Also called “Looking Up at the Half-Moon”: a fine title that I should have used for one of my stories
This 6 episode drama OAV aspires to be, and should have been a quiet, believable short story about the struggles and joys of two hospital patients. The unsynthesized and unpretentious opening song (a wonderful song, by Nobuko) promises as much, and at its best, the show fulfilled that promise. But more often than not, it preferred soap opera histrionics and out-of-place humor to realistic character-driven action. I see a story that, in the hands of more skillful writers, could have become a genuinely affecting tale without being melodramatic–the way Honey and Clover was at its best. But the most I could feel in the final episode was “oh. It’s over. Wonderful.” And that, unfortunately, is pretty much a death blow for a show of this kind.
The main reason why this show failed to make me empathize with its characters–especially its blank slate protagonist Yuiichi–is because, at root, the situations and characters’ actions aren’t believable. Believability, situational and especially psychological believability, is essential in contemporary drama shows, and the way it happens is when the conflicts and situations arise naturally out of who the characters are. Honey and Clover excelled though the situations were occasionally over-the-top (which wasn’t often), because they got the little details right: the little excuses, the indecisive mental back-and-forth, the slow healing of the heart. I was saying so often when watching it, “Yes. I’ve felt EXACTLY that way before,” even if I didn’t go through the same exact situation myself. The writers of H&C had uncanny insight into the minds of their characters, and all their situations and crises arose from believably human hearts. (The finest example is the second season episode about Morita-pere’s traitorous friend, which is one of the best dramatic episodes in anime, ever.)
In Hantsuki, we aren’t given nearly as in-depth portraits of Yuiichi and Rika, the principals. Yuiichi is a standard anime romance hero, and Rika a standard tsundere type with a taste for literature; the other two principal characters, the nurse and the doctors, can also easily fit into stereotypical slots. From this unpromising foundation, we are then asked to believe that the protagonist, who is hospitalized with Hepatitis A, is supposed to be confined to bed but is able to sneak out of his room on a regular basis, with only one overbearing nurse to try to stop him. He is never shown in hospital clothes; he is unsupervised most of the time, and rarely is he shown as actually, well, sick enough to require extended hospital stays. Later, Rika and Yuiichi are shown escaping into an empty surgery ward, with Rika holding a scapel! What kind of hospital is this? And these are not incidental details–the entire plot, especially the romance with the terminally ill Rika, hinges on him and her having this freedom of movement that no good hospital would ever allow seriously ill patients. In an even minimally realistic setting, Yuiichi wouldn’t be able to have this relationship with Rika.
And let’s not mention the abusive Nurse Akiko and Dr Natsume, who are given to physical violence on their patients when the plot deems it dramatic. They would have been reported and lost their medical licenses years ago. Or the boys in zebra masks who always show up just in time to save the day and to beat up whatever obstacle lies in Yuiichi’s path–at the hospital, no less, where security is unbelievably lax. These elements don’t seem to come smoothly in the story, either. Conflicts and scenes sometimes seem to pop out of almost nowhere, like one late-series sexual affair. Attempts to flesh out characters with backstory feel like either afterthoughts (Rika’s family history), or contrived attempts to draw strained parallel situations (Dr Natsume’s story).
I get the impression that the writers see the hospital setting as being incidental to the story, because what the story wants to focus on is the budding romance between Yuiichi and Rika. The hospital is primarily there to present a series of obstacles to that romance–the nurse, the doctor, Rika’s illness, Rika’s mom, etc. I constantly got the impression that the physical abuse, sudden faints, and Zebra-masked men appearances were manufactured to generate conflict that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
The best moments in the show are when Yuiichi and Rika are simply spending time together, rather than emoting about their problems; there is especially a quiet lyricism when they read Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galatic Railroad and other books together that was genuinely touching and evocative. The final moments of the show, too, have a sincerity and warmth that many anime romances lack, and the ending sidestepped what could have been a cliched soap-operatic resolution. I also really like the title of the show, a fine and fittiing symbol of unfulfilled promise and beauty. The writers could have beat our heads with it, but chose to use the image only in the theme song, on Natsume’s lighter, and at the end. That’s how you do literary symbols: make them weighty enough to be meaningful and light enough to almost pass unnoticed.
This series seems to have had modest ambitions at best, and it could have used its modesty to be a sharp, tightly focused story. But it seems to be confused in what it wants to accomplish. Does it want to be a heartrending drama? A comedy about a boy and a tsunderekko? A quiet, poetic romance? It works best when it’s the last, but the other two things constantly get in the way. It’s telling, I think, that I had to go back and look up the names of the characters, but I still keep humming and listening to the theme song over and over again. The theme song, a gentle, poetic, and evocative lyric with a driving melody, encapsulates the show’s virtues and points to what, had the writers better focus, the series might have been.