「ミサキ階段 其の二」 (Misaki kaidan sono ni)
“Misaki Stairs Part II”
There’s always a point with every series you love when you just have to accept it isn’t going to be as popular as it should be (for me at least). Intellectually you know that really shouldn’t matter, but it does – it always has for me, since long before I started writing about anime, and I suspect it always will. Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun is pretty popular in Japan (not blockbuster level or anything, but quite respectably) but it’s probably a little too quirky and a little too demanding to ever be a hit, especially among Western audiences. I knew it would get an anime because of where it’s published and how lauded it is, but I figured it was going to be a one and done (which it almost surely will be). I’m happy to get that, but you can always wish for more.
Not for the first time I’m a bit reminded of Boogiepop wa Warawanai with this series, which seems odd given how different they are (though less so than you’d think). I think Warawanai worked (in the artistic sense – it was never going to commercially) as an anime because Natsume Shingo and Madhouse embraced the iconoclastic nature of the source material rather than watering it down. Hanako-kun is getting the same treatment. Andou Masaomi and Lerche are taking the edgy, high-risk approach with every major decision – the art design, the casting of Ogata Megumi, the animation. That manga never plays it safe, and the anime has been smart enough to understand that’s why it works.
The best adaptations take what’s great about a source material and enhance it using the power of animation as opposed to the printed page. The art director here, Kuribayashi Daiki, filled that role on Tanaka-kun wa Itsume Kedaruge, a series which exemplifies what I’m talking about. The composer, Takaki Hiroshi, worked on Kyousougiga – and he brings the same cinematic sweep with the music here. I’ve seen it remarked – not necessarily as a compliment – that this show is like the manga pages coming to life. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. When you get the right people working on a project, a synergy develops and the material is able to surpass itself. It’s itself, only more. And that’s how I feel about this adaptation.
It all starts with the writing of course, and that’s the base from which Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun creates its enchantingly weird world. There’s a lot that’s familiar about this very Japanese premise, but this series unfailing feels unique and fresh to me. The whole Misaki-san subplot, built around tried-and-true modern fantasy elements, it’s constructed with intricacy and elegance (as pretty much all the arcs in this series are). Last week did the heavy lifting as the setup episode, and this one gloriously delivered the payoffs.
Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Hanako-kun, and that’s certainly true of Misaki. She, in fact, isn’t Masaki at all but Yako – an Inari statue from a local shrine. Misaki was a teacher – one who visited the shrine often and through some miracle of perception was able to communicate with Yako. He was beloved by his students and beloved by Yako, but the lives of humans are but a blink of a youkai’s eye – and Misaki tragically that much more so. Everything that happened here wasn’t a result of evil or malice, but of misunderstanding – a creature from the other side not knowing what it means to be human, but driven by emotions – loneliness, grief – that feel very human indeed.
That right there is the emotional foundation of a lot of pretty goddam great manga and anime, and this series is no exception. Hanako-kun is the wild card here, a spirit who refuses easy characterization. He fills many roles – prankster, guardian, enforcer, teacher – but he’s driven by his own motivations and he keeps those mostly to himself. It’s easy to say that he feels affection for Nene and he does – but not easy to define what that means for a creature like him. He’s not abashed about using Nene (and certainly Kou) for his own ends, though those ends seem generally to be benign on the whole.
We’re also starting to see the world of this series take on more definition, as both the manga and anime brilliantly go about filling in the margins in deliberate fashion. Hanako-kun is part of an ecosystem of sorts, and that’s a responsibility he seems to take pretty seriously – as seriously as he takes anything. He knows much more than he tells, but he tells Nene enough to keep her ensnared in that ecosystem, where she both entertains him (boredom, surely, is an enemy to someone like him as much as anything) and extends his reach into our realm of existence. It’s a fascinating relationship, but only one of many that run through this mythology like the shared roots beneath a bamboo forest.