Mari Okada being everywhere and writing everything these days compels me to revisit one of her most beloved works in AnoHana: The Flower We Saw That Day, which had me discussing it with a couple of people and watching the epilogue + recap movie for the first time. One thing lead to another, and here I am writing this to express my thoughts on the show’s script work, what’s great (character design, themes) and not so great (plotting, composition) about it, and my hypothetical re-working of it just to see how the great pieces it had could be better utilized to their utmost potential.
In addition to the OP+ED (both of which are excellent fit to the show), the before-after image below is my favorite thing from AnoHana. A quick look at the teen cast alone won’t really suggest something more than your garden variety of archetypal anime high-schoolers, but it’s when you stack up their past and present self that those superficial assumptions are challenged and all sorts of tantalizing questions arise, leading you to wonder about their history and relationship to each other, what had changed, and what remained the same.
Jintan, Anaru, Tsuruko, Poppo, and Yukiatsu are great, multi-dimensional, characters that make the show ticks and embody the kind of themes that not only resonate with me, but are also stuff that I always wanted to write about; on growing up, drifting friendship, and uneasy collision between the past and the present. Heck, I already wrote a few short stories with such themes, and one of the motivating factors for me to start watching anime again (having been away from the medium for most of the 2000s and early 2010s) is when I stumbled into an impeccably cut fan trailer of AnoHana and recognized my pet themes straight away.
A good authentic drama is built on the foundation of character flaws and emotional baggage, and they’re stuff that the AnoHana principals have in spades. They’re all fundamentally good-hearted and sympathetic kids, but they’re also volatile balls of envy, regret, unfulfilled yearning, and straight up contempt. There’s great potential for multiple awfully strong individual arcs here, and glimpses of it are indeed present during the course of the series.
But then, we all have to address the ghost in the room.
Ironically enough, Menma—for all the gallon of tears shed by and for her—always struck me as the weakest link in cast. She’s easily the most one-dimensional and predictable among the cast, and when her biggest scenes work out, it’s due to relentless pressing of melodrama buttons rather than actual good and nuanced writing (the movie version does shed a bit of a new light on Menma and how she could’ve been better utilized, which I’d address later). I have no inherent qualm against a plotline centered on earthbound spirits and afterlife (some of the media depicting this I even consider as my favorites), but the way it’s written in AnoHana could really stand to be more effective and less contrived.
Thing is, there’s simply too much time being spent on Jintan and co. dawdling and fretting on Menma’s ghostly existence; time that could’ve been better spent on fleshing out a host of other things like Poppo’s revelation (way too late as it is, and kind of buried among all the climactic histrionic) and the childhood dynamics beyond just X loves Y loves Z stuff. The most obvious and oft-mentioned solution to this is to have more episodes, but I’m not entirely sure if it’d be as simple as that. The existing composition certainly needs smoothing out as well, which leads me to an intriguing thought experiment: what if Ghost Menma never appeared? Wait…
Okay, that’s not what I want either, but I do find Okada’s paraphrased quote (“…balancing the slapstick erotic aspect with a deeper tone focusing on the flow of time through childhood) to perhaps be more layered than it initially seemed. It’s easy to see the phrase “slapstick erotic” and assume worst case scenario like Anaru going full tsundere and slapping around Pervert!Jintan every other scene or so, but the later bit also suggest that there’s indeed a version of AnoHana that explore its theme in a more grounded manner without resorting to supernatural melodrama, and it’s something I’d love to see. In any case, the urging of the other two showrunners (character designer Masayoshi Tanaka and director Tatsuyuki Nagai) to emphasize friendship over raunchy rom-com is certainly a right call.
It’s kind of useless to speculate further on Okada’s original script without more detailed information, so setting that aside, what I have in mind is AnoHana without a supernatural element while still keeping Menma’s death as the focal point of the narrative. One way to start the ball rolling is to have Poppo being the initial POV character as he returns to his old haunt and checks up on his childhood gang, leading to the same character work and thematic exploration, just one that leans even more heavily on its slice-of-life nature, focusing more on the process of working out small individual narrative goals rather than big overarching ones.
Again, make no mistake: the ghost of Menma would and should remain an integral piece, just in a figurative sense instead of literal apparition that dictates the flow of every narrative event.
In turn, it’s going to free up enough narrative space to develop things I wanted to see more of, chief among them is the childhood timeline. While Menma influencing and shaping the group dynamics shall remain a primary theme, there would also be ample opportunities to develop aspects on the other kids not necessarily related to her; Tsuruko’s artistic inclination, insecurities of Anaru and Yukiatsu, Jintan’s leadership, Poppo’s growth into a bohemian, etc. The end result should be a better work in conveying the sense of passing time and space, which I always feel isn’t strong enough in the series. I’m also interested to gain more insight on Jintan’s dad, a great underappreciated character who somehow could remain a graceful amiable figure after the double whammy of losing his wife and having his only son mired in apathetic slump.
All that said, I have to admit my proposed re-work isn’t necessarily the most suitable fit for an anime show; it’s the oftentimes fantastical nature which appealed to a lot of fans to the medium in the first place, after all. It requires a really sharp directing and scripting to make a compelling character drama without the instant hook of a high concept, and it’s easy to get lost on the way and turns to a meandering mess without enough of either.
At least the movie, even if so much of it is only old recap material, does present new scenes as well as additional insight into the thought process of these characters (I especially like Poppo’s and Tsuruko’s). But what I like the most, and kind of taken me aback considering what I had see and thought of her from the original series, is the brief glimpse of Menma’s POV. The Menma in the movie (excluding the old material) is more reserved and nuanced, even describing herself as a loner and incoming outsider among Jintan’s group, and all these are things that I don’t recall ever being fleshed out previously. If we absolutely must have Ghost!Menma, I certainly wouldn’t mind as much if she were more like that instead of mainly alternating between crying or indulging in moeblob mannerism, like in the original TV series.
In the end, seeing the glorious waterworks of a climax again confirmed to me that while Okada and co. may hit all the melodrama buttons in executing the whole Ghost!Menma thing, by doing so they eventually deliver a tremendous and instant emotional pay-off that made AnoHana so popular in the first place and turned untold amount of watchers into sobbing wreck. Could it stand to be less maudlin? Probably, but for better and for worse it’s the scene that people likely to remember the most from AnoHana, and it still has enough authenticity and finer qualities to move me yet again in spite of all my reservations about it and the show in general. Once you can get past all the tears and shouting, it’s a beautiful moment where these kids own up to their inner demons, and in the process not only allow themselves to express their love to a dear friend, but also to finally forgive themselves and break free out of their self-loathing shell.
Sometimes, whether you’re actively looking for a good cry or steeling yourself from the tear jerking buttons, some things are just impossible not to connect with.