The past is never dead. It’s not even past. —William Faulkner
They are still children, really: teenagers, dealing with a different set of problems, but young enough that early childhood still looms large in their minds. So much so that it is embodied, so to speak, in the ghost of a girl in a white one-piece dress. The way the characters in this fine series see, and don’t see, her and the past she represents is as varied and real as anything in slice-of-life anime today.
You can tell from the title on downward, We Still Don’t Know the Name of the Flower We Saw On That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai). The flower has yet to be revealed in the flashbacks but, especially given the staff pedigree, it won’t be surprising to find that it will function like Honey and Clover’s clover: a symbol of a different time, treasured in memory but never to be found again by the sadder, older, and wiser characters. And flowers aren’t the only things that have been lost in the years since Menma died: hairpins, Pokemon-like video games, ramen brands, friendships…Some of them are found again, and the old gang is trying to get back together, only to find that everyone has changed, and not always for the better.
And yet. Menma is still hanging around, having changed little in personality and maturity since the day she died, accompanying Jintan like both a bad conscience and a taunt: he will never be over her because she is as real to him as ever. That is what it means to be haunted, to have the past be so real that it’s still present. It’s like that painful twinge one feels when a particularly embarrassing or traumatic memory returns; for a few seconds, it’s like you’re reliving it all over again. For Jintan, it’s as if his entire life has become like that moment.
Ano Hana strikes me as being a gentler variation of the kind of show Welcome to the NHK was: slices of broken life for multiple characters, not just Jintan—he may not be the most damaged individual if what we learned in Episodes 4-5 are any indication. It is less bitter/cynical than NHK, perhaps because these teenage characters are still unformed compared to NHK’s young adults, and thus still have reasons to hope. (Imagine what the Jintan/Menma relationship might have been like in the hands of more twisted writers!) It also uses some more traditional forms, like the standard ghost story plot in which the spirit has unfinished business on earth, and Menma herself as a standard genki moe loli to a certain extent. To the point where I found her annoying, initially, though it’s still unclear where the spirit begins and the projection ends.
It’s hard to see how many more surprises can come from this story, really; but in any well-told, character-oriented tale, the plot twists are far less important than watching characters change in believable and heartfelt ways. Oddly enough, we’ve seen more character nuance from Anaru and Yukiatsu than from Jintan and Menma so far; however, the whole cast is balanced in ways that prevent the show from becoming both too angst-ridden (Poppo helps a lot here) and too lightweight (something that may be happening to Hanasaku Iroha thus far). Good ensemble writing is hard, and so far, the crew that helped adapt successful shows of just that type in Honey and Clover and Toradora are proving themselves worthy thus far in this original production. At this point in time, it’s my favorite show of the season.
“Why does everyone love melodrama so bloody much?” 5camp asked today in relation to this show. A possible answer to that question in “The Slice of Life Age, Part 2: The Hinge Years,” coming tomorrow.