It's a shoujo manga (i.e. for girls) starring elementary school children. They're twelve, of course, and in a maturity grey zone, on the point of leaving childhood without having completely done so yet. When our two heroines manage to get boyfriends, how will their lives develop?
I expected this show to be lovely, but in fact found it surprisingly tough. Never underestimate shoujo manga. It might look like romantic schoolgirl fluff with stereotypical art, but before too long it was tying me in knots on a regular basis. A common episode pattern goes:
1. nice beginning
2. IDIOTS IDIOTS IDIOTS, stop that, stop that
3. an unexpectedly strong ending that turns the whole thing into a good episode
Hanabi Ayase is an idiot. Admittedly no one here has any personal experience of romance and you'd expect a bunch of twelve-year-olds to be incompetent at all this, but that's a different matter. Hanabi is more stupid than her classmates. Hanabi sometimes seems more stupid than rocks. Consider the following sequence of events, for instance.
Hanabi has been going out with Takao since the end of ep.1, but then a childhood friend of hers transfers into their school. He's Tsutsumi and he's an arrogant boor. He's insufferable... but then he starts falling for her and invites himself on a sort of date with her to buy a birthday present for Takao. "I have a date with Takao at 1pm!" says Hanabi, "but I don't have a watch or a mobile phone, so please tell me when it's time to go." (I can only think that Hanabi's also visually impaired, since she doesn't notice any of the clocks in the shops and malls they visit. A Japanese schoolgirl without a mobile phone? I do believe Satan just ice-skated to work. While I'm on the subject, incidentally, the plot of ep.10 depends on the only available camera being an old-fashioned one with film and no one taking any photos on their phone.)
Anyway, Tsutsumi makes her late deliberately. Hanabi's gaily fluttering along with him while Takao waits for ages at the spot they'd agreed. I was cringing. For goodness sake, girl. That's really bad of you. Eventually Takao tracks them down and the scene turns ugly, with Tsutsumi getting jealous and pulling away Hanabi against her will. Well, it could be worse. At least everything's in the open now. That had more punch than I'd expected. No chance of misunderstandings there. Tsutsumi lays it out in words of one syllable to Hanabi... and yet somehow the girl herself fails to realise what's going on. The next day, she's wondering why Tsutsumi's angry and trying to work out if she might have done something wrong.
She stays puzzled throughout the following episode too. "Why's he annoyed? He should at least tell me."
She's a sweet girl and very likeable, but she's got the brains of a slug sometimes. The show's aware of this, mind you. It's her characterisation. Even her best friend Yui grows a sweat drop of exasperation in ep.6 at Hanabi's cluelessness. Hanabi's the one who's still a child, while Yui's the mature one who's already having to buy sanitary products. However that doesn't make it any easier to watch, say, the pantomime they make in ep.8 of trying to get their boyfriends to use their first names. (Surnames are normal in Japanese.) Gyaaah. No no no no no. I wanted to fast-forward.
Takao's not an idiot, in fairness. He teases Hanabi a bit, but she's done well to catch him. Yui's boyfriend can be a prize blockhead, though, although he's a nice guy underneath the rudeness, lack of self-control and obnoxious shell personality.
And those are the heroes! Now we come to the antagonists, who are meant to annoy you. (They succeed.) The boys in Hanabi's class need defenestrating. You'll want to punch them hard in the face... but this is impressive writing, because they're real. If you never knew boys like this at school, you never knew boys. They give running commentary on their classmates' romantic levels, think everything you do is funny and never, ever shut up. If they make a girl cry with their teasing (e.g. ep.7), they'll just sneer at her and swagger away.
Another enemy is Cocoa, but she's more villainous and less plausible. She fancies Takao and she's being Queen Bitch of Bitch Mountain in her incessant efforts to prise him away from Hanabi. The implausibility comes in the fact that her antics will have long ago destroyed any chance she might once have had with Takao, yet: (a) this never occurs to her, and (b) Takao never tries to do anything about her behaviour. You'd think the normal thing to do would be to tell her to stay away until she's grown a human personality.
It's a tough watch. Everyone except Takao is making such a pig's ear of things. Yes, I realise that they're twelve. They've never done all this before. They're getting all their young mistakes out of the way. We've all made even bigger idiots of ourselves in our time. However this show put me through all kinds of wringers before always turning my pain, teeth-gritting and exasperation into a worthwhile story in the end. In a way, I admire it for getting such a strong emotional reaction from me.
It's a likeable show. I'm already fond of it and I'm pretty sure that in a year or two I'll have forgotten all the negatives and have nothing but glowing memories of this show. Hanabi and her friends are nice and it's impossible not to want them to succeed, no matter how much they might have been making you bang your forehead. It also contains some ferociously unlikeable pains in the neck, but they're meant to be like that. The source material was nominated for Best Children's Manga at the 38th Kodansha Manga Awards, incidentally. I'm glad I watched Season 1, but that's enough for me and I'm not planning on continuing with Season 2. It's too exhausting. Besides, I'm not convinced that the show's not already knocking up against the natural story limits of the material. They're twelve-year-olds. They're not going to have sex or get married or anything. They're just going to be silly idiots a lot.