An original anime scripted by the award-winning Mari Okada (Toradora, Fractale), AnoHana: The Flower We Saw That Day is a drama dealing in the supernatural. The tale centers on Jinta “Jintan” Yadomi, a thoroughly unmotivated young man. Once a cheerful extrovert that always took the lead among his small group of childhood friends, he grew up into a reclusive shut-in that doesn’t even go to school while his friends have grown apart from each other and especially from him. The catalyst for it all was the untimely accidental death of one of their inner circle, Meiko Honma, during one of the group’s outings in the countryside years ago. However, Jinta’s passive existence is disrupted when he’s haunted by none other than the spirit of Meiko herself. Meiko posits that there’s a wish of hers that has to be fulfilled if she’s to finally pass on in peace, though she isn’t sure what it is. What she is certain of is that Jinta needs to get the old gang back together, and at her prodding Jinta slowly but inexorably reconnects with his old comrades as he tries to get them on board to help him find a way to resolve Meiko’s dilemma and help her achieve nirvana.
The subject matter here is heavy and the show doesn’t pull its punches; this is a series about five young people coping with what went on that tragic day and the ensuing fallout, and the healing process is anything but easy as we see that Jinta isn’t the only one that’s grown up carrying emotional baggage. Jinta’s seemingly happy-go-lucky, world-traveling friend “Poppo” is in fact burdened by repressed feelings of guilt while Jinta has a foil in Yukiatsu, now an elite student that smugly maligns him at every opportunity until Jinta’s assertions about Menma turn his condescension into outright hostility as old pain over the loss of his one-time crush manifests in surprising ways. Then there are the two girls, Anaru and Chiriko. Anaru looked up to Menma but was also jealous of her relationship with Jinta, and on top of those lingering and conflicting feelings from the past she has a major problem going along with what two of her unsavory school friends do to keep up appearances. Constantly at Yukiatsu’s side is the reserved Chiriko, who harbors feelings for him but despairs that she can never win against Menma’s memory. To put it mildly this is a tangled web of issues for a group of teenagers to deal with, particularly for a group that’s grown to have such disparate personalities.
I can easily imagine a situation where, in lesser hands, Meiko’s presence would have been a series-defining gimmick and perhaps a tool for comic relief, as seems to be the case very early on as Jinta is disabused of the belief that her presence is a matter of him hallucinating. But fortunately, AnoHana has a different and better purpose. She has grown up like Jinta and the others but still possesses the same childlike personality that she had when she died, and so she brings an innocent and kind honesty as she prods Jinta to get out of his funk, or complains when the teens aren’t getting along. In this you could say she’s a foil to the entire group, a would-be guide to parts of themselves that they’ve lost sight of. Because she is a spirit Menma’s influence is indirect though, particularly in the earlier episodes where Jinta is humored at best and no one is taking his claims seriously. Ultimately it’s up to them to put differences and petty things aside, and eventually to let defenses down and truly come clean with each other.
If this all sounds like complicated melodrama that’s because it is, and it goes into overdrive in the final episodes as everything is resolved and no small amount of tears are shed along the way as the prospect of Menma’s nirvana looms. But to its credit, AnoHana reveals and develops the thoughts and feelings of its characters gradually and subtly until a final breaking point, avoiding the mistake of treating overwrought loud outbursts as something synonymous with good drama. In the end AnoHana is a show about working through pain, and it succeeds at what it tries thanks to a lack of reliance on well-worn clichés that begets the sincerity of its narrative.