Eiko to develop feelings for Kiyose.

  • That Eiko chooses Hana to share her secret hobby of accessory-making with is indicative of her trust in Hana: Hana is an unremarkable character, essentially Girls und Panzer‘s Miho Nishizumi in appearance and without a profound knowledge of panzerfahren. Kind, gentle and shy, Hana nonetheless finds her place amongst her new group of friends quickly. Despite her progression, Hana never finds the courage to tell her friends that she’d actually been delayed a year during the course of the anime. Instead, things get out when one of Hana’s classmates transfers to her school and wonders why Hana is a year below. Hana’s friends are not terribly surprised, feeling that there’d been something different and special about Hana from the start.

  • Hiroe manages to pick up a luxurious sashimi set from a store, but gladly trades it for the obentō that Shion had made for Hana. While Shion feels it to be a bit overkill, Hiroe’s joy comes from being able to relive an old memory, of eating a hand-made lunch, just like in high school. I admit that I am very nostalgic sort of person; this is why I reminisce a great deal on this blog. Looking at the calendar, today is precisely a full decade after Otafest 2011, the year Otafest captured my attention. A friend had gone in and captured video of the days he’d attended, and while I’d been curious to attend, that long weekend, my schedule was packed. On Friday night, as the opening ceremonies began, I swung by a friend’s place for a Halo: Reach LAN party.

  • The next day, while cosplayers roamed campus grounds amidst panels and events, I strolled along a chilly Lake Minewanka and the quiet of Bankhead under a spring sun an hour to the west in the mountains. Sunday would see me go out for dim sum with the family, before swinging downtown to pick up the HGUC Unicorn Gundam model with the 1/48 head display stand. However, in my downtime, after watching my friend’s videos, I decided it could be worth checking out the local anime convention. While the year after, the MCAT meant I was too busy to do so, I would have a chance to experience it fully in the years subsequently. Back in the present, Otafest is doing a virtual convention this year, and I’ll streaming it on the side if I’m not terribly busy. I do hope we’ll see a return next year – I plan on volunteering again as I am able.

  • Contrary to online articles that count it detrimental, recalling older times with a fondness only serves to increase my resolve to make the most of the present. Revisiting Slow Start brings back memories of when I first watched the series, and looking back, watching the show again has allowed me to see it from a different perspective than I did three years ago. I believe that’s enough of a tangent for the time being: we recall that Hana is the star of the show, and her experiences throughout Slow Start are integral to the series in telling its story. In conjunction with the manga’s outcomes (namely, that Eiko, Tamate and Kamuri do find out about her situation), Slow Start indicates to viewers that, while perhaps not optimal, it is okay to have a gap-year in life when things go sideways.

  • The notion that Slow Start tries to sell viewers, then, is that being delayed towards a milestone is not detrimental to the point of rendering one a failure or a lesser person in any way. Through Hana’s experiences, it becomes clear that while Hana did lose a year, when things resume for her, she gets to pick up right where she left off, making friends and making the most of her time in high school with Eiko, Kamuri and Tamate. On first glance, it is not apparent at all that Hana’s a year older than everyone. This is something that becomes increasingly prevalent as one grows older: age differences stop being such a big deal.

  • The gentle narrative of Slow Start thus serves to present a different perspective of life than what existing expectations are. As people mature, they are expected to hit milestones like finding a partner, get married and have children. However, trends in society are shifting away from getting married and starting a family early as people prioritise their careers and things like travel. There is no right way to live life per se, and Slow Start indicates that while Hana might be a year behind, she’s not necessarily missing out on anything.

  • Of course, the key here is moderation: the idea is that setbacks are fine so long as one actually has a plan for getting back on track. I appreciate that momentum can be hard to gain back: putting things off causes a positive feedback loop in which one continues to lose time and motivation the longer they hold off. This is something that Hiroe succumbed to after missing her entrance exams, but after meeting Hana and her friends, Hiroe slowly, and naturally, returns back to the real world, simultaneously determined to change things up for the better and inspired by the sincerity that Hana demonstrates despite her own shyness.

  • Seeing these sorts of themes in Slow Start seems a world away from the carefree, seemingly-frivolous experiences that are shown on screen. It is understandable to some viewers, Slow Start can appear to portray mundane, unremarkable occurrences in Hana’s life: the series is very subtle about its themes, and the non-sequitur jokes take centre stage in most episodes. This gives Slow Start the undeserved reputation that it is little more than trite, seemingly unrelated moments loosely held together by Hana and her desire to live out her life as normally as possible.

  • This time around, I won’t disparage Anime News Network’s writers for having thought poorly of Slow Start (even if I do disagree vehemently with their asinine choice of language in their reviews): upon finishing Slow Start, I similarly felt the anime to be quite overshadowed by the likes of A Place Further Than The Universe and Yuru Camp△, two excellent slice-of-life series that dominated all discussions during the winter 2018 season. Against these giants, Slow Start can feel positively underwhelming and dull by comparison.

  • However, like Hana, who trundles through life at her own pace, Slow Start‘s success is that it never tries to play the role it was not suited for. Rather than a manifesto, Slow Start strives simply to make a statement, and at present, having had the chance to sit down and go through things again, it becomes apparent that Slow Start had succeeded on its own merits. This revelation comes three years after the fact, showing how anime can oftentimes be more enjoyable when one revisits it: umpteenth re-watches can help one to see details they missed earlier, and a greater understanding of the contexts behind certain actions amongst the characters makes some moments more meaningful.

  • Unfortunately for Slow Start, while the series is technically excellent, featuring above-average artwork, animation and music, Japanese sales were very weak. With some exceptions, performance in the domestic market is the primary deciding factor behind whether or not most anime get a continuation, and since Slow Start sold poorly, it stands to reason that we won’t be seeing more of this series. This is unfortunate, since later manga chapters do have Hana come forward with the truth, only to learn that the status quo wasn’t disrupted to any way.

  • I had initially wondered whether not not Slow Start would actually see Hana overcome this particular barrier, and when the season ended, I had expressed hope that there might be a continuation. Yuru Camp△, which had aired alongside Slow Start, ended up getting its second season three years after its first, and this was with an overwhelmingly positive domestic response to the show. In the absence of a second season, to give this series some love, I ended up picking up Slow Start TV Anime Guide Book: Slow-blooming flower, the artbook for this series.

  • I had originally wished to buy this book alongside the official guidebook for Yuru Camp△ but relented at the last second. However, upon revisiting Slow Start, I realised that the series had been much more meaningful and enjoyable than I’d originally remembered it. On account of the ongoing health crisis, however, SAL shipping is offline, and I ended up paying an arm and a leg for the faster modes: the artbook arrived within a week of my ordering it, whereas with SAL, it normally takes two to three weeks. I’m not in any rush for my artbooks, so I typically go with SAL to conserve on funds.

  • Being able to read through the artbook gave me unparalleled insights into what the anime had intended to accomplish: between director’s commentaries, and interviews with the voice actresses, it became clear that Slow Start had always intended to be more than just a fluffy slice-of-life anime. Besides interviews, commentaries and episode summaries, the Slow Start artbook also comes with high-resolution artwork of the characters, even works that were not featured in the Megami and Newtype magazines, as well as storyboards and sketches of the locations in exceptional detail.

  • Seeing the effort that went into the anime increased my respect for the series, although at the same time, I am aware that the strongest shows of a given season will convey the staff and creators’ feelings to the viewer without the need for supplementary materials. I’d already found Slow Start a respectable series without the extended materials, and my conclusions drawn now were not derived from what was said in the commentaries or interviews: Slow Start had intrinsically did a satisfactory job of conveying this to me, and I admit that my initial impressions were more from having three years less life experience than I do at present.

  • Towards Slow Start‘s endgame, Hiroe becomes confident enough to attend a summer festival with Shion. After everything that happened in Slow Start, Hiroe quickly became my favourite character: Hana had found her strength to continue through her parents, Shion and then with Tamate, Kamuri and Eiko. However, with Hiroe, she starts her journey in isolation, fearful of even speaking with others. While Hana, Eiko and the others do support her, it’s not as though they spend anywhere nearly the same amount of time with them as Hana might. In spite of this, Hiroe is able to take her own steps forwards.

  • Slow Start might be treating the topic with more optimism than is likely plausible in reality, but it does seem to suggest that positive change comes from within. Once an individual receives the right push, it’s really up to them to make the most of things. As such, when Hiroe finds it in herself to slowly return to a world that once left her behind, I was all smiles. The same holds true for Hana: all the help in the world from Shion, Tamate, Kamuri and Eiko wouldn’t cut it if Hana had simply closed herself off, but Hana’s own desire to make friends and memories means she’s very open to others in spite of her shyness.

  • With her newfound confidence, Hiroe resolves to take the entrance exam for her post-secondary of choice even though this means facing off against this year’s cohort of starry-eyed high school graduates. Viewers are left with the assurance that from an academic standpoint, Hiroe’s lost none of her edge: she’s occasionally joined Hana and her friends to help them study. Hana herself is no slouch in the academic department; both she and Hiroe spent most of their spare time hitting the books, and although Hiroe had lacked direction in her last year, meeting Hana sets her on a course back to the path she previously desired to take. I imagine that in time, Hiroe would be able to tell her friends the truth without fear of judgement, similarly to how Hana’s secret turned out to be minor.

  • One thing that I’ve not made mention of until now, and is skipped over in virtually every conversation about Slow Start, is the fact that that Hoshio Private Academy has an ice cream vending machine that Tamate, Kamuri, Eiko and Hana make use of. While ice cream is usually a treat, that the girls have access to ice cream so readily while at school becomes something to transforms something special into something typical: Slow Start cleverly uses vending machine ice cream to show how what’s ordinary and extraordinary is purely a matter of perspective, and that with time, some things simply won’t stand out as much as people initially feel them to.

  • Towards the end of Slow Start, Hiroe gears up to take her exam, promising that starry-eyed high school graduates or no, she’s ready to continue on with her life. The new Hiroe more closely resembles her old self, lacking the lethargy and awkward disposition that she had when first meeting Hana. Hana herself, while still yet to be forward about herself, is now more outgoing and willing to connect with new people. Slow Start doesn’t have dramatic events or major discoveries quite to the same level as the likes of Yuru Camp△ and A Place Further Than The Universe, and as the final few episodes aired, the series maintained a very consistent, slow pacing.

  • It should be evident that I had fun while watching Slow Start back in 2018, and three years later, that enjoyment has only grown. With this in mind, I understand that this show isn’t going to be something for everyone. As with my other posts, my goals with such posts are not to change people’s minds about the series, but rather, the share the withertos and whyfores on why I find a series praiseworthy.

  • My love for slice-of-life series comes precisely from the fact that I choose my entertainment to help me unwind and relax, and whereas most people look for realism or comedy in theirs, my single metric for whether or not a given slice-of-life work was successful boils down to how effectively a series conveys its themes to users. If the characters gain something from their experiences such that there is a life lesson here, then I am satisfied with the work. I’m not looking for world-changing messages about the human condition or any of that sort of thing, but rather, learnings that can be applied in life to make one more empathetic and understanding of those around them.

  • As I see it, Slow Start brings two relevant messages to the table and conveys them gently, but clearly to viewers: it’s okay to fall behind sometimes, but with a bit of determination and the right people in one’s corner, one will be able to get back up again. Having experienced what Hiroe and Hana have, I applaud Slow Start for having the audacity to take on a topic that can be quite sensitive for some folks and indicating that there is a silver lining. For this, Slow Start joins my Masterpiece club alongside the likes of CLANNADSora no Woto and others, having shifted my world views for the better. With the Victoria Day long weekend here now, I think it’s time to wrap things up: it’s forecast to be a sunny day, and it means I should get to mowing the lawn and backyard before the grass becomes untamable.

Having now tread through the themes Slow Start had intended to convey (but were presumably lost to viewers amidst the overt displays of yuri within the series), I conclude that the reason why Slow Start left such an impact on me was precisely because I related to both Hana and Hiroe so strongly. My life has been one slow start after another: I had a gap-year of my own between finishing my undergraduate degree and starting graduate school, during which I had been making an attempt to apply to medical school. To complete the applications and secure the course requirements, I did a year of open studies. During this time, I ended up making the decision of going to graduate school instead, and after I finished, I ended up working for a startup, as my software development skills were lacking behind those coming from a pure computer science program. My decision in life are my own, and on first glance, appear to have left me at a considerable disadvantage in life. I am, at any given point, about five years behind any competent iOS developer my age because half my education was about Diels-Alder reactions and the p53 oncogene rather than algorithmic complexity and user experience. However, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world: the year “off” I took ended up being time I spent working on a prototype of what would become my graduate thesis, and my background in health science allows me to approach software development from a different perspective. My own slow start had its costs, but it has its advantages, as well; I would’ve likely not discovered this had I gone down a more conventional route. My experiences now have allowed me to reach a point now where I’m minimally competent as an iOS developer, and at the end of the day, it matters little if I took a few more detours than necessary to reach this point – what matters is that I am able to be useful with the skills that I have picked up. I therefore count Slow Start a masterpiece in my books for being a reminder that it is okay to take detours and it is okay to lose direction – in good company, one will find their path once again. It was admittedly a little surprising that all of these thoughts came from a simple, but heart-melting animation of Hiroe in the ending sequence, perhaps acting as a reminder to me that I probably shouldn’t be so swift to skip the endings to anime and watch them at least once. It only took me three years to realise this, but there is a simple reality: flowers that bloom more slowly also tend to retain their beauty after the quicker flowers have lost their petals, and that counts for something.

K-On! Come With Me!!: A Review and Reflection of the 2011 Live Action Concert At the Ten Year Anniversary

Even if you fail, try to add it up
‘Cause a bigger answer will come to you
Whatever that happens to be
If we’re together, we’ve got nothing to fear!

–Come With Me

On a Sunday afternoon ten years earlier, Saitama Super Arena hosted the largest K-On! event the franchise had organised. Titled Come with Me!!, the event was a celebration of K-On!‘s successes, seeing live-action performances of the series’ most well-known works from members of Houkago Tea Time. Aki Toyosaki, Satomi Satō, Yōko Hisaka, Minako Kotobuki and Ayana Taketatsu stepped onto the stage to thunderous applause, welcoming the audience with GO! GO! Maniac before introducing themselves. Each of the cast then performed their lead character songs (Oh My Gitah!, Seishun Vibration, Drumming Shining My Life, Diary wa Fortessimo and Over the Starlight). After Taketatsu performed her song, director Naoko Yamada then made an appearance, announcing that K-On! The Movie would be premièring in theatres on December 3. Madoka Yonezawa (Ui), Chika Fujitō (Nodoka) and Yoriko Nagata (Jun) continued on with their performance before things transitioned over to a stage play, where Toyosaki, Satō, Hisaka and Kotobuki reprised their characters’ roles; because the clubroom at their school is undergoing maintenance work, the girls need a place to practise, and they find themselves in an unexplored area of school (Saitama Super Arena itself. After the initial shock wore off, Houkago Tea Time performed several new pieces (Ichigo Parfait ga Tomaranai, Tokimeki Sugar, Honey Sweet Tea Time), along with one of K-On!‘s most iconic songs (Gohan wa Okazu) on a central stage. As their performance draws to a close, members of Death Devil took to the stage and put on a different kind of show that mirrors the sort of music Sawako and her band would’ve played while they were in the light music club. When Houkago Tea Time return to the stage, they sat down to discuss differences in musicianship and how the different Japanese scripts can impact perceptions of whether or not something is cute: it turns out that the gentle curvature of Hiragana script gives the words a gentler feel, compared to the harsher, more angular appearance of Katanana script (for instance, “Keion” in Hiragana,けいおん, has a friendlier appearance than the Katakana ケイオン). The members of Death Devil suggested that Houkago Tea Time continue to work hard and do as they’ve always done – Houkago Tea Time returned to the stage and performed the centrepiece songs of K-On!‘s second season (Pure Pure Heart, U&I and Tenshi ni Furetta Yo!, along with an encore performance of Fuwa Fuwa Time). Come with Me!! entered its closing acts subsequently, with the cast reflecting on their incredible experiences as a part of the K-On! franchise. The audience is treated to a final performance of Come with Me!!, the song that lends itself to the concert’s name.

With a runtime of three hours and thirty-five minutes, Come with Me!! would hit the shelves on August 10, just shy of a half-year after the concert ended. Through this home release, the concert’s events would be immortalised. Even though there is no substitute for attending in-person, the home release edition captured the emotional tenour and vigour of the atmosphere at the concert. Throughout the concert, Toyosaki and her co-leads frequently allude to how much practise it took to prepare for the event: to ensure every song was memorable, the team would’ve rehearsed tirelessly to nail each and every song, step and line. The actresses even learned the fundamentals behind their respective characters’ chosen instruments so that they could put on a compelling performance (it is understandable that the actual instrumentation was done by professional guitarists, bassist, drummers and pianists). While Toyosaki, Hisaka et al. are no professional musicians, their efforts paid off: where they played with the instruments, it genuinely felt that Houkago Tea Time was on the stage. When they were purely singing, their songs absolutely conveyed the manner and style of their respective characters, bringing Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Mugi and Azusa to life. The energy and spunk everyone had was a major factor in keeping the viewer’s attention throughout the entire concert, and despite the runtime length, Come with Me!! never felt for a second that it was dragging on: there were surprises around every corner, and the combination of live music, a miniature stage play and a chance to listen to the voice actresses and staff share their experiences contributed to a very heartfelt and sincere presentation that unequivocally demonstrated the sort of impact that K-On! had during the height of its popularity. This love for K-On! was apparent: besides the cast’s powerhouse performance, the sell-out crowd also indicated what K-On! meant to many. Nowhere was this more apparent than towards the concert’s end – Satō was fighting back tears while singing Tenshi ni Furetta Yo!, and both she, and (Azusa) teared up during their final speech to the audience. Ironically, despite promising not to cry, Hisaka wound out breaking into full tears. The audience, in turn, cheered enthusiastically and could be heard shouting encouragement to everyone before, during and after performances. Through Come with Me!!, the mutual respect and love that everyone shares for the K-On! franchise, the staff working on it, was plainly visible.

Come with Me!!! was a tour de force performance that served to emphasise the process behind K-On!.This concert served to highlight the sort of effort that went into the production of K-On!: the series’ incredible success during 2009 and 2010 had been the result of Kyoto Animation, Naoko Yamada and each of the voice actress’ diligence, persistence and skills, all of which came together to a polished and meaningful final product. Overseas viewers, however, are limited to what they see in the final product: we don’t see the people behind the work, and consequently, without having seen any of this, it would’ve been easy to dismiss K-On!‘s success as undeserved, warranting nothing more than a vitriol-filled blog post telling people not to watch this series. Come with Me!!, on the other hand, made it apparent as to what went into the creation of K-On! – when immersed in a crowd who shares the staff’s love of K-On!, it becomes impossible not to be appreciative of the effort each of Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu put into making the series compelling. Everyone’s speeches really drove home the sort of passion that led everyone to put in their best for K-On!, whether it was voicing the different characters, singing or stepping out onto a stage in front of thirty-five thousand fans. That Come with Me!! was performed to a sold-out crowd at Saitama Super Arena speaks to the sheer scope of the impact K-On! had on its viewers: it is no easy feat to draw out thirty-five thousand people, including families, each of whom has found sufficient emotional impact in a series such that they would attend a concert and cheer on the staff that made a tangible impact in their lives. This is a thought that definitely crossed each of Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu’s minds: looking out from the stage to a sea of applause and glow-sticks really would’ve it tangible as to how far-reaching K-On! had been.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Per the title card, Come With Me!! was held on February 20, 2011 at the Saitama Super Arena, a massive stadium and venue capable of housing 37 000 people. Doors to the event opened at 1400 JST, and the event formally began at 1600, running until 1900 on a Sunday. Tickets cost 7800 Yen (93.49 CAD in 2011) per person, and the event had been announced in October 2010, a month after K-On!‘s second season had finished airing. The BD released in August 2011, giving viewers a 1080i picture and Linear PCM 5.1 audio: while not possessing the same visual fidelity as progressive scanning (motion blur was a bit more noticeable), the final result is still more than watchable. Before K-On!‘s leads take to the stage, audiences would’ve seen a sakura tree adorning the projection screens.

  • I believe that this post marks the first time a full discussion of Come With Me!! has been had anywhere since the BD released: live action events aren’t usually in the realm of things that anime bloggers typically write about, and while Come With Me!! was probably one of the largest anime events of its time, it was not large enough to make waves amongst the English-speaking blogging community. As such, no posts about Come With Me!! exist. At the ten year anniversary, the time has come to rectify this, and here, Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu finally make an appearance to kick things off. The concert opened with a live performance of the opening song, Go! Go! Maniac, a high-intensity piece. The opening songs for K-On! have always been spirited pieces, energetic and at times, a little hard on the ears.

  • Conversely, Hisaka is the lead singer for the ending songs, which have a more mature, rock-like feel to them. I’ve always been fond of Hisaka’s performance as Mio – there’s a certain sexiness about her delivery of Mio’s lyrics and lines. After Go! Go! Maniac, Listen!! is the next song viewers would’ve been treated to. Altogether, Come With Me!! features a total of twenty seven songs. The first two songs act as a bit of a precedence for the remainder of the concert, and it speaks to the voice actress’ stamina that they were able to sustain such an energetic manner for the whole of the 185-minute performance: even concerts with stars like Sam Hui and Alan Tam only ran for two-and-a-half hours.

  • With the two opening songs in the books, Toyosaki and the others introduce themselves to the audience, marvelling at the size of Saitama Super Arena’s audience. With over double the capacity of Yokohama Arena, which hosted Let’s Go! (the first K-On! concert), Saitama Super Arena would’ve been an impressive sight. Let’s Go! took place on December 30, 2009 to an audience of around 15000, and tickets to the two-and-a-half hour event went for around 6825 Yen (81.97 CAD). The BDs became available precisely six months later, on June 30, 2010. The big anime bloggers of the day did write about this one, praising the event as a fantastic opportunity for the voice actresses of K-On! to really show their viewers what they’ve got, and the event was also where the announcement for K-On!! was made.

  • With the introductions done, Aki Toyosaki wastes no time in switching over to a red outfit for her live performance of Oh My Gitah!, Yui’s character song that acts as a love letter for her cherished Les Paul guitar. Throughout the whole of K-On!!, Yui treats her guitar as though it is sentient, and in Toyosaki’s performance of Yui’s song, it is clear as to how deep this love of music and her partner-in-arms is. I’m not an expert in music theory, style or history, so I can’t speak to the style of this song, but Yui’s character song uses a very similar instrumentation to the incidental pieces seen in Man v. Food, whenever Adam Richman is exploring the local eateries prior to his challenge. This creates a very personalised feeling, and I imagine that this is what the composers were going for when writing Oh my Gitah!.

  • Since Mio’s instrument is a bass, it is fitting that her character song, Seishun Vibration, makes extensive use of the low notes of a bass guitar. Of everyone in Houkago Tea Time, it is a badly-kept secret that I’m most fond of Mio and her voice – Seishun Vibration is then, unsurprisingly, my favourite of the character songs. The lyrics are bold, reflective of the two sides to Mio: while Mio normally presents a very shy and reserved face for the world, she also has a more aggressive and forward personality that shows up when she’s in the presence of those she’s comfortable around. Seishun Vibration is purposeful, and the perfect song for driving along a highway through the mountains. During her performance, Hisaka brings back Mio’s infamous moe moe kyun move, a callback to the first season.

  • Admittedly, while Satomi Satō is a highly skilled voice actress (evidenced by her numerous roles in a range of anime), her character song for Ritsu came across as being very bombastic and noisy. I’ve never really been a fan of her character song, Drumming Shining My Life. With this being said, of everyone, Satō definitely spent the most effort replicating Ritsu’s voice for Come With Me!!: of the characters in K-On!, she and Yui have the most unique voices. On her image album, Ritsu also has a second song, À la carte, Evening Sky, that is slower-paced and more relaxing in nature, speaking to another side of Ritsu’s character.

  • Minako Kotobuki’s Diary wa Fortessimo is a fun-filled song, being my second favourite of the character songs. There’s always been an earnestness about the song I’ve enjoyed, and coupled with Kotobuki’s singing voice, I found this character song brings to life Tsumugi’s view of things around Houkago Tea Time. Bouncy, cheerful and whimsical, I really liked Kotobuki’s performance, and of everyone, she seems the most at ease with performing, dancing happily during the song’s instrumental interlude (her movement feels crisper and more purposeful than the others).

  • Ayana Taketatsu’s performance of Azusa’s character song has a spunk to it, mirroring Azusa’s traits. Character songs are written to give insight into an individual’s defining attributes, and beyond the lyrics, the way a song sounds can speak volumes about a character well beyond what was seen in the anime. In K-On!, character songs allow listeners to peer into the minds of the characters and ascertain how they really feel about certain things: Azusa has always attempted to present herself as a beacon of reason and focus in a band whose senior members are prone to distraction, but despite the lax attitude Houkago Tea Time takes towards music, Azusa has come to appreciate them all the same and promises to support them as best as she can.

  • With Houkago Tea Time done their character songs, Asami Sanada steps onto the stage to address the audience. Sanada’s been a longtime voice actress before beginning K-On!, starting her career in 1999, and has played a variety of roles. As Sawako, Sanada presents her with a sweet, gentle voice befitting of a teacher. Of course, when the chips are down, her voice takes on a much rougher tone, attesting to her skills. K-On!, both in its anime and manga incarnation, has Sawako change appearance depending on whether she’s the teacher everyone knows and loves, or the punk rocker with a fondness for metal: Sanada is able to present both sides of Sawako’s personality without skipping a beat.

  • This was probably one of the major highlights of Come With Me!!: Naoko Yamada stepping onto the stage herself to greet the audience and drop the biggest bit of news since K-On!‘s second season. That a film had been in the works had been known for quite some time, but with director Yamada on stage to personally announce that the film was releasing on December 3, 2011, the audience went wild, especially with the revelation that this film would feature all-new content. The K-On! manga was still ongoing at the time, but the film had an original story set during the second season’s timeframe. Looking back, I would’ve liked to have seen K-On!‘s remaining manga volumes (College and High School) receive anime adaptations, but I imagine that Yamada had intended the second season to act as the decisive close on Houkago Tea Time’s journey.

  • Once the big announcement was made, Madoka Yonezawa stepped onto the stage to perform Ui’s character song. Ui’s songs have always been a joy to listen to, and Yonezawa does a fantastic job as K-On!‘s Ui: the ever-dependable and reliable younger sister, Ui is only seen doting on Yui the way a loving grandparent might. Her character song suggests that, despite her own prodigious skills, the one thing she longs for most is to follow in Yui’s example and find something that she can totally immerse herself in. Ui does end up inheriting Yui’s role as a guitarist in the manga, joining the light music club and performing alongside Azusa, Jun and several new members.

  • Jun’s character song falls into the same category as Ritsu’s and Azusa’s: of the character songs available, I never really got into her song quite to the same extent that I did for Mio, Tsumugi and Ui’s songs. As one of the secondary characters, Jun’s in Azusa’s year and is classmates with Ui, as well. Yoriko Nagata’s performance of Junjou Bomber is, in person, much livelier than it was as pure audio, and speaks to the fact that Jun admires Mio greatly. While joining the Jazz Band owing to poor first impressions of the light music club, Jun comes around and joins in their final year, longing to do the things that Azusa does.

  • Rounding out the character song performances is Chika Fujitō’s Nodoka: Jump is an upbeat and optimistic-sounding song that mirrors Nodoka’s enjoyment of her time as a high school student, where, in the process of encouraging those around her to be their best (especially Ritsu and her propensity to forget important logistics, such as paperwork), she also found herself being pulled along by those around her into the future. Fujitō plays Nodoka with a calm sense of assuredness. Both mature and dependable, Nodoka handles most trouble by listening, although she can be stubborn in some cases, as well. Jump’s composition has a very warm, summer-like feel it it, with the instrumentation and tone conveying an image of a beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine.

  • Once the character songs are done, the lights go out, and a small skit is presented for the viewers’ benefit: when their clubroom undergoes maintenance work, akin to a similar situation in the second season, Houkago Tea Time go in search of a new place to practise, coming across a strange portal in their school’s basement that seemingly leads straight to Saitama Super Arena. Come With Me!! thus enters its next phase, and as Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu step onto a central stage in the arena, the lights come back on.

  • For the next performance, Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu pick up their instruments and, after spurring on their respective segments of the audience, step right into Houkago Tea Time’s new songs. Ichigo Parfait ga Tomaranai (Strawberry Parfaits are Unstoppable), Tokimeki Sugar (Heart-throbbing Sugar) and Honey Sweet time were released on a special album back in October 2010, having never been performed in K-On! proper. Each of these songs have a unique zeal to them, with Toyosaki, Hisaka and Kotobuki respectively leading the vocals.

  • While these three songs were never seen in K-On!, it becomes apparent that they still have the distinct Houkago Tea Time sound and correspondingly saccharine lyrics. Reading through the lyrics’ English translations, the lyrics would probably be quite tricky to get into a good-sounding song owing to the way syllables work, although I imagine that even if successful, the songs could sound quite unusual. Having said this, the songs sound fine in Japanese, and I’ve long held that compared to contemporary pop music, K-On!‘s miles ahead of anything we currently have.

  • Seeing the camera pulled back really gives a sense of scale at Saitama Super Arena: there is a sea of people surrounding the stage. Moments like these really accentuate the fact that K-On! was an incredibly popular series in Japan, and the fact is that the show was able to draw thirty thousand plus people to a live event. While K-On! also became popular amongst foreign viewers, who similarly appreciated the warm themes and atmosphere taken by K-On!, after its run in 2009, there was a great deal of discussion on whether or not the series was great for storytelling or other technical reasons.

  • K-On! excels not because of anything groundbreaking, but because of its sincerity about things like appreciation and friendship. The simple themes, coupled with Kyoto Animation’s technical excellence and amazing voice work from the cast meant that K-On! hit all of the right notes. Seeing something like Come With Me!! really makes tangible the amount of effort that went into making the series a success – behind every character is a human being, each with a story, and so, for viewers, a part of the enjoyment (both for K-On! and for Come With Me!!) comes from being able to see for myself the effort that goes into making something.

  • The final song that Houkago Tea Time plays on this centre stage is Gohan wa Okazu, an iconic K-On! song that, despite its hokey lyrics about how rice is a staple that is essential for all meals, is so well composed and catchy that it is immediately recognisable, the same way classics like Staying Alive, Go Your Own Way, The Hustle, Baker Street and countless other songs are immediately recognisable just by listening to their opening riffs. Gohan wa Okazu typifies the sort of music that Houkago Tea Time perform: between Mio’s flowery and soppy lyrics, or the simple, direct approach Yui takes in her songs, Houkago Tea Time’s music is by no means complicated, but expert composition renders each song immensely enjoyable.

  • Insofar, Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu have been miming the act of playing their instruments; singing and playing instruments simultaneously is remarkably challenging, and these Houkago Tea Time songs still have decently complex instrumentation. To allow the cast to focus on singing, a part of their concert uses pre-recorded instrumentals. This is completely understandable, and from an enjoyment perspective, it never diminishes from the experience – having the instrumental tracks pre-recorded also leaves the cast free to interact with the audience and drive up engagement, as each of Toyosaki et al. do when they ask their respective sections to cheer them on.

  • Once Houkago Tea Time wraps up their centre-stage presentation, Death Devil steps in to perform Maddy Candy and LOVE. Unlike Houkago Tea Time, Death Devil specialises in speed metal: Sawako is easily swayed by her heart, and took up an increasingly wild approach to music to impress a guy in her year. Their music is intense, sounding nothing like the kawaii style that Houkago Tea Time is known for. While I’ve never been quite as excited by their music as I am about Houkago Tea Time’s songs, Death Devil is technically more bold and creative: speed metal, after all, eventually gave rise to the power metal genre which I am fond of.

  • Come With Me!! has the cast do a minor stage play of sorts, where they discuss the nature of musicianship and how image can be impacted by the type of script used. This was one of the topics that we covered in my introductory Japanese class – I took this course in my third year, after I’d finished watching K-On!, and my instructor remarked that the Hiragana script is the first script that children learn, being at the core of the Japanese language. Between this and the fact that Hiragana uses gentle curves, it creates a very cute looking script compared to the angular Katakana and intimidating kanji scripts. Recalling this brings back a great deal of memories: I had just come from a summer of building a renal flow model using the Bullet Physics engine in Objective-C, and this work was interspersed by me really getting back into anime, including Sora no WotoBreak BladeIka Musume! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

  • Lucky☆Star had jump-started my interest in Kyoto Animation’s works, which led me to K-On!, and this was the anime that brought me back from the brink of destruction. When Come With Me!! was performing, my semester would’ve been really kicking into high gear: in organic chemistry, I would’ve been covering alkene and alkyne reactions (halogenation, epoxidation, dihydroxylation and others), while data structures II would’ve seen the introduction of Red-Black trees and AVL trees, which are self-balancing and mitigate the problem of where worse-case data insertion creates a linked list, which slows down searches. Better minds than mine might fare better in the unique combination that was data structures and organic chemistry: I came to a razor’s edge of failing both, and it was ultimately K-On! that helped me to regroup and survive.

  • It is for this reason that even a decade later, I still continue to watch anime of this sort: when times get difficult, losing myself in another world for 24 minutes helps me to regain perspective of things. Thus, when I watched Come With Me!!, I was immediately reminded of what K-On! meant to me personally. Towards the final act, Houkago Tea Time return to the main stage and pick up instruments, playing live in front of the audience. While perhaps without the same finesse as a professional musician, Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu nonetheless put on an admirable showing, and the songs they perform remain faithful to the originals.

  • Hisaka’s Pure Pure Heart first showed up in K-On!‘s second season in Tea Party. The band had no previous performance with this song, and a glance at the lyrics shows that it would’ve been Mio who wrote the lyrics. Mio’s lyrics are typically more wistful and poetic than Yui’s, more resembling those to a contemporary pop song, but there is a sincerity about them that most songs today lack. It is a little surprising that ten plus years have now elapsed since Houkago Tea Time’s songs were first written and performed – back then, I enjoyed them above the popular music of its time, and today, the music remains every bit as enjoyable as it was back then.

  • During the performance, the camera pulls back and gives a glimpse of the venue, along with the folks in attendance. The cameras show happy concert-goers of all walks of life, and their enthusiasm could be felt even from behind a monitor. Prior to the concert, local media interviewed some of the attendees, but an unscrupulous anime blog, which I will only identify by its orange triangle logo, took selected clips from this broadcast to make the assertion that the attendees were “creepy”. This site has long held a reputation for misrepresenting things and taking information out of context, and their “article” on Come With Me!! comes across as being a sour grapes response to the concert above all else.

  • Back in Come With Me!!, once Hisaka is done with Pure Pure Heart, the next song is U & I. This is probably one of my personal favourites in the series: Yui had written it after Ui had fallen ill while looking after her, and Yui quickly realised that appreciation became more pronounced when someone she’d taken for granted was (briefly) taken away. K-On! had, earlier that episode, also shown Houkago Tea Time realising how much their clubroom meant to them. When Yui sees the parallels, inspiration for her song comes almost immediately, and the result is a song that I found even more iconic than Fuwa Fuwa Time. U & I comes second only to Tenshi ni Fureta Yo!. This song was a graduation gift to Azusa, and of all the songs in K-On!, brims with three years’ worth of emotion.

  • It is no joke when I remark that Tenshi ni Fureta Yo! is the culmination of everything that K-On! represents. This one song contains all of the themes throughout the series, and it is therefore unsurprising that many regard it as the opus magnum for all of Houkago Tea Time’s songs. During Come With Me!!, Houkago Tea Time’s performance of the song evidently brought back a great many memories amongst the cast: Toyosaki and Hisaka are able to keep it together, but for Satō, emotion threatens to overwhelm her, and she very nearly breaks out crying when singing one of Ritsu’s lines during the song. Her voice audibly breaks for a moment, and this little detail alone made clear what Tenshi ni Fureta Yo! meant to not just Satō, but everyone on the cast, staff and the entire audience.

  • Tenshi ni Fureta Yo! is what ended up leading me to watch K-On!: the combination of Lucky☆Star driving my reignited interest in anime, and my happenstance coming across a K-On! parody of Gundam 00, and out of curiosity, I picked up all of the vocal songs. While I was unsuccessful in finding the song used in the parody, one song stood out far above the rest: Tenshi ni Fureta Yo!. After doing a search, I realised that it would be necessary to go through the whole of K-On! to see the proper context for this song, and so, in late March, after finishing Lucky☆Star, I began watching the series. I finished the series in early May, right as the summer research began, and during my days at the lab, I would build out my models while listening to K-On! music.

  • Towards the end of the concert, encore pieces are performed along with the second season’s opening and ending songs (Utauyo!! MIRACLE and No Thank You!): Fuwa Fuwa Time, Cagayake! GIRLS and Don’t Say Lazy make a return. Fuwa Fuwa Time is Houkago Tea Time’s first song, and for this, the cast play their instruments along with singing. For the remainder of the songs, it’s back to using a pre-recorded instrument track. The preparations that went into this would’ve been gruelling; while I’ve not touched an instrument for over a decade now, I still have memories of what it took to put on a performance as a member of the concert and jazz bands back in middle school. Come With Me!! is the culmination of Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki, Taketatsu, Sanada, Yonezawa, Nagata and Fujitō’s combined efforts, along with the musicians, choreographers and support staff.

  • For audiences, seeing iconic songs from their favourite show brought to life would’ve certainly been an incredible experience: for three hours and thirty-five minutes, it’s a full immersion into the world of K-On!, and while the home release is able to convey these feelings to viewers, there is no substitute for being there in person. For Japanese attendees, a drive, few train rides or perhaps accommodations at the hotels near Saitama Super Arena would’ve been all that was necessary to see this concert, but for overseas viewers, the only way to check this one out would’ve been to await the home release, which was six months later (in August 2011). I believe that by this time, I would’ve been well into my renal flow model and had begun investigating tricks for using collision masks to mimic semi-permeable membranes.

  • With all of the encore songs finished, everyone returns once more to sing the Sakura High School song – it does feel a bit like a graduation ceremony, even though the song was originally used to welcome new students during the opening of the second season. The way Come With Me!! is structured is logical and flows well, combining the different aspects of K-On! into a part concert, part stage play: it is a true-to-life K-On! experience, and fully brings the second season to a proper end. K-On! The Movie would not have gotten the same treatment, and despite overwhelmingly positive reception, would also mark the end of the animated series. The manga, on the other hand, continued running for an extra year as Yui and the others become university students, while Azusa inherits the light music club’s presidency and strives to make it as memorable for her juniors as Yui and the others had done for her.

  • Come With Me!! is the last song in the concert: everyone returns to the stage once more to sing together. While not exactly the strongest of the songs in K-On!, its lyrics do speak to the sort of carefree and inquisitive nature of everyone in K-On!. Once the final song comes to a close, everyone shares their final thoughts and thank yous with the thirty thousand plus viewers. It is an emotional close to the concert, and during the closing speeches, Taketatsu, Satō and Hisaka openly weep as they thank everyone for their continued support.

  • It is not lost on me that, three years after this concert took place, I would actually have the chance to participate in a similar event (albeit on a much smaller scale). This event was The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and my involvement here was leading the implementation of the Unity 3D visualisations that would accompany the project. In this way, my role in The Giant Walkthrough Brain would’ve been equivalent to the team that built the set and managed the audio-visual component of this performance. A part of The Giant Walkthrough Brain involved us developers walking out onto the stage as the credits rolled, and there was definitely a sense of pride to know that I helped to build something that hundreds of people would enjoy.

  • This is, at least for me, why I chose the path of iOS developer despite the fact that it’s fraught with difficulties and challenges (least of all, the fact that Swift itself changes every year, and things become deprecated all the time). To be able to work on products that hundreds to thousands of people use is a humbling thing, and in this sense, being able to gather all of my users into a one room and know that I helped make something easier for every single person I can see would be moving. Taketatsu begins crying during her speech: the cast had jokingly remarked that they’d do their best to keep it together, and while Toyosaki and Kotobuki are able to do keep smiling as they speak, Hisaka, Taketatsu and Satō’s emotions cause them to struggle in expressing how deep their gratitude is.

  • For me, seeing their tears was as effective of a thank you as any well-given speech, and I found myself feeling these same emotions. In a bit of irony, how each of Toyosaki, Hisaka, Satō, Kotobuki and Taketatsu ended up giving their thank yous mirrors their characters. Yui is someone who lives in the moment and is able to have fun without being distracted, while Tsumugi is ever composed and similarly lives in the moment, albeit with a sort of grace that Yui lacks. Ritsu would be more similar to Yui and Tsumugi in this regard, but she’s been known to have a more emotional side to her, as well. For Mio and Azusa, the most serious of the group, these two are always mindful of those around them.

  • How I came upon Come With Me!! is a bit of a simple story: shortly after finishing K-On!, I fell in love with the musical style and sincerity that the series’ music embodied, and took an interest to the character songs. Each album had the characters’ respective voice actress singing their songs, plus a version of Come With Me!!. While looking this up for Mio, I stumbled across the segment of Hisaka performing this song live in the Come With Me!! event, and ended up reading more about the concert. However, the three-hour-and-thirty-five-minute long runtime was admittedly daunting, and I never did get around to watching the concert in full until earlier this year. K-On! returned back into my life when I decided to revisit the K-On! mod for Left 4 Dead 2,, which led me to fall in love with Houkago Tea Time’s music anew. Realising that the ten-year anniversary to Come With Me!! was near, I decided to bite the bullet, buckle down and watch the concert in full.

  • The end result was a rediscovery of why K-On! had been so enjoyable for me, as well as what the series had done for getting me through a very difficult segment of my life as an undergraduate student. K-On! might have finished for the present, but its impact on slice-of-life anime cannot be overstated – 2014’s Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka? carries a very similar aesthetic and style, a love of sweets and life lessons, and similarly found immense popularity after its run. The series has hosted several concerts with music from the series, in the form of Tea Party Events. During the second season, the character song albums all featured the song Welcome!, which, similarly to Come With Me!!, features the characters singing a common song. In this way, GochiUsa is today’s K-On!, but unlike K-On!, whose popularity divided the community, GochiUsa is nearly universally acclaimed: once people acclimatised to the fact that K-On!-like shows were not here to dominate the market, but instead, complement it, reception to the genre and aesthetic thawed considerably.

  • Overall, Come With Me!! represents the apex of what is possible with K-On!, being an essential experience for anyone who counts themselves to be a fan of K-On!. Ten years after the live event at Saitama Super Arena, the memories continue to live on in the hearts of fans, and it is saying something that even now, K-On! still positively impacts fans and writers alike: messages of appreciation and gratitude make K-On! a particularly warm series, and Come With Me!! makes it abundantly clear that a considerable amount of effort went into making K-On! a success. This concert is something that I hope fans of the series will have a chance to check out, as it provides a different view of what this effort entails, and what the rewards for this effort are.

While Toyosaki and her K-On! co-stars were speaking about the impact K-On! had on each of their lives, I was sleeping and awaiting that day’s training at the karate club I’m a part of. At the time, I was deep into the winter term of my second undergraduate year: this term would prove to be the most difficult time I had faced in university, and I had been losing resolve. My peers fared little better, dropping out of data structures outright and resolving to take it again later. As organic chemistry and data structures became increasingly involved, I ended up dropping another course – because I had been intent on trying to maintain satisfactory performance in these programme requirements, I ended up neglecting one of my options entirely and wound up on the edge of failing. K-On! had been on my watch list for quite some time, and serendipitously, I had begun watching it right as April began, when it seemed that I would be suspended from my degree for unsatisfactory performance. The easygoing, heart-warming events of K-On! thus became something to look forwards to as each day drew to a close, and I ended up putting in my fullest efforts to stave off annihilation by day, watching K-On! every evening before turning in. Seeing the camaraderie in K-On! led me to accept a group-study invite from my friends in the health science programme, and I ended up helping to organise a study session for data structures so we could pass the exams together. By the time I finished K-On!, it was early May: thanks to the group study sessions, I ended up doing well enough on my exams to stay in satisfactory standing, and further learnt that I was offered an undergraduate scholarship to conduct summer research. I subsequently developed a keen enjoyment of the music in K-On!, and listened to the songs from all of their albums while implementing and testing my model of renal fluid flow in Objective-C. During Come with Me!!, the voice actresses spoke of people whose lives were transformed by their series. While Toyosaki and the others are highly unlikely to ever hear my own story of how K-On! changed my life, sharing this with readers is to demonstrate that K-On! did indeed have a tangible, positive impact on many people, including myself. The Come with Me!! concert served to reiterate this, and beyond being an indisputable success, also paved the way for K-On! The Movie, which acts as a sentimental, heart-warming and sincere finale to a series that would ultimately influence how slice-of-life shows of the present are adapted and presented to viewers.