Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun is faring pretty well really, as best we can tell. It polls strongly at aggregator sites and seems to have a fairly decent pool of followers. And the most quantifiable – and important – measure is that it’s given a significant boost to the manga’s sales. Some of the comments have noted a throwback quality, and I definitely see that in this sense: at one time there was a distinct sub-genre of anime that looked storybook cute but were actually really dark (Pita Ten or Princess Tutu, for example – or even DN Angel). We see the occasional aspirant still, but it’s generally a show that’s trying to hard to capture that vibe and as a result just plays as mannered and self-aware. Hanako-kun gets it without having to put on airs – that’s this series right down to its DNA. Rather than throwback, maybe call it timeless.
That brings us to this week’s episode, which I’d call one of the series’ best except they’re pretty much all running hot at this point. One thing that especially pleased me was that the adaptation didn’t rush through this storyline. After a couple of chapters were skipped I was a bit worried, and this subplot is very important for a number of reasons. Not least of which is Kou’s development, which was particularly ill-served by what was passed over. This was his time to shine, as he basically had to carry the episode himself with some help from Mitsuba, and shine he did. There was little of Hanako and almost none of Nene, and their presence was hardly missed.
Ah yes – we just learned Mitsuba’s name this week (and another too, which I’ll touch on shortly). He turns out to have been a loner kid from the photography club who died in some sort of accident (a broken neck). But what really cuts Kou to the quick is his friend Yokoo telling him that Mitsuba was in their class in first year, because that means that Kou had totally forgotten about him. And when a memory does come flooding back it doesn’t help, as it’s of Mitsuba making an entreaty of friendship on the first day of school.
Kou is either the best or worst possible candidate to be an exorcist, depending on how you look at it. And figuring out which of those is the case is actually a major part of Hanako-kun’s thematic spine. He has so much empathy that it blinds him to anything else when something – or someone – triggers it the way Mitsuba does here. For all the little ghost’s seeming attempts to push Kou away, it’s pretty clear that his regrets weren’t the shots he didn’t get with his camera. He was simply a lonely kid who wanted friends and didn’t have any – too girly, too arrogant, too loud. And dying alone is about as fundamental a regret as there is.
Enter that other new name, though not all a new face. Hanako-Amane’s dark reflection is Tsukasa, and indeed his role in the school suits that description. Amane grants wishes to the living, and Tsukasa to the dead. But his bargain is built on lies, and clearly – with the help of his human partners (likewise a dark reflection, of Nene and Kou) – he lures them in with lies and uses them to his own ends. Mitsuba’s great mistake was in being too vague with his wish, which Tsukasa is only too happy to run with by turning him into a beast that will surely be remembered.
Hanako may save Kou when the moment demands it, but he offers no solace or sense of hope. “You shouldn’t be too kind to the dead”, he warns Kou, “because we have no futures.” Kou simply can’t accept what’s happening here – his friend turning into a monster, then being snatched away altogether by Tsukasa. All Hanako-kun can offer is that it’s a mercy, because there’s “nothing” after death – hanging around as a restless spirit is no substitute for living. He’s talking about Mitsuba, but it’s obvious that it’s not only Mitsuba that he’s talking about.
Poor Mitsuba. The death of any child is sad enough, but one who died so lonely that his spirit was bound to this realm is truly tragic. And as if that weren’t enough, to be used and discarded for nefarious – if mysterious – purposes – adds insult to injury. As Kou sees Mitsuba’s final photographs and grieves, we’re left to ponder the implications of both Tsukasa’s existence and his words to Amane. Whatever happened in their short lives, it’s clear that it too was tragic, and that the pair of them are linked in ways we don’t yet fully understand.