Cute is its own justification. Just looking at the promo art for Gainax's Hanamaru Kindergarten is enough to make most anime fans go "awwww!" and judged simply on its ability to be adorable, this twelve-episode series does not disappoint. In terms of plot, there's still something to be desired, but will that matter when you're re-watching Anzu and friends do the "Panda Cat" dance for the eighty-fifth time because it's the cutest thing you've ever seen? Probably not.
What's unique about Hanamaru Kindergarten is that it's something of a bait-and-switch. The first episode hints at some massive taboo-breaking that never really happens. Anzu, a precocious five-year-old, develops a crush on her rookie teacher, Naozumi Tsuchida, on the first day of kindergarten. Her crush seems innocuous until you learn that Sakura, Anzu's mother, actually married her teacher (and gave birth to Anzu) while still in high school, and Sakura approves of her five-year-old pursuing her own teacher.
Making things more complicated, Tsuchida was Sakura's classmate in high school, and he always carried a bit of a torch for her. Now that Anzu- who strongly resembles her mother- has her sights set on him, is this just a harmless childhood crush? Or for Tsuchida (or Tsuchi, as both Anzu and her mother call him) is this a strange kind of second chance to be with the girl he always loved? Sakura is kind enough to point out that in about ten years, the age difference won't even be a problem!
Some viewers were scandalized by the premise when this show started airing in 2010, however, don't be alarmed: aside from what we just revealed in the previous paragraphs, the show isn't much more objectionable than your typical episode of Sesame Street. This is probably for the best; most viewers prefer a charming, and occasionally heartwarming, show about kindergartners than any real investigation of a man falling in love with a five-year-old. Any viewers who were hoping for some kind of taboo-breaking spectacular (or perhaps train wreck) would be better served by watching 2011's Astarotte's Toy, a series that "goes there," for better and for worse.
However, with the Tsuchi/Anzu relationship destined to go nowhere, the series lacks much progression. Tsuchi does get an age-appropriate love interest in the form of the pretty Nanako Yamamoto, a fellow kindergarten teacher, however it's hard to get invested in this budding romance. If anything, the rather dense Yamamoto seems even less perceptive than Anzu, making for some frustrating viewing. The whole joke behind Anzu's fixation with Tsuchi is that as a small child, she doesn't really understand what she's saying when she claims she wants to marry him, but Tsuchi and Yamamoto are so emotionally immature themselves that there isn't anything to contrast Anzu's inexperience with.
Still, despite the fact that the show's one genuine romance more or less fizzles out, the show does get a lot of mileage out of how children try to understand adult relationships. When Anzu quips that Tsuchi is "hitting on her," in the first episode, we know she doesn't really know what the phrase means, but it's a little disturbing to Tsuchi nonetheless; even though the kids don't know what they're talking about when it comes to love and romance, they somehow always know just a little more than the adults are comfortable with. This constant communication gap is a source of a lot of very true-to-life humor.
Furthermore, Anzu's fellow kindergartners saved the day whenever we got annoyed with Tsuchi and Yamamoto failing to communicate for the umpteenth time. The shy Koume is one of the most adorable characters ever to grace our screens, and the mysterious Hiiragi (or Hii-chan) and her penchant for strange cosplays is fun, even though she was clearly designed to appeal to otaku. Later in the series, Hinagiku, a pint-sized Yakuza princess, vies for Tsuchi's affections as well just to keep things interesting. Tsuchi's fellow teachers, all of whom are more interesting than Yamamoto, bring a lot of personality to the show whenever given the chance. Tsuchi himself is rather bland, but he plays the straight man to everyone else well enough. As a slice-of-life show that happens to take place in and around a kindergarten, the characters make it work.
In terms of production, the show does have some interesting features. Every episode has a different ending animation, which range from minimalist sketch art to some really great, over-the-top stuff. Whether or not Gainax was using the HK endings to test out new directors or just felt like trying something new, the unique endings are sometimes the best part of the show. Furthermore, while not everyone is a fan of the Hanamaru character designs, those absolutely tiny hands and feet get us every time.
Is Hanamaru Kindergarten a must-watch anime? For most viewers, probably not, and those who have little interest in watching cute characters being cute should stay far away. However, as a pleasant distraction featuring some pretty adorable characters, it does what it sets out to do. Also, we have to admit that we loved that flirty Anzu: any five-year-old with that much moxie deserves respect.
Reviewed by Karen Gellender, May 2012
Below: Scenes from Hanamaru Kindergarten.