Watson Watches: AnoHana

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Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first three episodes of AnoHana.

This article is the third of its series – the first and second (Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh and Watson Watches: Kuroshitsuji can be found here and here). As usual, Watson knew nothing about the anime before watching other than the title, and the following questions were given to him to answer afterwards.

Please note that there are minor spoilers ahead.

Did the reveal of Menma actually being dead during the first episode come as a surprise to you, or had you pegged onto this fact before it was established that only Jinta could see her?

Right from the start it was pretty clear that there was something odd about her. Her character art seemed distinctively different, and the fact she didn’t have a reflection was a pretty big hint. There were only so many likely explanations for something like that, even in a fictional setting, and the first one that came to mind was that she was dead. So yeah, I had a pretty good idea of the situation before it was revealed.

One point that’s been discussed in AnoHana is whether Menma is a ‘real’ ghost/spirit, or whether she’s a manifestation of Jinta’s (and later, other characters’) unresolved emotional issues. Which side of the fence are you on?

I’ve only watched a few episodes so I’m undecided on that point, but I tend to go with the latter. The main reason for that is that other characters claim to have seen Memna when she was with Jinta. But when they talked about it, she seemed as surprised as anyone else. It seems unlikely she could be in several places at once and not know about it, so that makes me think that whatever they’re seeing is private to them.

If you had to guess, what do you think Menma’s wish is, and do you think this is actually the key to her spirit ‘moving on’?

It feels a little strange to be imputing motivations to something I’ve just tentatively concluded was a manifestation of unresolved emotional issues, but here goes.

It’s possible that her wish is for her friends to ‘move on’ from her death – this would have a pleasing symmetry with Menma herself moving on, and allow for some interesting character-driven stories where they each have to come to terms with whatever role they played in her death. That would be nice, but I don’t think it’s what the creators of the show have in mind.

What I think is going to be revealed is that Menma wants her friends to be friends again after they drifted apart following her death. There’s nothing wrong with this idea either, although I think it’s a little less satisfying and a little more formulaic than the first. Sure, I could be wrong. The thing is though that the anime I’ve seen – not a long list, admittedly – has a tendency to go for quite formulaic stories, so I suspect this will be another in that mould.

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An aspect of AnoHana that’s been consistently praised by the viewers has been its realistic portrayal of the characters and their relationships with each other – particularly on a psychological level. Does AnoHana strike you as being convincing in this way? Is there any particular character that you think is portrayed especially realistically?

The few episodes I’ve seen have mainly followed Jinta, so it’s a bit hard to judge the other characters fairly. The more we see of a character the more we know about them, assuming the writers are doing their job, and Jinta is getting the lion’s share of the screen time so of course he seems the most developed of all of them.

Because of that, I don’t really feel that I’m in a position to judge which – if any – have a particularly realistic psychological portrayal. Most of them seem plausible though; we probably all know or have known someone like each of the characters in the anime. Apart from Jinta, I think Anjou/Anaru seems to be quite well-developed. It would be nice to learn a bit more about her and what she thinks/feels, especially since she seems to be trying to deny something (or maybe several somethings).

But you know who I really think deserves more attention? Jinta’s father, Atsushi. There’s a guy battling on every day in a difficult situation. His wife is dead, his son is a reclusive shut-in who has some severe issues (possibly including hallucinations), and although we don’t hear about it, all this has to have had an effect on him. But despite all that he still manages to stay cheerful and kind around Jinta, never judging him, and gently nudging him towards taking part in the world of people once more. He might not understand what Jinta is going through and he has his own sadnesses to bear. Yet he keeps on loving him and supporting him in his efforts to come to terms with… well, whatever it is. If there was any justice in the world he’d get an episode all to himself. As it is, I think he’s destined to remain in the background unappreciated. And that’s a damn shame.

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However, much of the drama in AnoHana has also been criticised by viewers as being cheap or overly theatrical – particularly because of just how often people break down and cry. What are your thoughts on this?

Generally speaking I’m a bit reluctant to give anyone a hard time over their emotional reactions. And if the creators thought that these were the right emotions for the characters to have then I’m also reluctant to second-guess them.

On the other hand, I do think the characters are coming apart a bit too easily. It’s clearly been some time since the events that lead to Menma’s death, perhaps as much as a decade. And while emotional wounds don’t necessarily heal over that period, I think it gets easier to examine them with some emotional distance. The fact that basically all the characters had found a way of carrying on, and then come completely unglued as soon as someone mentions her name, does seem hard to believe (although on the other other hand, they are all teenagers in the show. Making broad statements about what their emotional reactions would be is probably profoundly unwise…).

In fact, I think this relates to the point about being overly theatrical in general, and I would have to say I think there’s a fair bit of truth in it. Menma herself acts in an irritatingly childish fashion quite a bit. It could perhaps be reasonable in her case, but she’s far from the only one. Pretty much anything, right down to questions like “Can I have some ramen?”, can trigger an emotional response in the major characters that is often out of keeping with the context it occurs in. Excessive joy, anger, enthusiasm, sadness, etc. – I’m sure you can think of examples yourself. It doesn’t wreck the show, and it certainly gets the point across that they’re pretty wound up about things, but it does sort of cheapen the effectiveness of such displays when they can be produced so readily.

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Were you personally emotionally affected by the show to any significant extent?

Yes, I was. I don’t propose to go into much detail here, but I think there will be a lot of people who have experienced trying to cope with ongoing remorse or sadness about some event(s). Those people will probably see some things in AnoHana that will seem quite familiar from their own actions or thoughts. Or if not, at least they’ll be able to sympathise with characters who did end up acting or thinking that way.

Unlike the two previous shows I had you watch (Azumanga Daioh and Kuroshitsuji), the AnoHana anime was not based on a manga – in fact, it was the other way around, with the anime being televised in 2011 and a manga series beginning publication almost exactly a year later; something of a rarity. Do you think this is a good thing?

Jumping straight in with my massive ignorance of both anime and manga, I’m going to say that it is a good thing.

Working from an already-established conceptual base has its advantages. The themes and ‘feeling’ of the work are already set out for you, the main characters and their relationships are already in place, and although you might not simply retell the same stories, you begin with a good idea of what sorts of stories will fit best. There’s also a pre-existing community of fans who will engage with what you do and foster discussion, which seems like an in-built marketing advantage.

But this can also be a double-edged sword. Everyone interprets things their own way, and if you stray too far from what these fans have decided is ‘the way things should be’ then they can turn on you in a heartbeat. You’re also more or less stuck with the ideas and so on that have already been introduced in the source material. This can be pretty confining.

On balance, I think that coming up with a new creative property is the best way to go about it. If you have something to say, you can probably say it best as a new creation, without being tied to something that already has its own life.

And finally, as always – would you watch more of AnoHana? How about the anime film (an epilogue set one year after the conclusion of the series)?

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I would probably watch more of the series – at least a few more episodes, to see where it’s going. As for the film however, I’m less enthusiastic about that. I rather feel that if the series manages to come to a conclusion of any sort then there’s not much to be gained by revisiting any of the characters. Their issues might have stayed resolved, in which case there’s not much to say about them. Or they might have not stayed resolved, meaning that the series did not actually achieve anything and they have to go through the whole process again (in a 2-hour movie, with no guarantee that it’ll stick this time either).

A third possibility is that some new element is introduced to create the conflict that will have to drive the story, but I just can’t see how this could be done without making a mockery of the whole thing. Another group starts seeing spirits and the Super Peace Busters have to help them? It turns out that Menma was actually killed deliberately for some reason, and the Super Peace Busters must discover the truth? A year later all the main characters are at each other’s throats again for some entirely unrelated reason?

I suppose if I watch all the way to the end of AnoHana I might see something that cries out for an epilogue, but at this stage it’s not apparent what that could be. Whether that means it’s not real or this is just a manifestation of my emotional issues… well, I’ll let the audience decide.

Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions, and do you have any other questions for him? (As per usual, Watson himself will reply directly to anything aimed at him.)

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15 thoughts on “Watson Watches: AnoHana

  1. I’m struck by Watson’s comment about anime being formulaic. Not that I’m saying it isn’t, but I remember what initially drew me to anime as a young teenager was how the stories weren’t formulaic compared to, say, Hollywood films, or at least the formula itself struck me as somehow more innovative. Now I’m wondering if that early attraction to anime was born out of ignorance of what other forms of media could do…? (Never mind me, just rambling!)

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    • The formula might be different to those used by Hollywood, but I think there still is one. Or possibly more, depending on the genre of the anime in question… but I digress. In any event, watch more than a couple of shows in the same genre and I think you’ll see some similarities cropping up.
      The thing that has struck me in watching these anime for Artemis is how much of their content seems aimed at those who are already informed about the medium. There’s a large reservoir of prior knowledge available for the creators to tap into if they want to take shortcuts in terms of characterisation, plot elements, setting, or whatever. And taking advantage of that often leads to the result seeming… well, formulaic. They can be perfectly good shows, mind you, but they’re not all that accessible to newcomers and they’re not going to break the mold.
      It takes a degree of creativity and determination to do so in any medium, and I don’t know enough to say whether anime is better or worse in this respect. But it’s possible in any media, and I suspect you can tell the masters of their art by the way in which they manage to do that.

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  2. SPOILERS AHEAD!
    This is in reaction to Watson’s comments about the emotions expressed by the characters in this anime. Now, don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge that there are some parts where the emotion is ridiculously over the top (for example, in the fourth image shown on this post… I was rolling my eyes the whole time. Also, at the end where it felt like they were really dragging out Menma leaving- although I still cried heaps).

    However, I think that the reason the characters were coming apart a ‘bit too easily’ is because they HAVE NOT found a way of ‘carrying on’. Watson’s comments are understandable, as he has only seen a few episodes of this and hasn’t got to the chunk of character development. Looking at Yukiatsu, for example, when he poses as Menma, is a definite sign that he has not found a way to carry on. I think that all of the friends are so hung up on Menma’s death, because of the emotion-fuelled day that it occurred on (yes, emotion-fuelled in a child’s way, but more than enough to leave a lasting impression), that it isn’t surprising that her name brings them to tears, and they are unable to distance themselves.

    Secondly, on the point of Menma acting childish. I believe that she is simply this way because she is dead. If you believe that Menma is a result of Jintan’s stress, then you can understand that he can’t imagine her beyond what she was like as a child. It is probably easy to base her appearance on how she looked as a child (face it, there’s not much difference between her child and teenage self, and she continues to wear a very similar white dress), but emotion and personality are harder to predict. Therefore, she retains all of her childish characteristics. If you believe that Menma is actually dead, and as returned to fulfil her wish, then you can also understand that she wouldn’t have developed in terms of personality and behaviour beyond the age she died, because she has not been apart of the living world since then. Either way, it’s no surprise that she has next to no character development (how can she develop when she’s dead and her ‘purpose’ in the anime is to move on) and the way she acts throughout the whole anime.

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    • Menma is the character whose childishness was most understandable. I was already willing to give her a pass on this, precisely for the reasons you mention. I’m surprised to learn she has no character development in the entire anime – she’s a major character, after all, and this seems like an awfully big missed opportunity – but it’s not at all surprising that there haven’t been any changes between her death and her sudden reappearance.

      It seems less excusable in the case of the other characters, however. With the arguable exception of Jintan, ALL of them have gone on to do other things: overachieve at school, travel the world, hang out with the ‘wrong’ kind of girls, whatever. And children in general are pretty good at coping with emotion-fuelled trauma.
      I do not assert that the ways in which they have coped are all healthy or productive ones, and I think it’s absolutely accurate that all of them have a hefty set of unresolved ‘issues’ relating to that day. But by the same token they have also all managed to get to the state we find them in at the beginning of the story, and if that’s simply because they choose not to think about Menma – well, that might not be the ideal way of coping, but it is A Way. To have it all suddenly collapse seems a bit unlikely.

      Still, as you say, perhaps I just haven’t got to the part of the anime that makes it all clear.

      “If these shadows have offended,
      Think but this and all is mended;
      That you did but slumber here,
      While these visions did appear.”

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      • Thanks for the reply 🙂
        I agree that they are quite childish, but I still think they haven’t really found a way to cope, considering how easily they do come apart. I think it all collapses so easily because they ARE forced to think of Menma again, and they are forced to think about that day again, and all that happened on it. Although they have matured, I don’t think any of them have really ‘moved on’ from that day.

        I’d also love to hear your opinions after you’ve watched the whole thing, if you do decide to do so 🙂

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        • I did watch a few more episodes after writing this, but I gave up after 6 I believe. I found that the emotional drama was becoming increasingly over-wrought. Also, for an entity I have tentatively assigned as a mental projection, Menma can be quite a manipulative little so-and-so. Every time she wanted Jintan to do something it was “Ooh, perhaps THIS is why Menma is here!”.
          Yeah, sure thing; I’ll just bet it is. Let me get right on that for you.
          I could buy a certain amount of uncertainty on the point, but it started to become pretty transparently overused.

          I’ll admit to still being a bit curious about what Menma is doing there and how her presence gets resolved, but not enough to sit through the rest of the episodes.

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          • Ah yeah, there were a couple of moments where Menma really seemed to be like that, but I think in the end she was really genuine and just wanted Jintan to move on (or he wanted himself to move on? Depends on how you interpret what exactly Menma is).

            Fair enough, it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I liked it, but I can also understand why a lot of people wouldn’t.

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  3. Watson, I highly suggest finishing this one because it’s short and consise, and since I think the characters in this one are better taken as a whole (as opposed to the characters in Kuroshitsuji and Azumanga Daioh where you can judge them relatively quickly). Also, since the original story was in anime form and therefore contained well, you can judge the overall plot a little more easily than you could with an anime based on an ongoing manga that has not reached a conclusion yet. Endings–good or bad–are a big part of many anime stories, especially with something like AnoHana.

    I have a long and varied past of getting emotionally involved in anime and manga even if it is following an obvious formula or even if I know the quality is quite terrible, but AnoHana was nice in that I could get the emotional punch without dedicating a ton of time to bonding with the characters first or sitting through a major save-the-world plot, and the production quality meant I didn’t have to constantly look past poor budget animation or anything like that. That said, once I finished it–and was left rather shocked by how short it was as I had gotten really wrapped up in it by the end–I had no desire to rewatch it or see the movie. If anything, what is leftover now is an enjoyable little emotional twinge when I happen to see the characters somewhere. For this series it’s not individual scenes that stay with me, but my reactions to the characters themselves and how I felt for them while watching it. I don’t think I could even recall the sequence of events now if I tried. ^^;

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    • Well, I might think about picking it up again then. I got through 6 episodes, and generally I feel that if a show hasn’t grabbed me by the half-way point then it’s not likely to in the remaining episodes either. But if the ending is where it all pays off for AnoHana then it might be worth trudging through the rest.
      I can’t help feeling this isn’t much of an endorsement for the show, however. If you have to watch the entire series before you find something that makes it all worthwhile, only the really dedicated are likely to stick with it.

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      • I’ll give you that much, for sure. ^_^ It wasn’t one of my favorites ever, but if a series is short enough I figure it’s sometimes worth giving it the benefit of the doubt and just letting it finish what it’s there to do. However, with many longer anime, you quite often hear people describe their favorites as having slow starts but getting great as it goes on. I have said the same about many of my favorites, but I certainly didn’t stick with a lot of ones my friends insisted on that had this trait.

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  4. Just finished watching this series. I was willing to peg this as a decent show, if not really for me, but the overacted/melodramatic/cliche finish I got was exactly what I wasn’t hoping for. It’s a by the books J-drama with supernatural stuff thrown in, that’s all.

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