Hinamatsuri is a book with a misleading cover. Judging by the generic moe art style and the generic ‘pleasant’ theme songs, I’d assumed this was going to be another one of those 'cute girls doing cute things' anime. I don’t hate the genre, but most of these anime are fairly boring and unmemorable. Not all of them can be K-On. I wasn't exactly looking forward to Hinamatsuri.
However, upon reading a very positive review, I decided to take the leap. And for that, I am glad. Cue the beginning of the story: a metal egg carrying a psychic girl teleports right onto the head of rich yakuza playboy Yoshifumi Nitta, spilling his (expensive) wine. This girl, Hina, goes on to use her telekinesis to destroy Nitta’s beloved (and expensive) pottery collection, just because he failed to provide her with clothes.
There was no going back. From start to finish, Hinamatsuri took hold of my funny bone and never let go. Several scenes had me laughing so hard I had to hit the pause button.
I must explain the key part of why the comedy is so good: the script.
The voice acting is very good, but the script is what truly elevates it. There is a very natural feel to the flow and timing of the dialogue. This is true for the source manga, but the anime takes it a step further. Characters often talk over each other, to great effect: something I’ve not seen in other anime, where each character’s lines are said separately. The delivery of punchlines is often very understated and deadpan as opposed to the over-the-top style one sees in many anime comedies. The timing is impeccable. It’s all very natural. This is a case of strong source material being enhanced by strong execution in the anime. But back to the story. Hinamatsuri revolves around the people whose lives are touched by Hina, often to disastrous effect. Nitta (unwillingly) pampers his new ‘daughter’, funding her lavish lifestyle. Another psychic girl, Anzu, is sent to retrieve or kill Hina by the organisation who employs these psychic girls (must be a thankless job). After losing to Hina in an epic battle of rock-paper-scissors (unforgettable battle, by the way), she ends up losing her means of dimension travel (the device got soaked in the washing machine) and ends up homeless on the streets. Neither she nor Hina have an ounce of social skills, or even a general understanding of the world. Hilarity ensues. By far my favourite plot thread has to be that of Hitomi, a girl from Hina’s school who is academically bright and highly competent at any task she takes up. However, she has one fatal flaw: she is unable to say no. The way they take this simple character trait and escalate it to infinity is damn hilarious.
She gets coerced into becoming a bartender (because she can mix drinks like no one can), and just goes along with this after-dark job while the actual bartender lazes around. She attends student council meetings in Hina’s stead (Hina is busy goofing off elsewhere), and ends up getting inducted as a member because she is so hardworking. She climbs up the corporate ladder through a combination of sheer diligence and pure accident. And never does it occur to her to say, “Sorry, I have other things to do.” I love it.
She is also the sole ‘straight’ character of the anime, surrounded by idiot kids (like Hina), and even more idiotic adults. It results in some great comedy, with her pessimism and cynical wit bringing sanity to an otherwise wacky cast.
In fact, I really like how the traits of each character are used extensively as part of both plot and humour, and are not merely there to make them quirky. Anzu’s homelessness has led her to become extremely miserly and spend-conscious, to her detriment even (she doesn’t even want to accept money to buy her foster parents a nice gift). We all probably know at least one person who’s like this. I know people who will insist on walking five kilometres to the bus stand and taking the bus, even if it would only cost a few rupees more by auto-rickshaw. It adds a believable component to these characters.
There is also a certain continuity to Hinamatsuri that one does not expect from a comedy; actions have consequences, rather than being forgotten in the very next scene.
Hinamatsuri is not all comedy, though. When Anzu loses her device and is all alone on the streets, she is taken in by the local homeless group. I am typically against anime comedies trying to integrate ‘serious’ storylines; there is often zero foreshadowing of this tone change, and it ends up falling flat. Moreover, they tend to sacrifice their strongest element — the humour — to accommodate this garbage. But Hinamatsuri succeeds at this against all odds. Anzu’s character development over the course of her homeless life is extensive. She has to learn the tricks of the trade (like foraging for cans) to survive on the streets. It slowly brings out changes in her character. It’s still a part of the comedy, but at no point is it mean-spirited towards her or the homeless people. The show is surprisingly respectful towards its characters. It manages to be sympathetic and ‘serious’ while still being funny.
Speaking of the homeless, a wide range of urban Japanese society is portrayed, across all income groups, something not often seen in anime. The three main girls form an economic spectrum of sorts, from ultra-rich brat Hina, to middle-class working woman Hitomi, to poverty-stricken Anzu. Hitomi's arc contains plenty of observations on Japanese work culture and the weight of adults’ expectations on children (Indians will understand this only too well). The only character who doesn’t receive this character development is Hina. This is mostly fine, as she exists largely as a catalyst for all the humour. Her lazy nature and her empty-headedness, and how she takes Nitta for granted, are all great. Her attempt to celebrate Nitta's promotion results in one of the finest comedy scenes of all time. Still, a good character arc would have been appreciated. There are hints of this, in early episodes, but it amounts to little. She also uses her powers far less than I’d have liked (although her powers do have a fair amount of plot relevance). The manga has more of this.
There is much I haven’t covered in this review, including many funny side characters (Hitomi’s masochistic classmate who fantasizes about being slapped by her always cracks me up). In summary: I strongly recommend Hinamatsuri.
Art: B+. Not a fan of the generic moe character designs. Anzu in particular is too chubby-faced for an underfed homeless girl. There’s also this weird ‘shiny border’ lighting effect that shows up in Studio Feel’s works a lot; not a fan, again. The backgrounds and environments are really good though, with good lighting. Overall, the art is quite polished.
Animation: A. Actually well-animated, with good frame rate throughout. Far better than one would expect for a non-action series. Psychic effects and levitations are quite well executed. Music: C+. The opening and ending themes are misleadingly sugary. They are not suited for a comedy like this one. Soundtrack is reasonable, but there are not enough tracks, resulting in repetition. The only musical standout is the song Anzu sings at the homeless camp, I love that one with all my heart. Voice acting (Japanese): A+. Brilliant script with excellent acting. Hina’s monotone drawl is great. Natural dynamic to dialogues; particularly when characters are reacting to something ridiculous or talking over one another. Voice acting (English): B+. Brina Palencia does a great job as Hina, using the bored monotone voice to great effect. Still, stick with the Japanese. Nitta’s VA uses this weird New York accent at times; it suits Nitta’s mobster status, but he’s not consistent with this accent, so it falls flat. Story: A. A yakuza man’s life takes an unexpected turn when a psychic girl teleports into his apartment. Hinamatsuri is ridiculously funny. It also perfects the art of including serious drama without sacrificing the humour.
Characters: A. A wide cast of characters from disparate sections of society, with relevant personal idiosyncrasies that only enhance their character. With the sole exception of Hina, each major character gets plenty of character development.
Overall Rating: A
An easy recommendation. Hinamatsuri is probably my favourite comedy anime, with its sharp script and how effortlessly it works in the drama. Further seasons might even elevate it to an A+ for me. Sadly, this seems unlikely, as domestic DVD/Bluray sales have been rather poor (this is one of those rare cases where an anime was better received in the West than in Japan). One will have to turn to the manga (which has been licensed in English, thankfully) for continuity.