It's one of the strongest TV shows I've ever seen, anime or otherwise. When it wants, this show can destroy you. It's not unlike a Key/Visual Arts anime, given its tearjerking emotional power, magical realism and focus on family and relationships. However it's different from them in being an original story with a strong female authorial viewpoint, instead of a male-protagonist visual novel that was probably harem-ish and/or pornographic.
1. Jintan, 2. Menma, 3. Anaru, 4. Yukiatsu, 5. Tsuruko and 6. Poppo are the Super Peace Busters, a gang of ten-year-olds who goof around and are full of beans.
1. Jinta Yadomi, 3. Naruko Anjo, 4. Atsumu Matsuyuki, 5. Chiriko Tsurumi and 6. Tetsudo Hisakawa are the Super Peace Busters, but six years later. They don't use their nicknames any more and they don't even see each other. "Jintan" doesn't go to school, doesn't talk to people and doesn't smile. "Anaru" is cold, temperamental and has bad friends. "Yukiatsu" is a massive jerk. "Tsuruko" barely seems to have emotions and it's almost impossible to get a nice word out of her. "Poppo" has also dropped out of school (but even more drastically than Jintan) and goes travelling a lot.
I haven't yet mentioned Menma. She's the reason everyone's like that. She's dead.
One day, though, she returns anyway. She's bouncing around Jintan's house, somehow six years older but still as cute as ever. (She's even wearing clothes similar to the last ones she was seen wearing, which is why she's barefoot. The flashbacks never show her corpse, but we do see a shoe floating on the river.) Menma wants Jintan to grant her wish, but she can't remember what that is. She's also a scatterbrain who wants to have fun and talk to her friends.
Unfortunately, Jintan's the only one who can see or hear her.
It feels real. I believed in, for instance, Irene Honma as a mother who'd lost a child. That was shocking. The story is the way everyone's feelings unfold. There's unrequited love and some dark exploration of guilt and selfishness. Almost everyone blames themselves. They'll think it's all specifically their fault and they'll be conflicted about their own self-serving thoughts and motivations. Jintan at the beginning wears his "stress and trauma" like a badge.
There's melancholy, tragedy and grief.... but the show's also funny. It's not a slit-your-wrists depression fest. (It's from Eastern religious traditions, for starters, so everyone believes that reincarnation is a thing. None of the characters see death as the end.) It's a laugh. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and I always loved putting on another episode to spend more time with our heroes. The show's full of charm. It can make you cry, then make you laugh. It's about healing, after all, with broken ex-friends discovering that underneath they're still the ten-year-olds they always were. (Anaru even accepts her old nickname, even though in Japanese it means "anal sex". It's just the English word "anal" in a Japanese accent. When they were ten, they didn't know.)
Menma's adorable and funny. (Tell her that you've just seen Menma in the woods and she'll excitedly run off to see if she can find this other Menma as well.) I also love Poppo, who's the biggest, loveliest goof and as much of a big kid as he always was.
The characters don't always make good decisions, admittedly, and they're not always quick on the update. In a weaker show, I'd have been more critical of this. People are almost disturbingly accepting of kids dodging school, for instance. (Our heroes lost a friend, yes, but that was six years ago.) One might also wonder if Menma could have looked harder and earlier for ways of proving her existence to her friends, although in fairness we're told that she tried that with her family and it didn't work. The rules about Menma's physical form are hard to pin down (e.g. she eats!) and I suspect that much of it might be in the eye or heart of the beholder.
There's a second dead person, incidentally. She's Jintan's mother. She's not like Menma, though, because she's dead and stays dead. However she's still a presence in the show, both in the present as a photo on a shrine and in the past as someone you could visit in hospital. Her importance knocked me sideways too.
This show has incarnations. There's a 2013 anime sequel/compilation film and a 2015 live-action TV film that's apparently good. (I'll reserve judgement until I've seen it.) There are also two anime films (The Anthem of the Heart in 2015 and Her Blue Sky in 2019) that aren't related at all and don't have any crossover characters, as far as I know, but are set in the same city (Chichibu, Saitama) and are by the same writer, director and character designer. More tenuously, there are also rip-offs, e.g. Seven Senses of the Reunion. The latter's quite interesting as a study of ambitiously bad anime and I'm grateful for it to leading me to Anohana, but watching the two back-to-back was like seeing your loved ones killed and raised as zombies. That experience did, though, refine my admiration of the maturity of Mari Okada's script for this. We've got to dig down to how her characters feel.
Normally, I try not to overpraise things. It raises unrealistic expectations and makes the show feel like a letdown. Here, though, sod that. Anohana is one of the most important works produced by the industry. I think it's magnificent. I want to say "masterpiece", but that really would be asking for trouble. It's the opposite of action-packed, being just kids peeling back their messed-up feelings, but that's what makes it special.