When I spoke to Mari Okada back in 2018 about her directorial debut Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, she concluded our interview with a notion that has stayed with me ever since: “Even if, quite often, meetings lead to partings and pain, it’s still worth meeting people and experiencing life”. Those words will resonate with most people because we all share one sad similarity: at some point, we will all experience loss. How we respond to that pain is a unique experience, however, and is central to Mari Okada’s break-out anime: Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day.
Years after a tragic accident took her life, the spirit of the sweet and cheerful Meiko “Menma” Honma appears before Jinta, once the charismatic leader of their childhood friendship group the “Super Peace Busters”. Now, he’s a shut-in, and their social group has splintered. When he and Menma deduce that she can’t pass on to heaven until Jinta fulfils a long-forgotten wish for her, Jinta must reconnect with his now-estranged friends, who are still struggling with their grief in their own way.
As you can imagine from that brief synopsis, Anohana is an emotional series, and anyone who has seen Okada’s later work Maquia should expect the same cathartic sledgehammer that hits harder because of the delicacy of its swing. I often say that something is elevated to “art” the moment it makes me cry, so it should be a testament to Okada’s skill in capturing that raw humanity in her writing that both Anohana and Maquia never fail to leave me in tears, no matter how many times I rewatch them. That’s because Okada’s success comes not from tragic twists (although there are definitely a couple of gut-punchers here), but through the slow, careful process of allowing us to understand each complex character as if their feelings were our own.
Even if it may not be evident when we first meet them, guilt over Menma’s death possesses everyone. For example, when we first meet Atsumu “Yukiatsu” Matsuyuki in the present, he’s an elitist prick, to be frank. He’s condescending and meets the claims of Menma’s reappearance with mocking hostility. However, as more of his vulnerabilities bubble to the surface, it gradually becomes clear that he’s one of the more tragic characters in the series. He is largely alone, though, and seeing how even people who appear cheerful on the outside are still suffering inside, is an eye-opening experience.
Anohana deserves praise not just for its portrayal of the different ways grief manifests in the cast, but also for its bravery in acknowledging that even the most decent of people can be torn up by feelings too ugly to admit. It’s when these feelings overflow, through the tears of its talented cast like Haruka Tomatsu (playing the trendy Naruko “Anaru” Anjo), that the series reaches its frankly unmatched emotional peaks. The real strength of this series was more than just creating a complex story for me, however. Seeing all these different reactions to loss led me to look back at my own grief, and whether my response is what my loved ones would have wanted. I’ve always tried to keep their memory alive, but seeing Menma chastise Jinta for visiting her parents and giving them “unnecessary” reminders of her, made me wonder whether I was doing what my departed loved ones would want. There’s no way for me to know, of course, but it’s a testament to Anohana that it can make me ask such personal questions.
While Anohana as a whole is about a group of friends, its heart is undoubtedly the tragic relationship between Jinta and Menma. The two are wonderful together, clearly comfortable in each other’s presence, and with a charming dynamic that can feel like a parent concerned for their innocent, energetic child (and we all know a couple that’s pretty much that). Each time I smiled at a precious interaction that wouldn’t be out of place in a fluffy slice-of-life series, however, that smile would fade as I remembered the reality that they too, are aware of. The bond shared by Jinta and Menma really is like the series itself: beautiful, yet painful.
While most of the acclaim for Anohana and similar titles is drawn towards the undoubtedly talented Mari Okada, the work of director Tatsuyuki Nagai cannot be understated, with subtle framing decisions that help us to understand a character’s worldview. An effective example of this is how Menma can be invisible to the viewer if the perspective shifts to a character who cannot see her, so we can see how bizarre some of Jinta’s actions must seem to other characters. The third and final member of what would become the “Super Peace Busters” creative collective is responsible for another heart-tugging aspect of Anohana: character designer and animation director Masayoshi Tanaka. While she’s mysteriously physically aged to be on a par with her friends, Menma retains a childlike innocence and energy, such as excitedly joining the others in a “hunt for Menma” despite being Menma herself. This definitely makes it more painful to remember that something so tragic happened to someone so sweet and pure.
Produced in 2011 by A-1 Pictures (Erased, Sword Art Online), Anohana is a visual wonder that not only wouldn’t look out of place next to more recent titles, but would still surpass many of them. One thing my Mum always points out about anime is how expressive eyes can be, and there’s no better example than Anohana. The haunting vacancy on the face of Menma’s mother says more than any words could, while the fragile shimmering of eyes and the flow of their tears is more than enough to move my own.
However, while the character animation is top-notch, it’s not uncommon for characters to have less detail in wider shots and at certain moments it does become especially noticeable; I found a key fireworks sequence to not look quite as impressive as it deserved to be. One other niggle is that the menus for this Blu-ray incorrectly state Disc 2 as being “Disc 1”, which is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Anohana propelled Mari Okada to the limelight and is so fondly remembered that the Super Peace Busters took their name from it. It’s a delicately written yet powerfully resonant series that feels like an emotional cleanse that will get your tears flowing, yet will leave you feeling at peace after. It’s such a shame it took so long for this series to arrive on our shores, but now that it has, you won’t want to miss out.
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day is available now on Blu-ray from MVM Films.