Okay, that title is only gonna get typed out once. From here on, this show is getting called Ano Hi. I’m somewhat attached to my fingers, and don’t really want to lose them from trying to type that full title out repeatedly. Also, I don’t speak Japanese, so it makes it a bit harder.
Really should learn Japanese at some point.
Anyway, Ano Hi is a 2011, 11 episode series from A-1 Pictures, written by Mari Okada (Fate/Stay Night) and directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai (Iron Blooded Orphans). Unlike either of those shows, Ano Hi is a very quiet story, with no real action to speak of, but a hell of an emotional arc.
Briefly, the story revolves around a high school student named Jintan, who has become a recluse. He doesn’t go to school, and pretty much never leaves the house. Some years ago, he was very close to five friends, but after his mother, and one of the friends passed away, he withdrew from the world, and life in general.
That ends when the ghost of Menma, the friend who dies, appears and begins pestering him to fulfill her wish. She can’t remember what it is, but thinks if he gets the old gang back together, they can all figure it out. Reluctantly, Jintan begins to do this, but their former friends have changed as they grew older.
Anjo, once shy, has become one of the school “mean girls”. Matsuyuki has become an aloof and almost sadistic snob. Tsurumi has become cold and analytical. Poppo has become a traveling vagabond drop out, seeing the world, and living in the moment.
At first, some of them think Jintan has finally snapped, and play along with what they believe is a delusion on his part, while others lash out at him for playing games with Menma’s memory. Slowly, they all begin to realize that Jintan isn’t joking, and somehow, Menma is with them once more. As they struggle to understand this, and find a way to fulfill her wish, so she can move on, all their buried secrets, emotions, and desires begin to come to the surface, threatening to tear them apart once more.
Ano Hi is very much a coming of age story, with a heavy focus on grief and forgiveness, not just of others, but of the self. Each of the friends feels that Menam’s death was their fault, and have had their attitudes and views towards the others, and life in general, deeply affected by the regret they feel. Each of them wants to be forgiven by the others, but over time, have come to believe it so impossible, they bury their pain as deep as they can, thinking themselves unforgivable. As it all begins to come out, the self loathing and emotional torment brings each of them to face the past, and each other in a new way.
However, Ano Hi is not tragedy porn. It is a show full of hope, forgiveness, and self reflection that leads to a brighter future. These things take sacrifice to reach, and Ano Hi doesn’t shy away from that, making each of the characters difficult journey forward believable, realistic, and relatable.
As a protagonist, Jintan is a fairly interesting character. He initially believes the ghost of Menma to be a hallucination brought on by his grief and loss, and only slowly comes to terms with her reality. Even then, he struggles with what is right, frequently torn between giving Menma what she needs, and pursuing his own desires. Namely, to stay with Menma forever, even if she is a ghost. This struggle continues right to the very end.
The rest of the cast is superbly fleshed out, with each of them having traveled the road they have in life for reasons that make sense. Anju simply wants to be accepted, by who doesn’t matter, while Poppo and his travels are just an excuse to run away from his pain. Matsuyki cannot let go of the past and directs his self hatred at others, while Tsurumi has shut her self off from feeling to escape her own self recrimination. Nobody is a perfect character in all this, and each of them has to come to terms with their own failings.
Menma is probably the most interesting character over all, however. While she appears older than she was when she died, she still retains a very child like personality, which hides her true intentions and the real reason she was unable to move on. It’s glimpsed in brief moments that she is not as child like as she pretends, and knows her friends well enough, even now, to manipulate them towards the goal she wishes them to reach. More importantly, she does so knowing the outcome from the start, and races towards it without hesitation, for the good of her friends.
Let’s be honest. We all wish we had friends like that, willing to reach across death itself to hold us when we needed it most.
Which is where Ano Hi really shines. As a story that revolves around emotions, it isn’t afraid to pace itself, and pack an emotional wallop at just the right moments. It has a lot of little high point, but the big moments genuinely feel big, and hurt like the dickens. Mostly because each character is so easily relatable, and quick to form a connection with for the viewer. Even Matsuyki, whose initial asshole behavior quickly becomes obvious as a raging scream for help.
In terms of animation, there’s nothing super special here. It’s pretty enough to look at, and does have a few really gorgeous backgrounds, but overall, it’s just good solid animation. There’s never really a need for it to be spectacular, however, so solid is plenty good enough. The character designs are the same, really. Solid, but not anything incredibly new, which is also fine. Probably Poppo is the most interesting character design of them all, as he genuinely has a bohemian look to him.
There is a bit of mild fan service here and there, as well, which is the biggest black mark I’m going to give Ano Hi. It always comes across feeling forced, never like a natural aspect of the moment or scene. It’s pretty obviously intended to be fan service, and while it never delves into actual nudity, or even anything really crass, it does still manage to be obvious, and seems shoe horned in. Probably somebody over the animators heads thinking it might help dvd sales or something, since the rest of the time, the female characters are treated with the same dignity and respect as the male cast members.
The overall writing is handled well by Okada, with the real reason behind Memna’s return, and the true purpose of her wish, being obvious enough to the viewer, but not something that spoils the ride. Watching the characters come to understand her desires is where the real story takes place, and it is a solidly written tale of love, acceptance, and forgiveness in the face of tremendous grief and self loathing.
As far as direction goes, Nagai delivers a steady hand to the camera, always being mindful of what needs to be the highlight of a scene. It isn’t any kind of earth shattering direction or anything, but it’s good. He knows when and where to focus the camera, and when the heart of your story is an emotional tale, that makes all the difference in the world.
The music, done by Remedios, is heart touching and warm, if nothing to run out and order the soundtrack for. The opening and ending themes are a different matter entirely. Aoi Shiori, the opening theme, from Galileo Galilei is a beautiful and touching piece of music that brings a lot of upbeat sensations, even as it prepares you for the more somber moments of the story. The closing theme, The Thing You Gave me, from Ai Kayano, Haruka Tomatsu, and Saori Hayami is just one of the best closing themes I’ve ever heard. Really, it’s amazing, beautiful, profound, and moving.
Actually, the closing theme is Secret Base ~ The Thing You Gave Me~ (10 years after version), and is a cover of a 2001 single by Zone. So, Zone deserves some credit here as well for having crafted such an amazing and beautiful piece of music. It’s one of those songs that really stays with you.
Finally, and most importantly, this is a show for all those who have lost someone, and never got to say goodbye. It is a love letter to the friends, family, and loved ones who departed our lives far too soon, and suddenly. It’s the fantasy desire to see them once more, to say goodbye, and to know we were loved by them, as much as we loved them.
In that, Ano Hi is truly beautiful.