It takes a lot for anime to make me cry, though my weaknesses show in funny ways. Nearly every One Piece arc gets me by the end, but sit me in front of Tokyo Godfathers, and I won’t shed a tear. I often scoff at the shows the anime community hold sacred for inciting feels — like Clannad or Re:ZERO — due to other problems bogging them down.
I’m weird like that.
When I signed up for All Geeks Considered’s Anime Secret Santa, I was given an opportunity to watch another one of those shows. One that I had heard so many rave about in college and online. One that I assured everyone that I would get to eventually.
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day is a surprisingly poignant series that explores the nature of mourning, the power of remembrance, and their importance when we experience loss. It was created by the artist collective Super Peace Busters, which is comprised of director Tatsuyuki Nagai, writer Mari Okada, and character designer Masayoshi Tanaka.
A-1 Pictures released it in 2011 during an anime season that kept it under the radar for me. Steins;Gate was also airing, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica was tailing behind from the previous season. While I’m nine years late to the party, it was well worth getting around to.
Jinta Yadomi is bothered by his friend Meiko Honma; she appeared one day and won’t go away. And yet she is also gone for good, having been dead for nearly five years. Jinta is being haunted, and he’s not the only one. His friends all carry baggage from the day Meiko died after falling into a river.
Once inseparable, these friends have since drifted apart, believing they had something to do with Meiko’s death. They all feel blame and carry wounds on the inside. When Jinta claims that she is still with them and has a wish to be granted before she can pass on, they begin working towards understanding their grief and finding a way to move on.
Anohana is a coming-of-age story with a small cast, but damn, does it take its time fleshing out each character within its breezy, if irregular, 11 episodes. Along with Jinta and Meiko is Naruko, who has made new friends but still harbors feelings for Jinta after all these years. There’s also Atsumu and Chiriko, who both attend a prestigious school and are largely dismissive of Meiko’s return. Finally, there’s jolly and worldly Tetsudo who dropped out of school and took to world hopping.
The friends respond to Meiko’s supposed return with varying degrees of belief and doubt, but whether they believe or not doesn’t matter so much as how they’re affected by her death. Each character experiences their grief in different ways that come across as believable and rooted in how people respond to real-life events like these.
They lie to themselves, make rationalizations, and feel lost before reaching out to each other. It’s only together that they can make sense of why Meiko’s death still hurts so much. Mistakes are made and words are badly chosen. It is here that Anohana shines the most as it understands how ugly grief can be. We hurt those who try to help and sink deeper into despair, but the series reminds its viewers that mourning is a group effort, and you are never alone. It is only through grieving together that healing can begin.
This is all rendered gorgeously by A-1 Pictures, who, with Nagai directing, brings the setting of Chichibu, Saitama to life. A-1 usually pulls off a fine looking anime, but with Nagai’s experience on Toradora! and A Certain Scientific Railgun, he was able to perfect his skills in capturing the beauty of city settings and the nuance of conveying complex character emotions. For a series with so many sad characters, it pays to have someone at the helm who can make that sadness feel real.
An anime of this caliber leaves me with very little to gripe about, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one bump that came up, even if it is a minor spoiler. One character reveals themselves to be cross-dressing as Meiko to feel like she’s still around. The other characters view this as something particularly aberrant and resulting only from their sadness.
Of everything I expected from this series, I didn’t think they would pull a Norman Bates from Psycho and characterize a person’s cross-dressing as the result of trauma. It’s a brief moment, but it left a sour taste in my mouth during what would’ve otherwise been a nigh-perfect anime.
I credit this heavily to Okada, a Chichibu native herself. While she really does put her all into the characters and setting, she has a weakness for writing LGBT characters. I wouldn’t have zeroed in on this so hard if it wasn’t a reoccurring problem. Okada was also the head writer of Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which has similar troubling LGBT representation in small corners that brings it down.
It’s disappointing, but her writing is still overall good here, and the way she portrays her hometown of Chichibu with love shines brightly. She’s a tremendously talented writer despite this fault, and Anohana one of her best works.
In the end, I found myself asking the question I ask every time I watch a show like this — will it make me cry? Surprisingly, it was close. I tend to relate to stories about friends the most, maybe because I had so little growing up, and I cherish friendships like family today. Since those friendless days, I have lost people I love, but I have gained more than I could’ve ever hoped.
Anohana teaches many of the lessons I learned from those experiences. Loss can hurt. It can be random. It can be cruel. But it is what you have left afterward that matters the most. Anohana shows us that grieving is natural and necessary and that it is better to let it all out than suffer in silence.
This is a universal anime, a story for all, and crying is a universal response.