Asai Mugi is a first year high school student who is very shy. In fact, she is so shy that occasionally she is unable to speak, even though she'll continue to move her mouth. However, when she and her best friend get into an art school together, she gets so excited she cheers out loud. This attracts the attention of one Ichinose Nono, a high school senior and founder of the Drama Research Society, a spin off of the Drama Club she quit, along with fellow seniors / ex-Drama Club members Katsuragi Takashi and Nishida Risaki. Mugi is chosen (arguably pressured) by Nono to join the club to meet the club's five-minimum requirement (along with Risaki's younger brother, Kai). Will Mugi's shyness prevent her from performing, or will Nono help her become a become actress, as well as a better person?
Hitohira is a simple show with a simple premise: shy girl joins club, grows as a character, and ends up making friends in said club, now with a new found appreciation for said club's activities. That's pretty much the series' plot in a nutshell. Although it starts off slow (the first episode especially drags on with Mugi's acute shyness), by episode 3Hitohira picks up, enough for me to marathon the entire series in less than a week upon reaching episode 4. It tells its story in just 12 episodes, something most full-season series have a hard time doing.
One thing I liked about Hitohira is that the characters seem real (well, most of them. Pushy older sister character and lovelorn freshman girl aside), dealing with real problems in a realistic fashion. No one becomes a superstar actor / actress overnight (or the end of the series' run, Mugi included). There are no impeccably evil people trying to sabotage Nono's drama club (her rival / old friend of hers actually shows quite a bit of remorse for Nono for the series, especially in regard to her condition). There's also a lack of other archetypes that usually weigh down even the best high school anime series: goody-goody two shoes, self-righteous characters, busty foreign exchange students, gorgeous men / women, two-faced violent tomboys, or comedy relief animal mascots. Especially surprising is the fact that Hitohira is almost entirely devoid of fan service: no exaggerated breast sizes or butt / panty shots here. In fact, aside from one 90-second scene in a hot spring (which is not the central part of the episode, thank goodness), there is nothing of that sort in all of Hitohira.
What also makes Hitohira appealing to me was, believe it or not, Mugi herself. Starting off as your typical cute, deftly shy girl, Mugi slowly opens out of her shell, albeit realistically. It takes her almost the entire series to come out of it, and even then she still has doubts and problems (although she occasionally shows competence in her acting abilities), but it makes her growth seem that much more realistic. In a move quite unusual for a series of this kind, Mugi's not gung-ho about being an actress like, say, the main heroines of Gunbuster or Battle Athletes were about their respective fields of interest. In fact, Mugi often gives up easily, and more than once she tries to run away from practice. But it's mixed feelings of doubt and wonderment, as well as her relationship with Nono and the rest of the club, that brings her back. Most characters that act like this tend to be treated as objects of pity and suffering, but in Mugi's case she has the right combination of charm and personality to make it work. A staff of any lesser writing ability would've made her cloying and annoying to watch.
The drama research club president herself, Nono, is also an interesting character. Her motives for bringing Mugi to the club aren't made clear until quite a bit into the series. Although she often shows a calm look, she can be quite scary when she's angry, with an expression not unlike that of the obligatory creepy little girl in a Japanese horror film (you know, glowing red eyes). Although supposedly scary, these scenes of her being flat-out berserk are actually some of the funniest scenes of the series, showing many different sides to a character that looks boring and dull at first glance. And despite her many abilities (good at academics, able to swim entire lakes in mere seconds, great acting ability), Nono also has a sad side to her as well: her reasons for leaving the original drama club, as well as her rivalry with the Drama Club president, are more than what they seem. It's quite a sad story of a lost friendship and forgotten times, excellently touched upon by the writers.
Then we have the current Drama Club president, Sakaki Mirei, who Satsuki Yukino brings a strong performance of to the character, adding the right kind of smarmy, conceited tone to the character without making her out to be a complete bitch (which she isn't: she actually shows more concern for Nono than most of Nono's friends do!). Despite butting heads with Nono, she is not made out to be villainous or mean, nor does she try at any point in the series try to sabotage Nono's work. It's a mixture of frustration and worry that fuels her character: she wishes for Nono to fail but at the same time wishes they could rekindle their forgotten friendship. Mirei is thrown between two conflicting viewpoints in the series, and it's portrayed very well, much like Mugi and Nono are.
The rest of the cast, sadly, aren't nearly as interesting as the three above characters. Takashi is the older brother figure and the voice of reason in the group (and he wears glasses. Natch!). He's voiced by Narita Ken, an actor better known for his role as Sesshomaru from Inuyasha, and his voice is surprisingly suited to the character. Risaki, the other female senior, is voiced by Kyoko Hikami, is the typical violent sister archetype, forcing via violence for her younger brother Kai to join the club. Speaking of Kai, he's the standard "nice guy" character who's good friends (read: has a crush on) with Mugi, because you can't have a high school slice-of-life series without someone secretly fawning over the main heroine. Like other blogs have said about his character, he feels more at home in a harem series than he does in a high school drama, though some of the cutest scenes in the series involving Mugi also have him in them.
From the Drama Club we have Kanna Chitose, a girl with a love-at-first-sight crush on Takashi, and the closet thing to comedy relief throughout the series (even using cutesy nicknames, like "Mugi-choco" for Mugi). Typical of her type, she has some fantasies / daydreams with the guy of her liking, pretty much cementing every scene she's in. It's kind of funny and ironic to have someone from the Drama Club cheering on Nono's club, and she is one of the few supporters of Mugi early on who isn't in her club, but otherwise Chitose isn't that important of a character. And lastly, we have Mugi's best friend Kayo, a photographer for the school's paper, who doesn't play much of a part in the series except the beginning and end episodes.
Archetypical as some of the characters may be, all of them add to the story throughout the series' run (with the possible exceptions of Chitose and Kai). Best of all, Hitohira itself is almost completely devoid of filler. It has but 12 episodes to tell its story, and except for some of Chitose's fantasies about Takashi, almost every minute of the series adds to the story.
Too bad the color design of Hitohira isn't as strong as its writing. While the character designs are cute and pleasant enough, and the outdoor scenery looks nice (though the backgrounds are simplistic and none too exciting), the interior of the school, as well as the characters' school uniforms, look like they were saturated in yellow before being released from XEBEC's animation office. You think I'm joking? Here is a typical shot of the school's interior:
Like I said before, though, it looks much better outside, and the last few episodes have some really nice color designs now and again. It's a shame it's not consistent throughout, because the art and animation are very solid and well-done for the most part. The music is good, matching the mood from time to time, and some of the end episodes' music pieces are really neat, but it won't leave you rushing to buy the soundtrack. The opening and ending themes are pleasant, non-offensive J-pop that sound like they're from an anime from the late 1990's, as opposed to the J-rock sounds of many recent anime. They're not the greatest tunes, but I actually bothered to listen to them more than once while watching the episodes, something I don't do too often with anime intros and endings.
Not many anime revolve around acting or school plays, and as being one of the few of its kind, Hitohira does a fine job at being what it is: a story about five high school kids in a school acting club.
It takes a while to gain steam, and some of the characters are mediocre, but Hitohira is a cute, fairly original series about acting that tells an entire story in just 12 episodes, and pretty well, too. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: This series isn't afraid to get serious once in a while, leading to quite a few dramatic scenes throughout (especially concerning Mugi, who gets considerably wishy-washy in the series' waning episodes). There's also a couple of fist fights in the series, although none of them feature blood. Fan service is regulated to nearly a single hot spring scene in one episode, and is less than two minutes in length. Older kids and up could watch it, but they probably wouldn't be as interested as those in or out of high school, similar to what Carlos said about Azumanga Daioh.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Hitohira © 2007 Izumi Kirihara / Futabasha / Hitohira Project
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