There’s a rule, codified by Aristotle (probably), that you can’t have a story without conflict. Without conflict, all you are left with are slice of life stories about things like making dinner, walking to school, doing homework, taking a bath.
In other words, the plot of Hidamari Sketch, the anime adaptation of the manga by Ume Aoki that premiered on BS-i ten years ago. The original series was followed by three sequel series and a handful of OVA episodes, all of them with the gentle, whimsical humor of the original. And it’s one of my favorite series of the 21st century.
The plot boils down to “gently eccentric high school students boarding in a gently eccentric apartment building study art at a gently eccentric school.” The original manga was of the 4-koma variety, and like other anime adaptations of 4-koma manga, the gags follow a certain familiar rhythm: three parts setup to one part punchline.
The adaptation was pretty faithful, and most of the jokes jokes transferred over pretty well. A lot of it is character-based humor: a person will like the jokes as much as they like the characters. And as it happens, I do like the characters: timid protagonist Yuno, away from home for the first time in her life; her eventual best friend Miyako, a brilliant student whose intelligence and talent are hidden by her friendly goofiness; ‘team mom’ Hiro, and student moonlighting as light-novelist Sae. There are a handful of other characters (notably one teacher, Yoshinoya, more eccentric than any student), but really, the show concentrates on the inhabitants of the Hidamari apartment building. In fact, often the anime does not even give other characters faces, or any characteristics other than an outline with the words “GIRL” or “BOY” printed on them.
The stylized art and animation is one of the charming bits of the series. Some shots will feature the unrealistic characters against photo-realistic backgrounds, some will feature realistic props against completely stylized backgrounds. Frequently, the animation uses unmoving realistic backgrounds as a texture, a method pioneered by Gankutsuou (a technique that TV Tropes refers to as “unmoving plaid”.)
Somewhat more iffy are the results when the series goes beyond the original material. It’s hard to stretch several slim volumes of manga into 20+ hours of animation, and so, new material needs to be added. Some additions (Sae’s relationship with her younger sister) work better than others (expanding the roles of the principal and Yoshinoya). Yoshinoya and the principal are likely the two most irritating parts of the series. Yoshinoya in the anime is obnoxious beyond a point most people would be reasonably expected to bear, while the eternally shaky principal is a one-joke character without the joke.
Of course, I was being dishonest in the first place in this retrospective: there is conflict in this series, but it is conflict of the internal variety. This is a series about young people at a pivotal point in their lives, trying to figure out their future. Obviously we most clearly see that struggle in Yuno, and the most touching episodes do deal with her fears of failure, but eventually all the main characters deal with that, including the main characters introduced in subsequent series.
One odd feature of the series is that it is presented anachronically. That is mostly the first three series (and mostly mostly the first two). Having tried watching it in chronological order I think I can safely say that the best way to watch the anime is in the broadcast order. You won’t miss anything, and it’ll save time swapping the disks in and out. For the record, the manga is presented chronologically (bar the occasional flashback). The mixed-up order is just a quirky feature of the anime.
This is a series that celebrates female friendships without indulging male fantasies. It’s about friendship and growing up and finding your place in the universe and dealing with failure and moving beyond it. It’s a show I needed 10 years ago, and one I still need today.