Ichiro Hanada, a badly-behaved boy from a farming town, is hit and nearly killed by a truck while fleeing from an argument with his parents. Upon recovering, he finds that his hair (shaved for surgery) refuses to grow back and that he can now see and interact with ghosts, much to his consternation. Drawn to those with whom they can talk and seek help from, the ghosts ask for his assistance with their last requests, in order to move to the next world in peace. Ichiro, whose primary desire remains to eat and have fun, wants nothing to do with it; he nonetheless is usually convinced to help, and in the process he begins to slowly but surely understand the scope of the world somewhat more.
Relatively few anime employ rural Japan as a setting, perhaps on account of the medium's general (if not complete) trend towards escapism, and those that do are more likely to treat it as a temporary retreat for city-dwellers than to focus on its permanent inhabitants. Exceptions exist, of course, and few fixate as much on the lives of Japan's rural inhabitants as does Hanada Shounen-Shi, an undeservedly obscure TV series following a young boy's repeated run-ins with ghosts after a near-fatal accident. This series successfully engages the audience's interest in the lives of rural farmers, which many other anime would likely dismiss as being dull and proceed to embellish, as well as the intricacies of their rather casual and humdrum view of the supernatural world akin to that seen in Natsume's Book of Friends. Simultaneously, it takes the extreme risk of making its main character an immature and profoundly unlikeable brat and succeeds, his incomplete understanding and humorous misinterpretations making for the rare show that feels like something taken from a child's viewpoint.
Hanada Shounen Shi has a few potential strikes against it even once one ignores the potentially mundane setting, but if approached from one perspective those apparent failings in fact become refreshing aspects. While at times the art is of quite high quality (and in fact I'd be hard-pressed to say that any of it is poorly-drawn) the designs of most of the characters are quite ugly, Ichiro being "snot-nosed" in the literal sense and most of his family members having proportions that would be ungainly by most shows' standards. This, in fact, was something I appreciated, since its closer approach to realism is mirrored in the less-than-perfect appearance of its characters, and in general the background art is a quite beautiful depiction of rural Japan, one that borders on idyllic in some scenes and shows that the ugly character design more reflects reality than an inability to draw. The music is generally strong, but some will likely find it perplexing (or downright irritating) that the opening themes are songs by The Backstreet Boys; in spite of my dislike of their music, the opening sequence of water-colored drawings grew on me and I never skipped it (the ending sequence, which features little animation, is easily dispensable). Perhaps less easy to ignore are the characters' personalities, which are frightful in some cases: Ichiro is rude, flighty, and profoundly immature, with his mother being shrill and vindictive, his younger sister being a sourpuss, and his father and grandfather being near-useless drunks. The difference between Ichiro and many similar characters, however, is that we are never meant to be entirely on his side even though the story is from his viewpoint. We are constantly aware of his brattiness and given enough to understand about the ghosts' situations to know that his understanding of the situation is incomplete; at the same time, the story follows him closely enough that when he does begin to understand, we are there with him.
Indeed, the show is about Ichiro's process of growing up, to a large extent, for while the animated portion does not reach this point the manga eventually follows his story into adulthood. His interactions with the ghosts are alternately amusing and touching, with him never being willing to help early on but usually gaining at least a fraction of tangible insight at story's end. The quality and tone of the stories, which normally are spread across four or so episodes, is variable, and in part the fact that I do not give this five stars stems from my dissatisfaction with the intended "keystone" story at the end, in which several previously-established facts (such as the fact that ghosts cannot be seen by anyone else) are dispensed with for convenience. Nonetheless, this variety should give most people something to enjoy, and I did enjoy almost all of them. One of my favorites was a story involving Ichiro's swapping bodies with a moribund college student who discovers he had a daughter only when he sends Ichiro to say goodbye to his lover, whom his parents had kept him from; another involves Ichiro's recently-deceased abacus teacher attempting to find the spirit of his own lover, with the show expertly yet simply unravelling how his teacher had grown into the strict and embittered old man he was. Much of Hanada Shounen Shi is dependent on pathos, and yet little of it feels manipulative, perhaps due to the show's disinterest in embellishment. Refreshing, too, is Ichiro's almost indifferent reactions to some of the ghosts, which contrast humorously with their dramatic pleas, and he behaves how I would imagine many young children would in reaction to such a confusing situation.
In general, the show's more comic moments are manifested via the recurring characters, including Ichiro's classmates and a deceased fortune-teller who, rather than move on the next world, trails Ichiro out of pure interest and occasionally lends him unsolicited advice. Most of the characters took time for me to warm to them, but in almost every case I did eventually. Ichiro's friend Souta, whose voice and meek personality I initially found irritating, grew into a favorite of mine due to the degree to which his more earnest and thoughtful personality counterbalance Ichiro's antics, as did Kei, a female classmate whose sour personality manifests from anxiety over her broken family (an issue which the show handles tastefully). Ichiro's mother quickly became sympathetic as well, though sadly his other family members are underused, a fact that may be a product of only certain chapters being animated. The comedy in this series is largely drawn from the nuisance of Ichiro's antics and the subsequent reactions of his annoyed family and neighbors, leaning towards the slapstick and scatological. I personally found most of it to be hilarious, and indeed, this is one of only a few shows I have seen where drama and comedy mesh almost perfectly. The voice acting adds to the humor as well, with Motoko Kumai (known for voicing Xiaolang Li in Cardcaptor Sakura) doing what I felt was a near-perfect rendering of a young boy's voice; in fact, in the impossible event that Calvin and Hobbes were to have an anime adaptation, I wouldn't mind hearing her interpretation of the title character.
Hanada Shounen Shi is probably destined to remain a cult series due to its lack of a "hook" and the nature of the main character; while purely comic shows whose protagonists parallel Ichiro exist, I imagine that many fans will be unreceptive to a show that uses such antics in a semi-serious context. It's a shame, because this show is quite a good one. Its incompleteness and my lack of satisfaction with a few arcs keep it from perfection, but don't let its obscurity fool you: few shows mix pathos and scatological humor successfully, and none I have seen do it better than this one. Track it down if you can.
Funny, refreshing, and sweet in spite of its brash exterior. Take away a star if your tastes in humor do not favor the slapstick. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: There is a lot of toilet humor (Ichiro's grandpa's face lands in dog poop on one occasion) and a fair amount of non-sexual nudity; Ichiro's penis is clearly visible several times, with the context being humorous rather than erotic (thankfully). There is no fanservice of any sort, but the most commonly-available English translations include some profanity, and several scenes depict corporal punishment, the result of a cultural difference that may nonetheless be disturbing to some.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (25/25)
Hanada Shounen-Shi © 2002 NTV/ VAP
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