You know how Hanayamata ends. You probably know how the majority of the individual episodes end as well. Cliche is both the strongest and weakest thing that Hanayamata has going for it, because on the one hand you can be safe in the knowledge that the quintet of girls will make it through with smiles on their faces and fireworks in their eyes and that everything will be all right. On the other hand though, there’s not a lot else going on. It’s a solid, visually arresting but cacophonous twelve episode series that starts with trepidation and ends with a dance number.
It’s set in Kamakura though which, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of going there, is one of those places where you can travel in a rickshaw and see horse archery and a bronze buddha statue all in an afternoon. Setting Hanayamata there gifts it with a kind of ethereal magic that the first episode, with its pint-sized dancing blonde girl, captures brilliantly, making it seem that a school club for yosakoi isn’t so outlandish.
For once this isn’t a tea drinking, cake eating, lackadaisical club that uses its cast member’s quirks and personalities as a crutch to carry it through everyday scenes and conversations. The club members dance, and sew, and compose, and choreograph with enough vigour and determination that the sense of this being a massive creative undertaking is palpable.
The core of the series though is the interpersonal dramas with the first two, then three, then four, then five members of the club. The opening alone gives the game away as to who is going to be a member, and were that not the case, the paucity of other eligible cast members would do the same job. The issue with this then is that with foreknowledge of who will be in the club, how they join becomes all the more important, and it’s this aspect that sees the series diverge from its iridescent, glittering visuals.
The first two members are Hana, the previously mentioned diminutive blonde girl, and Naru who Wikipedia reliably informs me reads fairy tales and practices iaido; two facts that are entirely forgotten about by the time the second episode rolls around. Hana plays the role of the half-Japanese manic pixie remarkably well and it’s clear as day that Naru’s initially withdrawn and mousy personality is going to be teased out and changed through dancing with Hana. The third member is Yaya who, despite being Naru’s longtime childhood friend, is introduced as the overbearing, obnoxiously jealous sister, who sees Hana’s introduction into Naru’s life as detrimental to her wellbeing.
Yaya isn’t the only character to be insufferable prior to join the yosakoi club, however it highlights the disjoint between the high fructose, technicolour presentation with its underlying message of enjoy your youth! - and the initially unlikable nature of some of the cast members. It’s understandable of course given that these are middle school students - and adolescent girls to boot - so a degree of emotional fractiousness is understandable and somewhat expected. The difference between the two extremes though, the highs of heartfelt saccharine feelings and the lows of tearful teen drama makes the series undulate and break out of that iyashkei sense of “everyone is lovely, puppies and rainbows”.
That doesn’t make the narrative any less predictable. As soon as Yaya’s band enters a competition you know how it’s going to turn out because the alternative would be she wouldn’t be dancing in the opening. In the same vein you know what the teacher, charmingly nicknamed “Sally-sensei”, is really doing when a rumour of her leaving is revealed. The story follows the same path laid down by innumerable series before it to the point that the majority of its story is spent gathering members and becoming a “real” club rather than just wallowing in the day-to-day lives of its members. It doesn’t make the series any less enjoyable, only that it lives entirely within the shadow of its peers which is no bad thing, especially when it looks this good.
The character designs are a little peculiar, specifically when compared to the generic manga source material, but Kamakura itself is captured in bright, glittering glory with every scene drenched in colour and charm. Sure it’s all soft focus, rose tinted escapades of youth but it works for the subject matter, to the point where in the final scene as the fireworks explode in the sky and the girls dance in that long awaited event, it’s difficult not to feel your heart swell with joy. Or with the abundance of pure, refined and distilled sugar that series revels in.
The same can’t really be said for the vocals which is an aspect I very rarely spend any time concerned with. Here though, there are scenes when all five girls crowd together, chittering away, that the series feels like its trapped in a swarm of disgruntled sparrows. So piercing is the chirruping of Hana, Naru, Yaya, Tami and Machi that it’s a relief to just bathe in the quiet of an episode’s conclusion. I shouldn’t really have expected anything else really given how the opening starts with that cloyingly twee “Paato, paato”...
In the end, Hanayamata is a by-the-numbers, school club series. Please complete the following form to continue. Activity: yosakoi. Group count: five. All girl? Check. Cherry blossoms in bloom? Check. Approved! Your tribulations are: reticent club members, a wayward supervisor and missing the entry date for an event. Please queue over there until you’re called to the stage.
Don’t misunderstand, I had fun with the series and despite its predictability, sporadic noisiness and strange predilection for introducing useless plot points (Hana’s cold et. al.); it has the right sense of life affirming, youthful exuberance to carry it through and it sits very firmly in the “cute girls doing cute things” category of entertainment. It’s by no means a landmark series and it stoically refuse to innovate or experiment, but as a genre piece it ticks all the right boxes.