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.
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.
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.