The Drama of Unrequited Love
J.C. Staff brings the anime viewing community a surprisingly refreshing new slice of life series in the form of Honey and Clover.
Hachimitsu to Clover (translated as Honey and Clover in this article) centers around college life for a group of friends. It sounds like the common set-up of many anime that has been seen before, time and time again, yet Honey and Clover takes us to a sentimental and realistic place where the characters become something more than mere animation.
The uniqueness of this anime starts with its opening sequence, inspired by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer; in particular, his film Food. (Whether this is a homage or outright copyright is up for discussion.) Plates of creatively-shaped food turn around, in shapes ranging from flowers to stained panties, culminating in a shrimp cocktail that turns into a hand reaching towards the viewer. If you manage to get past that creepy final claymation, you will find yourself rapidly introduced to the apartment where Takemoto and his friends live.
Silver-haired Takemoto Yuuta is the youngest of the three characters who live in the apartment building. As a second year architecture student, he finally feels that he's settling into college life, but as his older friends near graduation, he finds himself worrying about what he wants to do or work as after college. Both of these feelings are normal, as any college student, present or former, can attest to.
Mayama Takumi is a fourth year architecture student, and he often plays the mature sempai to Takemoto, his neighbor, and the rest of the circle of friends. With his trendy rectangle-shaped glasses, he projects an aura of cool and control, but inside, he is tortured by his feelings for Rika. Rika Egami is Mayama's boss at the opening of the series and a highly respected architect of her own merit. Still devastated by the death of her husband in a traffic accident that left her physically handicapped and scarred, Rika rejects Mayama's sincere love. However, she finds herself unable to crush his feelings as she should...
On the other hand, we have Yamada Ayumi. Blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, Yamada is any guy's dream -- except for Mayama. She loves him, but he just runs away from her without giving any indication of his feelings for her. A fourth year pottery student, Yamada is a master of tougei, the art of using dirt. She is the daughter of a liquor store owner, and is somewhat expected to inherit the business.
Morita Shinobu, the quirky neighbor of Takemoto and Mayama, rounds out the initial cast. A sixth year sculpture/wood carving student (he is mainly shown working on wood during his course work shown in the anime), Morita failed his freshmen year because he slept in and didn't make his required minimum course hours. Because he doesn't want this to happen again this year, he recruits Takemoto to wake him up in the morning for two huge bags of croquettes. This is the situation as Honey and Clover begins. Mayama tries to explain to Takemoto that Morita is impossible to awaken within forty-eight hours after returning from his job. Nobody seems to know exactly what it is that Morita does; only that he usually returns after a few days, exhausted, and with a huge wad of money in his back pocket. This is one of the on-going mysteries in the series. If Takemoto is the good guy who is friends with all the girls, then Morita is the bizarre genius who tries to express his feelings, but somehow, he never connects as clearly as he wants to.
After this initial crisis enters Hagu. Hanamoto Hagumi ("Hagu") is a first year sculpture student, artistic genius, and the daughter of the cousin of Hanamoto Shuji, the mentor teacher of the gang. Shy and quiet, Hagu is the very definition of loli, as she looks nowhere near eighteen years old, and her childish behavior only reinforces that. However, as time goes by and she begins to open up to her new friends, Hagu mellows into the more acceptable category of moe. Regardless, both Takemoto and Morita fall instantly in love with her. This love triangle becomes the center of Honey and Clover, as everyone is either too clueless, too polite, too much of a friend to the other man, or too much of a pacifist.
Takemoto plays the role of the good male friend to Hagu, as he attempts to satisfy himself with only her friendship, lacking the courage to risk their current relationship for something more. Morita, on the other hand, has a bizarre obsession with Hagu, taking photos and treating her roughly like a doll or a pet. At first, she's scared to death of him, but as time goes on, Hagu begins to admire his skill as an artist and soften towards him. Just like how love often works in reality, Hagu's discomfort with Morita is a sign of her attraction. Or maybe she just admires his art. We are left to make our own conclusions, based on impressions from the scenes. What one character thinks may not be the truth.
One of the strongest merits of Honey and Clover is its focus on the minute and mundane. It's an anime about going to college and becoming an adult, with the relationship entanglements that come with growing up and slightly changing as a person as you experience life. The humor stems mostly from the everyday problems that the characters face. It doesn't feel injected at all. Yamada's admission of love to Mayama, and his reaction to this drunken proclamation are realistic and awkward. Perfect love stories rarely exist outside of fantasy.
The wheel plays an important symbolic role in Honey and Clover. From Takemoto's reflections upon riding his bike to the changing of seasons to Yamada's potter's wheel to Hagu's association with the full moon, everyone has a personal connection to this symbol of movement, cyclic progress and the desire for completion. Mayama's rectangular glasses seems to indicate his separation from this process as he stalks Rika. As for Morita... We simply don't have enough insight into his character yet.
Takemoto frequently takes over the role of the narrator; however, he is not the main character. Scenes are divided among all of the characters, but Takemoto and Mayama seem to shoulder most of the camera time, as Morita is the one character whose true intentions are never shown clearly.
Time flows quickly in Honey and Clover; there are two Christmas festivals within the first twelve episodes. This may be jarring for some people, as romantic/comedy anime tends to run rather supernaturally slow, or people fall in love almost instantly. However, the choice to focus solely on the events and situations which further the story must be applauded. It's nice to see anime low on filler episodes. The required hot spring episode and personal history episode were nicely condensed into one episode without feeling forced.
The animation and art style from J.C. Staff is reminiscent of the manga Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou or the anime Haibane Renmei, with beautiful watercolor backgrounds and rather sketchy characters. Sorry, no shiny CG designs here. The fact that the art style is so artificial, as opposed to realistic, emphasizes the fact that all of the characters are artists, drawn together at the college for their strong creativity. Yet despite this, Honey and Clover feels like a live action soap opera, with characters who feel realistic in an animated environment with overblown dramatic situations. It speaks strongly of the script and its tight dialogue that simple animation can inspire such deep attachment.
Music plays an important role in this series. Every episode contains a scene where a verse or so of various songs with lyrics that pair up with the animation quite nicely. The majority of these insert songs are from albums by Suga Shikao and Spitz. The opening song, "Dramatic" by Yuki conveys frantic energy and matches the food animation perfectly. The first ending song, "Waltz" by Suneohair is energetic and melodic, matching the silhouettes of a ferris wheel and clover spinning. The second song is "Mistake" by The Band Has No Name, and accompanies a new closing animation that features a silhouette of Takemoto on his bike. It's a bit more grittier than "Waltz," perhaps reflecting the entrenched position of all of the characters in their love lives.
Honey and Clover is the first anime for the "Noitamina" ("Animation" spelled backwards) programming block on Fuji TV (an adaptation of Paradise Kiss will be the second show), targeting young women with anime that resembles serial doramas, which is exactly what this show feels like. Be prepared to be drawn in, hook, line, and sinker.
The original manga by Chika Umino is currently being printed in Young You, a josei (young women) manga anthology, and is collected in seven volumes. Honey and Clover won the 2003 Kodansha Manga Award, so it was only natural that the animated version would turn out so well. With twenty-six episodes scheduled and a focus on an older crowd, Honey and Clover has great potential to be picked up stateside for a high quality release. The first R2 DVD volume is due out at the end of August, with subsequent volumes being released monthly.
As to what the title alludes to... we'll let you decide.