We all fear a future where we never amount to anything. But when it overwhelms you, it’s the loneliest feeling to bear. Naru Sekiya admits that she is painfully average, playing up to a realism that doesn’t exist in her any more than anyone else. In truth, she idolises fairytale princesses who dazzle away all darkness and doubt. She wants someone to take her away from this world, and lead her somewhere she could have a new chance to shine. But after she meets Hana as though she’s crossed a fairy’s path, in a story up on a slider scale between NANA and Chihayafuru, she starts to learn that her dreams are her own responsibility.
Hana N. Fountainstand has a quirky hobby to go with her eccentricity, which comes in no small part from the fact that she’s just moved to Japan from America. She seems irreverent of the sequestered public lives of the Japanese, and thrusts flyer after flyer for the yosakoi dance club she’s trying to start on her schoolmates. But just as Naru flourishes in Hana’s company, despite her “boyish” exuberance, Hana has her own reservations. She loves comic books, but turns to them in part because she understands their heroes’ constant battle with loneliness. She wants to do something meaningful with friends she’s yet to make, and aspires to the energy and elegant oneness of yosakoi. As much as her boisterous nature is genuine, she amps it up as armour. Really, it takes all her strength to try and recruit club members.
It’s a stroke of fortune that Naru has her friends, prideful drummer Yaya Sasame and gentle, refined Tami Nishimikado, on side to make the yosakoi club a reality. But embarking on club activities and practice pulls away from the ecstatic impact of Naru and Hana’s love at first sight. Their time together, far more than the fairytale they strive to create with their dance, is bundled up in dreamy magic that shares a shades-calmer likeness to fellow studio Madhouse production, Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. When they’re together, time slows and the audience can sink into their absolute faith in one another. But as soon as they’re back at school, the wheedling girl dramas flash by one after the other. Yaya’s band hits a stumbling block in auditions, and abandoned by the other members she isolates herself in jealousy of Naru. This fallout is particularly grating in the dub as it whines itself to completion without reward.
Tami’s core conflict is a quieter one, more in tune with the show’s key of healing. Learning to let go of the reams of hobbies she continues only to make her father happy, there’s a shared relief in shedding pretence and self-love as the secret to shining. Confession from a place of unconditional love is the peak of each of the girls’ development, and the shattering of Yaya’s tsundere fortifications is the closest she comes to being soothing to the viewer. Her presence more often stresses out a story that otherwise tells us to take action, but take it slow and not to worry.
As disruptive as the squabbles are, concern for Hana that’s been stirring under the surface is left free to build towards a heart-aching climax. Naru has her heroine’s vindication, given a chance to be strong for her friends in return. And through each performance by the yosakoi club, there is no magical transformation, no dashing saviour, just friends supporting each other with every graceful turn or misstep. Yosakoi becomes less a support beam for the story, and more a metaphor embedded in Naru’s discovered courage. Her imagined fairytale was just waiting for her to take a first brave step, and start to make it her own story.
Extras: English dub; clean opening/closing animation; also available from Sentai Filmworks.