Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Anime Review: Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta

As a general explanation before I get into the reviews: Yozakura Quartet is based off of a manga by the same name and the manga is still on-going so this series does not have a hard and fast ending as I expected. The manga was adapted first into an anime in 2008 of the same name is apparently terrible and should be ignored, that one is the one that Sentai Filmworks has licensed in the US. Over the past few years Studio Tatsunoko has been making a few OVA series as well as another full anime series that adapts the story much more faithfully and is the one I'm talking about here, the main tv series Hana no Uta (Song of the Flowers), Hoshi no Umi (The Sea of Stars), and Tsuki ni Naku (Howling/Crying at the Moon). This is the order you should watch them in, I promise it's for the best but it can be a little hard to find Hoshi no Umi online these days since it's been a few years and none of these series were even licensed for streaming. Since there is no official license, I'm going to try and use the actual Japanese terms for the various supernatural aspects of the works instead of English terms the way I usually would for consistency. The subs I saw used "dæmon" instead of yokai and "Sakura Newtown" instead of "Sakurashin" but since everyone will at least hear those same words this seems to be the best way to avoid confusion!

Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta

When I started watching the series I was struck by how similar the tone was to the early parts of Durarara!! and how much I missed that. Ignoring the fact that the original manga-ka designed the DRR!! characters (especially since Studio Tatsunoko simplified, "moeified" the designs here) there's a general liveliness to the characters as they go around Sakurashin solving problems, quibbling with other characters, and then the smallest of details unfolds into a major arc which radically reshapes not only the purpose of the town but the characters' entire motivations. Our "quartet" is made up of Hime, the 16 year old mayor of the town, human Akina Hiizumi who possesses the power to send yokai to another dimension (tuning), the half-yokai Kotoha who (like her name suggests) can turn words into reality, and the full yokai Ao who has a unique set of esper powers. The four of them don't run the town per-say (we see the police, various older people in committees etc) but with their constant patrolling of the town they are the most public faces for it and their own personal struggles are often the same ones the town has. 

Funny enough this is the most true for Akina, not Hime the actual mayor. We know her backstory and motivations which are rather straigh forward but Akina's connection in a way goes back much farther into the town's history. His ability to tune is an inherited trait and the town was originally formed by yokai who wanted to be "tuned" to an alternate dimension which they believed would be a paradise for them. This is complicated by the fact that although Akina's family is willing to do so, at one point a few centuries earlier they made it even easier by sending some family members to the other world to set up pillars to link the worlds, they regard it as murder since no one has ever returned. Until the big bad for the series pops up however, not only is Enjin the first person ever to return from the other side but he reveals a few even more disturbing facts about the tuning process and he's pushing Akina to his already fragile breaking point constantly. We know considerably less about Kotoha and especially Ao but given their connections to the story (Kotoha for one is one of a very small number of half-yokai and all of the others were brought to the town by Enjin to cause havoc) I'm sure it just comes later on, beyond where this story ended.

So, what is the central plot behind this almost slice-of-life story then? Well, as mentioned earlier there is a connection between Sakurashin and this alternate, yokai dimension and Enjin has returned to "make the pillars bloom" and fully connect the worlds but there's not much the quartet can do to proactively stop him and can only react when another "yokai hunter" or such comes to town to try and throw it into disarray. Despite the that lingering sense of unease and other casually tossed out truths in the show (if you listen carefully there's a scary answer for why the town is nothing but young and old people) it feels more like a slice of life show than a plot-driven one. This does lend itself better to the split up series method of production that Tatsunoko has chosen and also complements it's ensemble cast very well and makes the world feel "bigger" but I was feeling antsy when I expected Tsuki ni Naku to end on a big, boisterous note the way the other arcs had and it didn't. Sure it wrapped up another story but the main quartet was rather absent from the story and Enjin's motivations had been solidified in the last few episodes in the preceding HnU. But, can I really blame a story for ending in the middle when it's not finished and this was honestly an okay place to end it? Once again this is very similar to my feelings on DRRR!!, I always wish that the main "plot" of each arc kicks in sooner than it does since watching all the plot threads come together is very satisfying and yet, I do also enjoy the more quiet, character focused moments as well, although this story has a much more concrete, "this event will come to pass and must be dealt with" goal than DRRR!! has.

I would be remiss if I didn't talk about how fantastic the series looks especially since it's also very much my kind of thing. Over the years I've come to appreciate and enjoy series which push and distort how a scene looks through animation because that is one of the highlights of cartoons, you aren't beholden to real world dynamics so if you want to exaggerate something even farther for additional impact then go for it! I suspect that's why Tatsunoko simplified the original character designs to their more rounded form for this show, not just to fall in line with current art style trends but also because with fewer details it's easier to distort the characters without having them look hideously off-model. There are certainly highlights in the show but almost every scene looks carefully planned out and is full of little movements and silly ideas to keep things fresh and interesting, I'm curious how many of the visual quirks were present in the manga and how many of them are new. I will also admit that the series has fanservice, a lot of fanservice and it is a bit off putting. Yes I will admit that if characters are wearing skirts that short that in real life you would probably see quite a bit of underwear if you aren't careful but it does once again go beyond realism rather frequently and there is a lot more than just panty shots. It was something I "got used" to, partially because the fanservice is never the main focus which both makes it easy to forget and surprising when it pops up again. I'm also in love with the songs from the Hana no Uta part of the series, the opening and ending songs from the OVAs weren't bad but the HnU opening song was super catchy and the ending song is one of the loveliest ending songs I've ever heard, one I've found myself humming long after I finished the show.

In short, I'm fully recommending this show to anyone who enjoys a good supernatural, urban fantasy or really cool looking animation, even all the fanservice can't keep me from whole-heartedly recommending it. It's loads of fun to watch and I might just have to check out the manga while waiting to see if there is ever another set of OVAs to finish it up (the manga is also currently unlicensed, I wasn't even aware that it had been licensed by Del Ray until I double checked). I'd love for someone in the US to pick it up but I'll admit it's a slim chance given that three different series must mean three different licenses which sounds extra complicated and parts of the series are already a few years old. But I've been surprised before so I'm hoping that I'll be surprised again!

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