Hanayamata 

Naru is a self-labelled “average teen” who wants to shine but feels inadequate next to her gorgeous, popular, in-a-band friend, Yaya. A chance encounter with a mysterious blonde girl called Hana at a shrine leads her into the world of yosakoi, a traditional Japanese dance.

In spite of its cutesy graphics, Hanayamata adds some emotional depth from the first episode which I was pleasantly surprised by, and we see the main characters struggle with their insecurities and fears in an understated way. Naru, for example, agrees to join Hana’s Yosakoi group but only as an assistant at first, betraying her anxiety that she isn’t a good enough dancer to “dazzle” and be worthy of the group. Tami is a well-behaved daddy’s girl who chooses to break away expectations from of her to join the group, and Yaya in turn battles with her own jealousy as she sees Naru step out of her insecurities and start to believe in herself again.

Hana’s motto – life’s too short not to be happy!
Although I was impressed with Hanayamata’s commitment to clear-cut character motivation and insecurity from the beginning, it did then move back to comfortable and cutesy territory once this had been established. Some of the scenes are excessively sentimental – Naru gives more than one emotional speech about how much yosakoi means to her, and how much her friends mean to her, which might be more powerful if it was more than five episodes in, but luckily a lot of the more sugary emoting is usually balanced with some light comedy. Perhaps because of the solid character establishing at the beginning, even the simpler scenes in Hanayamata feel weighted enough to avoid slipping into pure fluff territory.

It’s tough being the only glass half full member of the group sometimes
For me, Hanayamata is a nice “middle of the road” sort of anime. It offers enough character depth and drama to avoid floating away on its own fluffiness, and Naru’s stage fright and insecurities will be easily understandable and relatable to many. But it is still a fairly lightweight cutesy anime about five girls embracing friendship and a new passion. If you’re looking for something with pretty shoujo style animation, silly comedy and engaging main characters it’s definitely one to put on your ‘to watch’ list.

Minami Kamakura High School Girls Cycling Club

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Hiromi has moved to the beautiful coastal town of Kamakura, a city just south of Tokyo that is filled with temples and hiking trails. She plans to ride her bike to school but is a little rusty on the basics, and fortunately bumps into a fellow classmate Tomoe who offers to help her relearn.

As Hiromi meets more of her classmates they discover that they all have an interest in cycling, and decide to form a club. Their cycling journeys and quest to secure a budget for the club (they have to prove themselves worthy first) form the basis of this anime.

If you haven’t already guessed, this is a light and fluffy anime through and through. I have never watched a sport anime before, it was the clean art style and soft bright colour palette that drew me to this show. It’s easy for anyone that isn’t a sporty person or expert on cycling to get into this show as it makes it very accessible for the viewer. Hiromi and her friends are newbs to the cycling world and much about the best bicycles for them to use and the correct cycling technique is covered both within the anime, and within a real life featurette at the end which provides extra hints and tips for any budding cyclists.

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Hiromi and her friends have fun riding around Kamakura
This anime is cute and enjoyable – for me the highlights are seeing the sights of Kamakura gorgeously rendered with lush greenery and stunning blue skies and learning about cycling. But there’s nothing to make it a stand out anime – I’ll openly admit that couldn’t tell you the names of all of Hiromi’s friends and the anime doesn’t do much to create any in-depth personalities for them. Nonetheless this is a fun and cheery anime so if you’re looking for a fluffy sport anime it’s a definite contender.

Amanchu!

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Ooki is a shy girl still preoccupied with her old life and friends on moving to a new town. When she meets Hikari, a bubbly and eccentric girl who embraces everything in life from her new desk seat to that fresh textbook smell with equal enthusiasm, things look like they might be set to change for the better. Hikari is an experienced diver, and Ooki is persuaded to join the school’s diving club.

Hikari is initially the main draw to this anime. If you don’t like characters who are positive to the point of eccentricity you might find her peppiness grating, but her excitement for everything in life sets Amanchu! up as a positive and sweet anime. Hikari’s outlook is juxtaposed with Ooki’s sadness about trying to adjust to a whole new life – we see her apathy about joining any high school clubs and excitement for getting texts from her old friends. Hikari is the catalyst for change and when Ooki joins the diving club she gradually begins to re-emerge from her shell.

Ooki feels sad and lonely to begin with
Ooki feels sad and lonely to begin with

Ooki’s thoughts and behaviour indicate someone who struggles with anxiety and low self esteem that has been made worse by having to try and process the changes in her life, and the sensitive way her peers respond to this adds deeper emotion to what would otherwise be a simple fluffy story. The anime focuses closely on Ooki and her immediate peers – Hikari, and two other friends who are part of the diving club. The fact that scenes often include no more than four or five people really cements Amanchu! as an intimate anime and allows Ooki and Hikari’s characters in particular to be focused on to a stronger emotional effect.

Hikari is endearingly in love with life
Hikari is endearingly in love with life

Yuri fans will also delight in the ongoing subtext of Hikari and Ooki’s chemistry. Ooki’s tendency to get flustered and blush around Hikari can easily be explained away as part of her introverted and bashful nature…but there’s enough there to suggest an underlying attraction too. Their relationship forms the heart of the show and Hikari’s unquestioning support of Ooki in diving and beyond often tugs at the heartstrings. Although their scenes together are moving, they have strong moments alone too. One moment that really warmed my heart was when Hikari takes a train journey just to catch a brief but stunning glimpse of some blooming hydrangeas on its route, (she plans to get off at the next stop and then head back). She frequently embodies this “live in the now/enjoy all of life’s little wonders” attitude that slowly rubs off on Ooki. Hikari’s carefree attitude also works well alongside the anime’s aesthetic of light pastels, sparkling oceans and a relaxing soundtrack which make this a perfect summer watch.

You won't have to dive too deep for lesbian subtext here...
You won’t have to dive too deep for romantic subtext here…

Amanchu! disguises itself pretty convincingly under a veneer of fluffiness and light comedy, but from the get go it grounds itself in emotional honesty with a strong character arc as we see Ooki opening up to others and learning to embrace a new life that resonates across even the goofiest of scenes. The parallels of learning to dive underwater with learning to dive into a new life are a beautiful metaphor as we see Ooki overcome her sadness and anxiety step by step.

Check out this warm gem of an anime, Amanchu! is now available on Crunchyroll.