When I first read about it, Hanasaku Iroha appeared to be just another "slice of life" (I use that term in quotes because I detest it) anime about a very specialized service industry in Japan: a small town hot spring (or onsen) hotel. The character designs looked cute enough though, and that's usually all I need to give something a chance, and so I did.
What I got with actually watching Hanasaku Iroha was something much different, and about 150Xs better than I could have imagined. It was a total character piece first, and an onsen hotel show second. I loved every last player in the series, even the ones that appeared ultra-bitchy in the beginning (and there were a few).
What's Hanasaku Iroha about, you ask? It might help if I told you that I suppose... Don't get high and mighty on me now though — that was only one good suggestion, and I was going to get to it soon myself. Put your ego in check, bucko. Hanasaku Iroha is mainly about a 16 year-old girl from Tokyo (one Ohana Matsumae) who is forced to move in with her never-met-before grandmother out in the mountain sticks of Japan (at a hotel that granny owns and runs) after Ohana's mother (flighty as she is) runs off with her boyfriend-of-the-hour in order to help him evade his debts. So Ohana goes out to grandma's Kissuiso Hot Springs Inn, is forced to earn her keep by becoming a waitress/maid, and has to learn to deal with a bunch of bizarre and complex coworkers and guests in order to keep from going crazy herself, all the while she's trying to sort out what her friend back in the big city (who happens to be a boy) named Ko actually means to her. Ohana also has to try and figure out what "family" truly is despite being forced to take care of her mother when she lived with her, and after becoming nothing but an employee to her grandmother in her new situation, and never really knowing any real stability in her life.
Unlike most (shitty) "slice of life" shows out there, Hanasaku Iroha actually has an overarching plot that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And by the time the end comes around the characters have all changed so much that you will hardly recognize them anymore. This is a good thing. The choices each person makes have lasting repercussions and they have to deal with things said and done in a real world (and business) environment that is hardly ever captured on screen. This is one of the most genuine and realistically tangible shows I've seen in a long time, and that ending... Just absolutely fan-fucking-tastic! The whole last few episodes that build up to that finale were brilliant, and made me root for the entire cast... But the very last episode was just warm-smile-inducingly sweet. It's one of the best farewell episodes of anything I've ever seen. It's the kind of episode that you always wish your favorite show will be able to pull out as a last hurrah. To me — although they're all in different genres — Hanasaku Iroha's ending ranks up there with the fulfilling closings of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Gunbuster, Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann, and Macross Frontier. Truly. Well, except a whote lot less actiony of course. I don't say words like that on a whim.
So let's go back to characters and why they're so awesome. So, Ohana is very upbeat and pleasant to hang out with, but she's far from perfect. Yeah, she's able to jump right into her grandmother's order to work long and hard hours to earn her keep, and she's quite easy to befriend, but she's prone to stress induced moments of weakness, she's worried about what she wants to do with her life, and she's scared of commitment (after seeing how her mother has treated others all her life, and finally after being abandoned by her ma when she chooses a pathetically in-debt loser over her own daughter). This leaves the good guy Ko (childhood friend of Ohana, and the only person to ever state [and more importantly SHOW her] that he loves her) in the cold though when she doesn't give him an answer to his confession and just lets him run away from her while she stews in her own inadequacies in an empty playground.
Ko though isn't a pathetic puke that most anime high school love interests prove to be, and he never gives up on Ohana. His urge to prove his worth to her (even though she's a half-a-day's train ride away from him now) creates a very important dynamic between Ohana and himself, and although he's not seen much during the hustle and bustle of the typical inn-based episodes, Ko's and Ohana's relationship is the most important one after that of the three generations of ladies in Ohana's immediate family.
Which brings us to Ohana's mother (Satsuki) and her grandmother (Sui). They put the "fun" in "beyond fucking dysfunctional" so much so that they'd make Archie Bunker blush. Satsuki is a totally irresponsible cunt in the first episode, but then when we meet Sui in her element (as master of the hot spring inn) we find her to be a total bitch too, but only because she's TOO much into the rules and the idea of tough love. The whole family's ongoing head-butting as the series continues and evolves is beautiful to behold. And yes, even though Satsuki runs out on her daughter, and Sui pimp slaps her before the first episode is up, they grow on you before the final credits roll.
As for the rest of the crew (the other waitresses/maids, the cooks, the wimpy uncle, the wimpy uncle's overpowering college friend, the daughter of a competing hot springs resort in town, etc.), they're all awesome in their own ways, and all of them are just normal people and not hammy caricatures of certain overplayed archetypes. Each of their reasons for doing what they're doing and the choices they've made (and continue to make) help to drive Ohana in her plight over what to do with her life, and how to treat her friends and family even when they make it extreeeeeeeemely difficult to deal with them all the time.
This show was simply fantastic. It's got a strong cast of characters, a setting I've never really seen before, and a plot that continuously moves forward and leads up to an ending that you will applaud, even if it's not how you thought or originally hoped it would end.
Though I have one question after watching it the whole way through: Do the Japanese believe that hugging a loved one will kill both parties involved? Is everybody in Japan an unfeeling robot? Seriously, Japan, you're the country that invented tentacle sex, but even at the most heart-wrenching moments of your most dramatic shows NONE of the characters ever do anything more than bow to each other — they never fucking hug even though the whole WORLD is dying to see a granddaughter and grandmother embrace just once before everything's over. What the goddamn fuck?
This was a really sweet show. And I know just what the main character was going through with that boy toy of hers, that Ko guy. It took me a good 10 years to figure out that my Kiffie-poo was the one for me, unlike all of those other backstabbing, cheating, philandering, scummy, dickless assholes who kept putting their hoo-ha in other people's hoo-dillies when they thought I was out of town, or thought I was too controlling or too pushy by telling them how often they could call their mommies or mess up my bathroom! That's alright, I got the last laugh, and I won my Kiff-dumpling in the end.... Hmmm, maybe for maximum happiness we'll start up a bed and breakfast inn of our own in the mountains and hire a bunch of wacky, yet lovable misfits to run it with us! What could go wrong?
Oh, oh GOD no! Please no! No more crazy plans like a B&B, or starting up a roller rink, or building a karaoke place in rural Georgia, or trying our hand at a sushi restaurant because of something the woman saw on TV! Oh God, let it end... Please make her stop! I can't keep switching careers like this! We're broke too, you know! We hit the red about 5 years ago, but she somehow keeps getting loans to keep creating these insane businesses! Who the hell keeps loaning her the money? The mafia? Are we going to either owe the Don a hit or two to get out of this? Will we be sleeping with the fishes if we don't? Oh God... How much does it cost to change your name and start a new life in Acapulco?... Just for one? How much just for one?