Review for Hanasaku Iroha ~ Blossoms for Tomorrow Volume 1 - Premium Edition
Would you believe that there was a time when I thought that all this legal online streaming of anime was an exercise doomed to failure? Sure enough when Crunchyroll stepped out of the shadows, ditched the fansubs, and delivered the first few legal streams, I tuned in, eager to jump on a new technology bandwagon, and determined to see everything that they had. When that amounted to about six shows, that was more than possible. Of course today, the inevitable has happened, anime distributors have finally cottoned on to the fact that this is how fans wish to view anime, and Crunchyroll is well on the way to achieving their goal of streaming every new anime that gets released, and where they fail, companies like Viz’ Neon Alley, Funimation.com, Hulu, Daisuki, Wakanim, and Animax, not to mention the humble Youtube are willing to pick up the slack. Everything is streamed these days, and anyone wishing to watch it all is on a fool’s errand.
In between the first glow of Crunchyroll a few years back, and the universal streaming that we have today, there was a period where companies were still tentative about letting their shows out into the digital domain. They were wary about Crunchyroll, and at first they only let their lesser titles be streamed, or the odd back catalogue title. It’s at this time that I stepped away from online streaming, certain that it was heading for a dead end, unwilling to watch yet another heavily censored, disposable, forgettable fan-service show of the week. It took a couple of years before I was tempted back to try online streaming, and that only when positive reviews of the content outweighed the negative. I was confronted with more anime streams than I could possibly handle, so I decided to pick one back catalogue show that had been getting rave reviews and marathon that, watching two episodes a day, and depending on that show, I might deign to try online streaming again. Today I have every site legally streaming to the UK in my bookmarks, and make sure to catch at least five or six of the more tantalising shows each season. The show that I picked that finally convinced me that online streaming was here to stay was this, Hanasaku Iroha.
Ohana Matsumae pretty much has her life figured out. She’s the responsible one in her family, her mother Satsuki is the irresponsible one, and she’s learned from an early age and her mother’s example that she can only rely on herself. Still, she’s bright and optimistic, and faces the challenges that life throws at her with enthusiasm. She has no idea of just how irresponsible her mother can be. Satsuki’s boyfriend has got into debt, and her boyfriend has given her address as his own. The bailiffs are looming, and Satsuki decides to flee to another country, as that is the romantic thing to do. Having a sixteen year old daughter tagging along isn’t romantic, so Ohana will have to move to the country and live with her grandmother instead. And this would be the day that her best friend Ko decides to confess his love for her.
The thing is that that her mother and her grandmother are estranged, and the last thing that her grandmother wants or needs is her irresponsible daughter’s progeny being dumped in her lap, especially when she has to run the Kissuiso hot springs inn. Ohana doesn’t get a warm welcome at all; instead she gets a bucket and a mop, and told to work for a living as an attendant at the inn. Kissuiso is an old fashioned place that puts the customer first, and Ohana has a lot to learn about the hospitality industry. With a stinging introduction to her grandmother, a fellow attendant who’s too shy to talk to her, and a roommate that keeps on telling her to die at every opportunity, even Ohana Matsumae’s enthusiasm may start to wilt.
The first 13 episodes of Hanasaku Iroha are presented in this Premium Edition collection, on both Blu-ray and DVD. I’m reviewing the Blu-ray portion of this release. Note that this Blu-ray is coded Region A, and isn’t designed to work in UK players. However, when the disc locks up in my Panasonic player, pressing Top Menu takes you to the main menu screen, where all playback functions are accessible. This is no guarantee that it works in all Region B players though.
1. 16 Years Old, Spring, Still a Bud
2. Vengeance Shall Be a Meal
3. Hot Vit Lon
4. Grey Heron Rhapsody
5. A Tearful Chef Romance
6. Nothing Venture, Nothing Win
7. All Quiet on the Kissui Front
8. Start Running
9. The Longest Day at Kissuiso
10. Slight Fever
11. Bark at the Night
12. “See Ya”
13. The Women of Shijima (Broken Heart MIX)
Hanasaku Iroha gets a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p resolution, and NIS do good work! HanaIro is a PA Works production, their 10th Anniversary release, and they are a studio that is renowned for the quality, and the sheer gorgeousness of their animation. They’ve collaborated on Moribito, and have been responsible for the Professor Layton movie, Canaan, Another, Angel Beats, and if you wander over to Crunchyroll, you’ll still be able to catch a glimpse of this show, and the more recent Eccentric Family and Nagi no Asukara. They are a company that deserve the best possible presentation when it comes to home video release and NIS America do this show justice by delivering an exquisite transfer.
The image is clear and sharp throughout, the attractive character designs come across without issue, the animation is smooth and unsullied by any form of artefacting, there isn’t even any of the digital banding that can afflict HD anime. Hanasaku Iroha impresses with the quality of the character designs, the magical use of colour to establish a mood and enrich the atmosphere, and the level of detail and realism in the backgrounds and world designs, edges ever closer to photo realism without ever stopping being anime. The Kissuiso Inn itself is a wonderful piece of architecture, and it comes to life on Blu-ray.
The images in this review are taken from the DVD component of the release, and don’t represent the Blu-ray transfer.
Hanasaku Iroha is a subtitle only release from NIS, the sole audio track is a PCM 2.0 Stereo Japanese track encoded at 1.5 Mbps. It is loud! I have to nudge my volume down to two-thirds of its normal setting to avoid disturbing the neighbours. It’s also clear, and presents the show’s dialogue, music and effects to crystal clear effect. HanaIro is a show that is most noteworthy for its music, although the prevalence of nano.RIPE in the soundtrack may be a marmite proposition for some. For me the music is perfect, and really elevates and enhances the magical visuals. The actors are perfectly cast for the roles, and give memorable performances. The subtitles are presented in a discreet white font with black borders, easy to read in all conditions. They are timed accurately and free of typographical errors. On screen text is selectively translated to provide plot specific information without overwhelming the screen with irrelevant text, although there are instances where you may be left wondering what some Japanese text actually means, irrelevant though it may be.
Note that the subtitles are listed on the packaging as locked during playback, and there is no option for the subtitles on the main menu, but you can turn them off directly via your remote during playback.
This is the Premium Edition release from NIS America of Hanasaku Iroha Part 1, although from the lack of on-disc extras, you might wonder just what is premium about it. Certainly the DVD discs of the show also included warrant a double play status at most. Once you see the packaging though, all such qualms will be forgotten.
HanaIro comes is a big, thick chipboard artbox, one which you will have difficulty finding shelf space for. It actually houses the two DVD sized thinpack cases for the discs side by side face up, not next to each other with the spines adjacent as you might expect. This certainly allows for some gorgeous artwork front and rear of the box, with the disc specs on one edge. Dimensions are 276 x 199 x 24 mm. This lets the thinpack cases exhibit even more art from the show with episode listings and disc specs at the rear with screengrabs. There is no inner sleeve art, and each case holds a Blu-ray disc on one face, and the DVD disc on the other.
The reason behind the big box becomes clear in the real extra with this set, the artbook, volume 1. It’s a hardcover, landscape oriented, beautiful addition to the set, 36 pages in length, and full of character profiles, location information, staff interviews and loads of gorgeous art to devour. For once a physical extra by far outweighs anything that could be put on disc, and taking the packaging and the book into account, makes the premium pricing for this release seem like a bargain indeed.
The extras are on disc 2, and amount to the textless opening and four textless closing sequences, 11 minutes of unsubtitled Japanese trailers for the show, and NIS trailers for Natsume’s Book of Friends Season 3, Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl, and Umineko When They Cry.
Note that you also get the show on Region 1 DVD, which presents the show in DD 2.0 Stereo Japanese, and with a 1.78:1 anamorphic progressive NTSC transfer. The subtitles are a little large on screen, especially in comparison to the Blu-ray, but generally the discs show off the show to the best of the format’s ability, fine if you don’t yet have a Blu-ray player. The content is simply repeated on the DVDs, albeit with a 7-6 episode split.
It will probably come as no surprise that I love Hanasaku Iroha. After all, I did shell out for the Premium Edition releases, complete with Blu-rays that may or may not have worked in my player. It is one of my favourite shows in recent years, although explaining just why may be a little difficult. It is after all categorised as a slice-of-life show. That catch-all descriptive for those anime which presents a set of characters, and follows them through the mundane realities of everyday life, relying on the strength of the characterisations, the writing, the sense of humour, and the quality of the animation itself to make it interesting. Incidentally Hanasaku Iroha excels in all these areas, but the closest analogue in terms of live action would be soap opera, and given Hanasaku Iroha’s tale of day to day life at a hot springs inn, the point of reference UK viewers might be thinking of would be Crossroads. It is the production values, characterisations, humour and writing that elevates the show beyond just a mere soap opera though, and it is really an unfair analogy to make.
As the creators mention in the interviews in the book, Hanasaku Iroha really is a show about work. In this case it’s the devotion and care that goes into running an inn, the sense of satisfaction that comes in making a customer’s experience memorable, and the sacrifices that need to be made for work, which in some cases can even mean sacrificing a conventional family life. Not that Ohana’s family life is all that conventional to begin with. Satsuki left home after becoming tired of always being second place to the inn, a rift that developed with her mother following her father’s death that led to their estrangement. The irony is that in her own way, she repeats that error with her own daughter, as Ohana has had to grow up self-reliant and independent when she’s constantly let down by her flighty mother, who as a freelance journalist is always working on the next big story.
So when her mother leaves her in the lurch once again, sending her away from Tokyo, and her best friend /possible boyfriend Ko, Ohana briefly entertains the idea that she might finally have a normal family life with her grandmother. She’s quickly disabused of that notion when she arrives at the inn, finding a place that is quite naturally centred on work, where she’ll have to work herself to keep a roof over her head, and where the customer always comes before the employee. There’s the obvious initial friction that comes when grandmother and granddaughter first meet, coloured by both of their experiences with Satsuki, but Ohana finds that her self-reliance and work ethic, honed running the family home comes in useful working at the inn, although that independent streak also turns out to be a handicap as well, in an environment where teamwork is essential.
It’s all about the characters in a show like this, and the characterisations in Hanasaku Iroha are delightful, considered and interesting, most having their own storylines that develop through the series. Ohana is the catalyst of course, the outspoken, brash, enthusiastic and optimistic girl who gives everything her all, but who also has a sensitive side that is affected by often insignificant things, and occasionally has a tendency to brood. There is a triumvirate of similarly aged girls that form, initially awkwardly around her at the inn. Nako is another attendant, who is first put in charge of getting Ohana acquainted with the job, but she’s shy and soft spoken, she actually took the job to overcome her shyness, and she’s initially overwhelmed by Ohana’s personality. Minko on the other hand is anything but shy, although communication isn’t one of her hot skills. She works as a kitchen hand, hoping to become a chef, and Ohana’s first act is to annoy her, something she continues to do off and on, prompting a vociferous “Die!” from Minko. Slowly a friendship forms between the three.
Ohana’s Grandmother Sui runs the inn, inherited it from her late husband, and has a commitment to old-fashioned values of customer service and traditional style hospitality, something that the repeat customers appreciate. Her son, Enishi on the other hand is all for modernisation, and with the aid of business consultant Tatsuki, is always coming up with some new hare-brained scheme to try. In the kitchen, alongside Minko are chef’s apprentice Tohru, who Minko idolises, and who remains oblivious to that, continuing to train her with a harsh and unforgiving demeanour. His own education comes from head chef Renji, a traditional man’s man, a man of few words and efficient actions, but who can occasionally be unexpectedly flustered. The head attendant is Tomoe, who’s beginning to feel middle age approach, and while still feeling one of the girls, happy to gossip, can also feel the weight of her own mother’s demands for a grandchild.
Then there is Beans, the old caretaker who’s been at the inn as long as it has existed, and whose responsibility it is to keep the boilers working. Another man of few words, he still manages to impart sage advice and insight. Finally there is the eternal guest, Jiromaru, who starts the story as the famous author in residence, working hard on his next masterpiece. It turns out that he’s anything but, actually a novice trying to write erotic fiction, with the attendants as inspiration. He’s pretty soon put to work as well around the inn to earn his keep, although the Manager decides to put some faith in his belief that he will attain his dream.
The series itself is really presented as episodic hits of comedy and drama, following the staff of Kissuiso in their everyday lives, with the occasional emphasis on one of the side characters, but mostly keeping Ohana as the central focus. There are ongoing storylines that are developed, but most episodes stand alone as well. The first few episodes introduce the inn and the characters and set up the relationships between them. Ohana’s initial disdain at working at the inn where no one seems to like her begins to be overcome when she convinces Minko to stop simply dismissing her, and Nako to try and engage with her, by cooking them the food they hate the most. You get to learn more about Minko and Nako’s personalities when Nako tries coming up with a nickname for Ohana although not in the same way as she did for Minko (Minchi). When Ohana convinces Minchi that it isn’t nice to tell someone to die, she devotes as much thought in coming up with another suitably offensive insult.
We get a wider look at the area in episode 4 when Ohana starts school, and meets the heiress to the rival Fukuya Inn, Yuina Wakura, an easy-going and carefree princess type, who has little interest in inheriting her grandmother’s legacy. We also learn of the local Bonbori festival which will begin to play a greater part as the series progresses, especially into Part 2. Of course Minchi’s infatuation with Tohru plays a part in the story, especially when it seems that Tohru’s been poached by the rival inn, and also threatens to undermine her shaky friendship with Ohana when it becomes clear that Tohru’s attracted to her. Of course everyone at Kissuiso except Tohru knows about Minchi’s feelings for him. The reason why Enishi’s faith in the management consultant seems so constant if misplaced, becomes clear when it turns out that the inn isn’t doing so well. Takako shows up; apparently regularly with a new scheme to get the inn back on its feet, and in episode six she has the idea of changing the attendants’ uniforms. She’s very much a business school graduate type, the kind who reinforces her confidence with random and often meaningless English phrases.
There’s a panic when the Manager falls ill, and it’s left to the staff to carry on in her absence. It’s here that we see that the initially reluctant Ohana has truly fallen in love with the inn, and has even taken on some of her grandmother’s attitude to running the business. This also starts a thread that runs to the end of this collection, that of a magazine doing a story on the local inns, and their hope in getting a good review. In the end that review is less than favourable, but the reveal of who the author is has Ohana running off to Tokyo in arms. There’s the ongoing confusion about Ohana’s feelings for Ko, an eventual reconciliation with her mother, a delightful episode centred on Ohana falling ill for a day, and getting worried about whether the inn can carry on without her, and then getting even more worried that it can carry on without her.
Hanasaku Iroha is a show replete with delightful moments. It’s not particularly a show where you tune in for the big picture. It’s a show that you simply revel in spending 20-odd minutes in the presence of such engaging characters. The animation is sublime, capturing the characters with ease, the look of the show is heavenly, rich in colour and detail, brought out to spectacular effect on Blu-ray, the music is just perfect for the show. Every aspect of the series is just perfect for me, a show that I can watch, and re-watch time and again. In that respect, it’s very much like K-On, another slice of life show which may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of things when it comes to narrative, but means everything when it comes to characterisation.