((Warning: Contains spoilers for Hinamatsuri))
Have you ever watched a series and thought, Wow, this side character is the real star of the series?
Well, that’s how viewers tended to feel watching Hinamatsuri, this season’s surprisingly emotional comedy about a psychokinetic girl being adopted by a yakuza member.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Hina and Nitta are entertaining. Both of them give some brilliant deadpan line deliveries, and the way they interact with each other is perfect. They’re both
kind of very shitty people, but they still try their best to make the other’s lives a little brighter. It’s very sweet, and also very hilarious. However…
…the two don’t really develop that much throughout the show. At least, not compared to the other characters. Sure, Hina used to be a crazed killing machine who mellows out thanks to her time with Nitta, but we don’t really see that much of the transformation – her past self is mostly implied through other character’s reactions to her new self. Ultimately, by the end of the series, she’s still kind of a jerk, even if she does save the day in the final episode, “Yukimatsuri.” As for Nitta, we see him defrost a bit through his relationship with Hina when he vows to bring her home a mommy (“Anzu is A Greeter Now”) and when he bids her farewell (“And It’s The Same Old Hina”) …but then, he throws a lot of that development away when he is caught throwing a party when he thinks Hina has left for good.
Perhaps I’m not giving Nitta and Hina enough credit. It’s not like they’re flat or boring characters, but it really is hard to focus on the character development of the actual main characters when the supporting cast outshines them episode after episode. At the end of the day, it was these “side characters” who made Hinamatsuri the surprising and emotional favorite of the Spring 2018 season.
The most obvious example of this is Anzu, who quickly became a fan favorite. With Anzu, you see a huge transformation by the end of the series that you don’t really see with Hina.
When she arrives in town, Anzu is just as bratty and spoiled as Hina, maybe even more so. Yet, unlike Hina, when Anzu gets stuck in this unfamiliar world, she actually has to learn to adapt. After trying to get by with petty theft and shoplifting, she’s taught the importance of earning things through hard work by an old homeless man named Yassan. Living in the homeless community humbles her real fast, and she learns about humility and the values of working together. Recently, Luminous Mongoose wrote a post that perfectly describes her journey from brat to street rat to fan favorite, so if you’re not familiar with her role in the series, I’ll let his post fill you in.
Not only did Anzu’s wonderfully touching character arc bring tears to all of our eyes, it also brought the narrative down to earth by tackling the issue of homelessness and poverty in Japan. We’re shown the unfortunate reality that homeless communities often get kicked out of any places they try to settle in, and get a glimpse into just how hard it is for people to scrape a living for themselves once they’ve hit financial rock bottom.
Of course, homelessness isn’t a problem that only exists in Japan, but it’s worth noting that it’s a problem that we hardly ever see explored in anime or Japanese media in general, making this character arc a pretty huge deal. It’s incredible that a story about teleporting psychic kids and the yakuza would be the one to bring up awareness about this issue in such a poignant way.
Speaking of surprisingly down-to-earth, there’s our next excellent side character, Mishima. That’s right, Hinamatsuri manages to bring up another real and important issue with its ridiculous story of a middle schooler moonlighting as a yakuza bartender. What starts off as a jokey, goofy premise gradually turns into a very real look at the issue of kids being forced to grow up too fast, and the all-too-real concept of work pushing someone to exhaustion.
Towards the end of the series, Mishima ends up building a network of accomplished businessmen and various business owners and accidentally takes on a ton of jobs (including an office job) while also trying to balance school. In a pretty dark look at her home life, her mother ends up kicking her out because she’s afraid that her daughter has become a prostitute. Finally, when Mishima presents her with the truth, her mother eggs her on and encourages her to continue to overwork herself despite being so young, much to the surprise of Mishima.
I would imagine that, in the harsh academic and career-oriented world of Japan, this narrative about kids being worked to exhaustion and pushed too hard is especially relevant. Japan is known for having extremely high suicide rates, and it’s especially high among children, which is largely due to the amount of work that’s given to students. Now, Mishima doesn’t try to kill herself in the show or anything like that, but those stats are mostly there to show that this is a huge issue in Japan, and that it was a bold move to tackle it in a comedy like this. Even aside from the cultural significance with Japan, as an American adult with an office job, hour long commute, and side hustle, it’s heartbreakingly relatable to see a character pass out as soon as they cross the threshold into their home.
Last, but definitely not least, there’s Mao. For a character who was only seen in two episodes, Mao gets a stunning amount of character development. We see this girl broken down by isolation to the point where she makes coconut versions of Hina and Anzu and befriends them, Castaway-style. It’s a very strong sequence, and immediately got viewers invested in this mysterious new character.
Mao’s story even helps to flesh out the Other World that Hina and Anzu come from – the fact that this organization dropped such an important mission in the hands of a young girl only for her to get stranded (on a potentially deadly island, no less) shows just how incompetent these people really are, especially when you factor in that the only reason this lands on poor Mao is because Kei is too scared to handle Hina herself!
In the end, Hinamatsuri clearly knew that its side characters were holding the most narrative power, because it made the bold (but very fitting) choice to end its final episode with Mao, our girl who had previously only had about fifteen minutes of screen-time. They did not let her arc hang suspended on that stranded island – no, they gave her a full, kick-ass closer complete with an action chase sequence that also completed the narrative arc of another minor character, the lead singer whom Hina had previously levitated during their performances. I mean, sheesh, I know anime that don’t wrap up all the loose ends with its main characters, let alone its side characters, but Hinamatsuri delivered.
Though Mao’s arc/ending certainly didn’t have the same level of cultural relevance as Anzu and Mishima’s did, her brief but exciting story works as an effective closure because the showrunners made us care about her in the brief time she was introduced. It also works so well because, as I’ve ultimately been trying to say, the shining star of the series was never really Hina to begin with – it was the other so-called “minor characters” we met along the way who made this series such a stunning, emotional journey.