Don’t stop, Jinta — let us know how you really feel.
Beautiful animation, a solid soundtrack, and a premise full of heart propelled Ano Hana out of the gates from the very start. But like fireworks, Ano Hana’s brilliance quickly faded into the night. The first half of the episodes graced us with the following stories (this is, however, not an exhaustive list — it’s merely what I want to highlight):
• Jinta has been a hikikomori ever since both his mother and childhood friend passed away years ago. Jinta’s father has since taken a hands-off approach to his son’s lingering trauma. Jinta’s relationship with his friends are strained. As each day passes, it becomes increasingly harder and harder to attend school.
• Anjou went through a radical change in her appearance ever since Menma died. Her hair color has changed and she no longer dons a pair of glasses. Worst of all, an unfortunate encounter outside a love hotel has the entire school spreading tawdry tales behind Anjou’s back. She also loves Jinta, but it is unrequited. She feels as though Jinta abandoned her after Menma’s death.
• Yukiatsu harbors a deep and dark inferiority complex to his former friend Jinta. Even though they have broken off all contact, Yukiatsu continues to strive in a one-sided competition against Jinta. His jealousy of Jinta is so strong, it manifests in a need to cross-dress as his former friend Menma. Unbeknownst to him, Yukiatsu’s closest friend Tsuruko is in love with him.
Tsuruko and Poppo ably played supporting roles in these episodes. Tsuruko acted as a vituperative catalyst for both Yukiatsu and Anjou. Poppo, on the other hand, provided levity to a story that could sometimes bog itself down in a miasma of despair. Unfortunately, as the series continued, these stories all became subservient to the thinnest character in the entire story: Menma.
As far as we know, Menma was a cheerful girl who died young. Even after death, however, she remained upbeat and positive. She was a bit protective of her mother, but other than that, Menma’s character was as one-dimensional as they come despite the fact that everyone’s problems revolved around her. Did Yukiatsu’s cross-dressing ever truly vex Menma? She wanted everyone in the gang to get along but like Jinta, Menma seemed blissfully unaware how she’s the source of Yukiatsu’s resentment and Anjou’s sadness. It’s rather strange how little Menma had to confront in the anime despite the fact that she was the source of the conflict in the story.
Despite these issues, Menma quickly became the focus of the anime — the focus of Jinta’s love and Yukiatsu’s subsequent jealousy, the focus of Anjou’s jealousy and, somehow, even Poppo’s guilt. Indeed, the one friend in the group who had little to say all series long suddenly sobbed as hard as the rest of them. It is as if the creators decided that everyone should suffer and contrived a woefully underdeveloped guilt for Poppo.
Anyway, as the anime shifted gradually toward Menma and the Frankensteinian love polygon that followed, so many deserving plot threads simply disappeared. Jinta’s awkward relationship with his father quietly resolved itself when the two visited his mother’s grave. Even worse, Jinta’s uneasiness in re-attending school was simply forgotten.
Jinta’s abject insensitivity to his friends’ troubles was never even criticized, addressed, or resolved. Early in the finale, Jinta finally learns of the pain both Yukiatsu and Anjou carry in their hearts. He had been oblivious to their troubles in a mindless pursuit of Menma’s final wish, but nothing ever comes of this. In the end, Yukiatsu even puts an arm across Jinta’s shoulders as if everything is okay now. As for Anjou’s unrequited love for him, we, again, get an empty gesture in the ending montage.
Finally, it is curious how Menma’s death and Jinta’s mother’s death were portrayed in the anime. Early on, the anime told us how difficult it was for the younger Jinta to cope with his mother’s illness. He refused to talk to his mother at the hospital, running away literally and figuratively. This story, like many other stories in the anime, then never received its moment of catharsis. Jinta ended up shedding more tears over the death of his childhood friend Menma than his own mother’s. Jinta never fully came to term with how his mother’s death affected him, but we definitely know how he felt about Menma. It’s thus not hard to feel as though his mother’s death was simply a plot device for Menma’s longheld promise.
Anjou’s dramatic change in appearance was never even an issue in the anime, apparently. Tsuruko makes a couple sharp remarks here and there but the anime really thought it wasn’t worth devoting any time to. This is a girl who feels compelled to wear fake eyelashes, but this was only brought up for cheap laughs in the finale. Similarly, aside from a couple of eye-rolling moments to milk a contrived sense of heroism out of Jinta, Anjou love hotel rumors were also quickly swept under the rug.
Finally, Yukiatsu is a character simmering with rage all season long. He has always felt inferior to Jinta. Even now, as he attends the top school in the neighborhood, Yukiatsu continues to harbor a deep grudge toward his hikikomori friend. His coveting ran so deep that he even cross-dressed as Menma so that he can feel as though he possesses her and Jinta doesn’t. After this shocking revelation, however, the anime broached the topic only to make a few lame cross-dressing jokes. It’s as if Yukiatsu was healthy all along as his rage suddenly disappeared in the final episode for a conveniently saccharine reunion of old buddies.
In the end, everything the anime built up quickly crumbled away. To put it bluntly, Ano Hana wussed out. It crafted a plethora of compelling stories, but refused to give these stories their due. It is afraid to take chances and engage its characters’ humanity seriously. The interpersonal relationships in the anime are thus cheap caricatures of reality so that we can tie a neat, little bow at the end of the anime.