Hidamari Sketch: The Color of Life is Ever-changing

The complete series produced by studio Shaft from 2007 – 2013

From the dawn of our lives, we are ceaselessly searching for our calling. Some find it sooner than others; a passion so great that it drives us to express ourselves through the art of creation. It’s a journey that always starts with the self, and there’s no telling whether the road will be straight and narrow or long and winding. People are rarely ever their own impetus to self-discovery. We are chiseled and shaped by our circumstances, our experiences, and our relationships. Friendship, companionship, and the wide flavor of interpersonal relationships can serve as a mirror to ourselves. It serves as a beacon for that elusive dream that has yet to be pinned down. I personally have learned many valuable lessons, both good and bad, from the relationships I nurtured along the way to adulthood. When all is said and done, the most important lessons you learn are from the people who stick by you to the very end. This is one of the core values that define Hidamari Sketch, an anime series where individual passion and unbreakable friendship are just two sides of the same vibrant coin. 

It may come as a surprise to some that Hidamari Sketch was studio Shaft’s very first flagship series. Before then, they had produced a handful of adaptations, but typically they ended after only one or two cours. In contrast, the studio produced its adaptation of Hidamari Sketch every year from 2007 to 2013, resulting in a total of 60 episodes spanning 4 seasons and several OVA specials. That’s far more than most slice-of-life anime ever get in terms of a final episode count, so it’s certainly set up to be a rewarding series for anyone who becomes invested. As it turns out, it makes the most of its episode count in ways that even I wouldn’t have expected going into for the first time. Before recently, I was only aware of its existence through my early browsing days on /a/ back at the beginning of the 2010s when the start and end of my context for the series lied strictly in the realm that they call “wideposting”.

Like most slice-of-life series, Hidamari Sketch is a premise without a traditional plot structure. The center of the world is planted squarely on a modest little apartment complex with a maximum capacity of 6; this is Hidamari Apartments, an incredibly frequent piece of scenery in which our main cast lives and breathes. The proper name for this location is Hidamari-sou; “Hidamari” refers to an area illuminated by sunlight, and “-sou” is a suffix that roughly translates to “villa”. This apartment complex is a source of urban legend tied to the nearby Yamabuki Private Arts High School. Yamabuki is known for its specialized art curriculum which is separate from the general education classes, and it is said that the most eccentric pupils who study under the art program shack themselves up at the apartment complex just a walk across the street from the front gate. Like any great urban legend, the line between what’s true and false is somewhat blurry. When the earnest and clumsy Yuno arrives at Hidamari-sou to begin her new life, this is something she has to face head-on.

The Hidamari girls assuming their “wide” forms

Of course, when we meet Yuno in the very first episode of the series, she’s not just arriving. On the contrary, it’s nearing the end of her first year at Yamabuki and she’s long settled into her place as a first year student living on her own. This is the direct result of a unique artistic decision that the studio made when producing the adaptation: a non-chronological order of events. Most slice-of-life anime, especially ones where school is a primary setting, typically do not concern themselves too much with the flow of time in any other direction than forward. You get your semesters, summer and winter break, festivals, events, and the works. The pieces are familiar enough that there’s no real need to reinvent the wheel. The brilliant minds at Shaft knew this as well, so instead they simply changed one thing: the direction the wheel turned.

Yuno lives on the second floor of Hidamari-sou in room 201. Her neighbor in room 202 is her fellow first-year, the bright and carefree Miyako. Coming from a mysterious and destitute past, Miyako is the most eccentric of the group and finds herself craving food at all times of day. On the first floor are their second year seniors, the motherly weight-conscious Hiro and the boyish workaholic novelist Sae. It’s clear that the first and second years have a pair dynamic going on, but the four of them come together just as naturally. After the start of the third season, the tech literate Nori and the terminally shy Nazuna move into rooms 203 and 103 respectively and join the group, increasing the total to 6. As we see more and more of their experiences together, the full picture of their bonds start to flesh out in a surprisingly complex way. Despite the normal exaggeration that is typical of any slice-of-life anime, the way the characters interact is often more realistic and human than many of its contemporaries despite its cutesy demeanor. 

Each episode of Hidamari Sketch has a title in two parts. The second part is the episode’s proper title, but the first part is always a date, just a month and day with no year specified. Instead of outright establishing the current year, the anime casts a spotlight on frequent visual motifs and significant events that establish the timeframe through relativity. One of the most prominent examples of this is the sign at the front of Hidamari-sou. In the second episode of the first season, the girls are tasked with replacing the existing sign during their summer vacation. The four of them each take responsibility for creating their own version of one of the four hiragana that makes up “Hidamari”, each one having a diverse artistic spin that reflects the person designing it. The final character, “sou”, is drawn together by all four of them to complete “Hidamari-sou”. This sign becomes a prominent symbol in the anime that is representative of their bond as the apartment becomes a second home to each of them. When the anime goes back to earlier events in the year, or even prior to Yuno’s arrival, you can be sure that the old sign will be front and center to signify that fact.

Hidamari-sou in all its glory, mailboxes included

That being said, the first two seasons of Hidamari Sketch largely cover Yuno’s first year at Yamabuki, so there isn’t much need to worry about keeping track of the clock. By moving events out of order, it turns the anime into more of an episodic experience where the here-and-now is just as important as what comes next. Hidamari Sketch and its second season, Hidamari Sketch x 365, are two puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly. Until the third season, most episodes typically cover a single day and no more than that. Many events and conversations in both the past and the near future are referenced with very little context; that is, until a later episode where you get to see these events firsthand, neatly filling in the blanks that connect them together. One of the best examples is an episode in the first season where the girls are supposed to compete in a sports festival at school, but it gets delayed until the next day due to a typhoon. In the second season, we finally get to see the sports festival itself which completes the whole picture. This is done in such a way that each episode is still distinctly individual from each other despite taking place in two consecutive days, further cementing its mission statement to present a self-contained episodic experience that doesn’t necessarily need context to be enjoyable.

As the girls travel between the apartment, school, and sometimes beyond, they frequently run into a handful of different characters who form a solid secondary cast that is ever present in their daily lives. At school, Yuno and Miyako study under their eccentric art instructor Yoshinoya, an immature “eternally seventeen” woman who is wise about art and inappropriate about everything else. She often trails off in the middle of lessons to show off her cosplay which very frequently shows an excessive amount of skin. Her greatest enemy is Yamabuki’s own principal (referred to literally as “Kouchou-sensei”), a shaky and kind old man with an incredibly tall head who is often irritated at Yoshinoya’s behavior and reprimands her as a result. There’s also Kuwahara, the school nurse who often shelters Yoshinoya in the school infirmary against her best judgment. Outside of class, the girls sometimes run into other members of the art program. My personal favorite of them is Natsume, a second year student who is in the class opposite of Sae and Hiro. In her early appearances, Natsume proclaims herself as Sae’s rival and often acts tough and sarcastic toward her. In reality, Natsume is a tried and true tsundere who is genuinely in love with Sae to the point that she earnestly reads her published stories on her own time. Natsume’s infrequent appearances become longer and intertwine further with the Hidamari girls over the course of the series, culminating at the very end with one of the most emotionally moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a slice-of-life anime. It was so powerful that it made me cry before even reaching the true climax of the series finale, and if that isn’t a testament to the love and care put into these characters and their experiences, I don’t know what is.

Outside of school, the girls semi-frequently hang out with other characters such as Sae’s cheeky little sister Chika, who was actually an anime only character before being inserted into the manga later on. Another one of my favorite side characters is the landlady of Hidamari-sou, also referred to literally by her title “Ooya-san”. She’s a woman with a somewhat masculine personality who likes baseball caps, fishing, drinking, and is particularly bad at quitting her smoking habit. Despite how laid-back and disorganized she is, the girls are constantly running into her as she works a roulette of part-time jobs that seem to change by the week. There’s a running joke early on where Ooya-san keeps showing up conveniently when Yuno isn’t there, which makes Yuno worried that she’s being seen as disrespectful. When the two finally meet, Yuno realizes why her friends kept telling her not to worry about it. Ooya-san is another character whose rate of appearance escalates the longer the series goes on, even finding her way into hanging out with the girls at the apartment every once in a while. Even with her carefree personality, she sometimes imparts some genuine wisdom to the girls as someone who has been in their position. This is something that is largely consistent with the adult characters in this show; no matter how they act, they often have perspectives and experiences that they impart to help the cast grow and find themselves as they go through the peak uncertainty of their adolescence.

Yoshinoya and her favorite stunningly realistic camera

In the time that Shaft produced Hidamari Sketch, there were several key moments that significantly changed the course of the studio. The dividing line that concluded the Team Shinbo era of Shaft was the production of Bakemonogatari in 2009, which was then followed up by the transition into what many consider “modern Shaft” with Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica in 2011. Much of this paradigm shift is reflected in the visual style and direction of each season, especially the third and fourth seasons. The first two seasons were produced just a year apart from each other in 2007 and 2008 respectively, so the visuals largely correlate upwards in terms of quality going from the first to the second without any significant deviation from the overall style of the anime. Hidamari Sketch x 365 is by far the best in this regard, retaining the visual uniqueness and flair that defined the Team Shinbo era while touting a more refined artstyle that capitalized wonderfully on its established visual direction. 

Hidamari Sketch is an anime that takes a “less is more” approach with its visual presentation. While there are standard environments and backgrounds like any other slice of life, the characters are often displaced from these environments into pop art inspired graphic design worlds where the primary focus is shifted to the characters themselves and their actions. The girls are often posing for an invisible camera, making poses and faces that are expressive and cute enough to put in a photo frame. Motifs and symbols are often used as shorthand to convey specific information instead of explicitly displaying it. The most common example of this is when one of the girls is talking, often when the full group is hanging out, and it displays a symbol representative of the character instead of focusing the shot on them. Each of the main characters has a symbol that is easily identifiable based on their appearance. Yuno’s is an X, representative of her x-shaped hair clips. Miyako’s is a cat paw, which is a reference to an early episode where she tries to take care of a stray cat. Sae’s is her pair of glasses, and Hiro’s is one of her messy hair buns. When the newcomers Nori and Nazuna are introduced later on, they too get their own symbols.

Early anime productions in the Shaft catalog such as Pani Poni Dash utilized a mixed media approach by combining traditional animation with pictures and footage of real world objects. Though it tones down significantly by the third season, Hidamari Sketch leans even harder into this by establishing an aesthetic that is like a collage of these elements. All the objects in Yuno’s room, such as her alarm clock and the photo frames standing on her shelf, are real images inserted into the hand drawn world. Sometimes the girls will even be interacting with those real objects, like the sequence of Yuno and Miyako holding a realistic cabbage in the first season. One would expect the contrast to clash too much to be enjoyable, but the way Shaft integrated the real and drawn elements into the visual style of the show is so careful and fluid that it actually elevates it to heights it may not have reached alone. It’s the kind of stylistic nuance that you rarely ever see from other anime like it, and it’s another aspect that gives the series its own distinct identity that transcends the standard expectation for a “cute girls doing cute things” presentation. It’s unfortunate that they did not keep relying on this style as much in the later episodes, but that is just a side effect of a larger shift in Shaft’s production style as they transitioned into the early 2010s.

Miyako presenting the realistic cabbage of yore to the group

Hidamari Sketch is a series that splits directly down the middle; the first and second season form a complete circuit so tightly wound that it invokes ouroboros-like chronology by having the final episode of the second season take place on the day before the first episode of the series. If these two seasons and their respective OVAs were all that the series had to offer, it would still be one of the best representations of what makes slice-of-life so uniquely enjoyable. Of course, that’s only half of the story. The two halves of Hidamari Sketch split so evenly that, counting the OVAs for each season, each half is exactly 30 episodes of the 60 total. It’s unclear if this was deliberate, but in a sense it forms a two act experience that is divided by Yuno’s experience as a first and then second year at Yamabuki. Though she isn’t the only character perspective we get to see, most episodes in the series end with Yuno in the bath reflecting the day’s events, the majority of which are relative to her. There are character specific episodes from time to time, and there are scenes that follow separate viewpoints, but you can expect it to find its way to wrap back around to Yuno in proximity with everyone else. 

When that character perspective does change, it’s usually for a character that’s only been seen in a specific environment. There’s an episode in the second season where the first half is from Yoshinoya’s perspective. We get to see her morning routine before she’s forced to head to school to do work over the summer break. Instead of doing that work, she endures scolding from the principal as she attempts to covertly complete her midsummer greeting cards that she sends to all of her students. This episode showcases more interactions between the faculty members, including scenes that highlight the friendship between Yoshinoya and school nurse Kuwahara. We also get the novelty of seeing Yoshinoya speak to the Hidamari girls briefly before they carry on with their day of summer vacation without us as the viewers to follow them.

The second season also has some of the best visual gags in the series. There are several scenes where Yoshinoya shows up behind some abstract representation of herself. First it’s a painting of the Mona Lisa with the hair and eye color changed to match her own. There’s even a point where she enters a classroom and all it shows is a picture of Yoshinoya-style ramen, referencing the beef bowl restaurant of the same name. There’s also some really funny off-kilter scenes that completely caught me off guard. One of my favorite episodes involves Yuno sneaking up to the roof to get enjoy a day of pleasant weather during her lunch break. As she’s laying down, she seamlessly drifts into sleep without knowing it, hallucinating that she gets abducted after a UFO suddenly appears above her. The image of Yuno getting experimented on by aliens is something that would be incredibly baffling to see out of context, but even in context the visual direction is so smooth and sudden that it’s pretty hilarious to see it play out.

Aliens struggling to figure out how Yuno goes wide mode

The third season of Hidamari Sketch, Hidamari Sketch x Hoshimittsu (meaning “three stars”, hence why it is often stylized as ☆☆☆), is when the visual and art direction experiences its biggest shift. In fact, quite a few things change in general with the flow of the series from this point on. It has the hardest job of the entire series, and as a consequence, it is by far the weakest offering of them all. I wouldn’t consider it a huge downgrade by any stretch, but to understand why it struggles to bear its own weight, one must look at the circumstances surrounding it. Hoshimittsu aired in Winter 2010, which places it squarely after the Bakemonogatari line of separation. As such, there were many changes to the staff who worked on the series, and with them came a recalibration for its direction. While they still make use of shorthand and graphic design focused backgrounds, the visuals are far less sharp and picturesque. The direction is not as tight and focused, largely opting in for a lot more visual noise to fill the space. In prior seasons, the camera would often look straight at the scene, letting the simplicity of the character actions fill out the perspective with some angling if necessary. Hoshimittsu opts in for more slanted angles and shots that rely more on the environment to showcase the scene. This isn’t always a net negative decision, but it takes away from the “less is more” mantra that the visual direction followed so uncompromisingly in the seasons prior. Thankfully, the art itself is still very nice to look at and it does experiment with the color palette in a few interesting ways to keep its visuals distinct despite the other setbacks like the animation quality which comes off as a bit more stiff than before.

That’s not the real core of the struggle that Hoshimittsu endures, though. There are two primary changes that are critical for understanding this aspect. The first is the introduction of the two new Hidamari-sou tenants, Nori and Nazuna. The complex has always housed 6 apartments, but rooms 103 and 203 had been shuttered off up until this point. In the second season, there’s a very entertaining side plot that involves a mystery surrounding noises coming from room 203 despite nobody living there. I won’t spoil the punchline of the mystery as it’s pretty good, but it highlights the fact that those rooms have been there this whole time with nobody to fill them. Naturally, the time to fill them came, and so our two new characters appeared. Nori is the first tech savvy member of the Hidamari-sou family, going so far as to get an internet line installed at the complex so she can move her desktop computer in. Many of her scenes in this season involve introducing the other girls to the wonderful world of the internet in a much simpler time. Nazuna, on the other hand, is a very nervous and self-conscious girl who happens to be the first known tenant in history to not be part of the arts program. She’s a normal general education student who just happened to need a place to stay near the school and stumbles her way spectacularly into the group. Now, the problem isn’t with the characters themselves, as I do like them. The real issue is that the anime has to spend quite a bit of time establishing them and their interactions with the original group, and the way this is accomplished largely hinges on the second change which completely restructures the flow of the anime.

The lack of chronological order that defined Hidamari Sketch as an episodic show was whittled and then completely stripped away by the time the third season reached its conclusion. With the first half of the series, the character introductions were easy because there almost weren’t any. By starting immediately after winter break in Yuno’s first year, enough of the character chemistry was already established that the viewer can just assume and absorb information through osmosis to tell where the relationships between each of them lie. This is a far more interesting and enjoyable way to learn about the characters and it doesn’t involve any explicit back and forth between them or the events that transpire. The scenes of Yuno moving into Hidamari-sou and meeting the other girls don’t appear until the first episode of the second season, which happens to be one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. With the character relationships already established, this rewind to the start of Yuno’s journey is able to focus far more on the establishment of these bonds and their significance. Miyako coming over to Yuno’s apartment and establishing the “Yunocchi” nickname, Yuno and Miyako sharing the bath for the first time, and the Hidamari-sou initiation party that happens in a later episode; scenes like these end up wielding far more emotional heft when one is already acquainted with these characters. The first season gives an appropriate amount of context for their relationships at various stages of the year to come, so the true start of the series ends up feeling like an accentuation of that context rather than raw setup.

The Hidamari girls are aware of your existence!

It makes sense why Shaft decided to go for a chronological approach here. Not a single episode prior to Hoshimittsu touches on Yuno’s second year at all, and that was a deliberate choice. With new characters being introduced, there’s no explicit benefit for maintaining the non-chronological order. The logic is sound, but the resulting consequence is that all the setup between Nori, Nazuna, and the rest of the group is drawn out and noticeably dry. This anime was already somewhat dry as it stands, but the individual elements that strengthened its charm would always pick up the slack when necessary. This season did not nearly have a support system with the same amount of strength, and so it feels like very little happens even in a general sense. The most exciting events I remember are Miyako accidentally burning her hair and having to go to the hair salon with Yuno, and the department store trip where Nori and Nazuna decide to buy new curtains for their respective rooms. The introductory episode for the new girls was especially perplexing because they barely show up. This is largely due to a gag where the original group gets invited by Nazuna’s parents to go get something to eat, which then results in Nori and Nazuna showing up one after the other wondering why nobody is there. When the two of them do finally meet the group, the entire sequence is strangely abridged with a voiceover showcasing photos of the initiation party which doesn’t happen until the following episode.

Hoshimittsu spends so much time re-establishing the series flow while simultaneously laying its own groundwork that it doesn’t get the time to breathe and enjoy itself until the very end. Despite my criticisms, I still think it’s a solid experience and it certainly has a handful of good moments. It’s a noticeable change in the show’s dynamic and it takes getting used to, and not all of those changes are for its own benefit. On top of that, 365 is by far my favorite of the seasons and having to follow that up was already a tall order. I tried to separate that fact from my opinion of it because I feel like the competition is considerably unfair in this case. Hoshimittsu is trying its best, and for what it’s worth, those efforts are not all for naught. There’s a fun episode in the latter half where Yuno gets locked out of her room and has to end up sleeping in the other girls’ rooms each night as Ooya-san spends several days digging through her disorganized closet to find the spare key. I thought this was a clever way to give her individual quality time with everyone. I also appreciated the small consistencies in episode structure that helped tie the season together. Episodes would often start from the perspective of the school staff, most commonly Yoshinoya and the principal with some other appearances from Kuwahara and Mashiko, the art instructor for the class opposite of Yoshinoya. Mornings at Hidamari-sou start to incorporate a calisthenics routine that catches on quickly among the girls. There’s also the planting of a tomato farm which gradually grows each episode until it finally sprouts at the beginning of the season finale. The tomato themed climax of this season will be a winner for anyone who really likes tomatoes and Italian food.

In fact, Hoshimittsu is when I realized that Hidamari Sketch is often just a food anime in disguise. You rarely see slice-of-life casts consume such a large variety of food types like you do with these girls. This is likely a byproduct of having a major character who has the primary trait of being hungry living with another major character who can basically cook anything with no issue at all. There’s always a good excuse to get the gang together in Hiro’s room where she can whip up some incredibly delicious looking food you haven’t seen her make yet and watch as Miyako devours it about ten times faster than everyone else. If you love watching cute anime girls eat food, then you can rest assured that there’s another layer of appeal here for you. The amount of food related plots that show up in this series is staggering, and I became hyper aware of it from this point onward.

Nori watches as the girls struggle with modern technology

The last thing I want to touch on with the changes in the third season is a byproduct of the chronological shift, which is the noticeable increase of distinct A and B parts for episodes. As I’d mentioned before, episodes in first two seasons of Hidamari Sketch typically covered a single day’s events. In 365, there were a few select episodes that were split into two halves, but they were largely non-sequitur segments that covered completely different days with no explicit connection. Hoshimittsu is where the series started having episodes with two parts on separate days that were related to each other either directly through context for another event or connected thematically through a common denominator. As a more linear experience, the third season only feels the need to call back to previous events when it wants to connect them to what happens next in the current time instead of having the two halves be their own self-contained experiences. The one true caveat of Hoshimittsu doing all this work is that nothing that came after had to worry about it. By the time one reaches the final season, Hidamari Sketch x Honeycomb, the effect of this is clear as day. This even applies to Hidamari Sketch x SP, a standalone OVA series consisting of two episodes that aired in 2011 just a year prior to Honeycomb; the same year that Shaft unleashed Madoka Magica upon the unsuspecting world and created a behemoth franchise that is still going at the time of writing this. Ume Aoki’s character designs are still alive and well thanks to that!

The same way that 365 is a stylistic evolution of the first season, Honeycomb makes use of its predecessor as a springboard to find its own individual style that covers its previous weaknesses. For the most part, it does this with great success. The only shortcoming is the change to the overall color palette, which takes on a nice pastel look that does enhance the vibrancy of the art in some cases, but it also washes out a lot of the color diversity. I immediately noticed that everyone has the same exact skin color, which is weird because characters like Natsume and even Nori had noticeably darker skin than the others. That being said, almost everything else about the visual direction is a net positive step up from what Hoshimittsu was offering. The lessons Shaft learned as they tweaked their style through producing the Monogatari series and Madoka Magica are on full display here as we get the quintessential head tilts, creative camera work, and an increase in emphasis on basic actions that breathes new life into the series during its last triumphant stride. It doesn’t match the same strengths it was flexing in the first half of its run, but it is a solid reinvention that reincorporates the core simplicity and character focus back into the visual design but with its own spin. This was something that popped out to me from the very first episode and thankfully manages to stay consistent all the way until the very last episode.

Honeycomb is free from the burden of establishing character relations, so naturally it makes the most of its runtime by letting the girls experience more exciting events. There’s an episode early on where all the Hidamari girls go to the bathhouse and they bond even more than they did in the third season. Another highlight is Yuno’s trip to the cafe with her ex-upperclassman friend Arisawa who she met in the previous season after accidentally leaving her phone at school. At the time, Yuno’s first year had not yet concluded, and Arisawa was a third year just a month away from graduation. The unlikely meeting between these two forms a sudden friendship that embodies one of the most important core themes of the series. When they meet again in Honeycomb, Arisawa is already going to college and Yuno is halfway through her second year. Arisawa mentions the importance of keeping in touch, and how bonds can only be maintained at a distance if each person actively stays in touch or else they are destined to break. As people move on with their lives to different locations, their passions take them on a path that only they can follow, where even the best of friends can’t always be in close proximity to each other. Distance is not the end; as long as one wishes to maintain that bond, it will always be there as long as they keep in touch. This is one of the powerful sentiments that Hidamari Sketch touts in its last stretch. It can be sad to part from someone you care about, and it can be sad to look back on friendships that have faded, but the strongest interpersonal relationships come from people who actively reach out to each other no matter the degree of separation. Those are bonds that cannot be broken even if they are stretched around the entire circumference of the Earth itself.

Arisawa dispensing wisdom with the red flannel equipped

While the last season engages in fun events like the swim meet where Yuno gets to play photographer and the school festival where Yuno and Miyako master the art of the haunted house, there are quite a few serious, melancholic moments that touch on questions the characters have been asking themselves for the entirety of the series. The viewer gets to witness sides to these characters that had yet to show themselves, establishing a dimension of surprising depth to the whole cast quite effectively. The pressure for Yuno to be a good upperclassman presents itself in the third season after Nori and Nazuna arrive, but it largely ties into a deeper insecurity about her own self-expression. In the first season, Yuno tries to finish a piece for the art exhibition but falls asleep before completing it. As people come to see it, they praise it with interpretations that the unfinished quality of it was deliberate, which frustrates Yuno as it was not the artistic intention of the piece. In a later episode of the third season, Yuno tenses up during a sketch competition due to stress and a lack of sleep, which ends up with her piece being ranked low on the list. That moment of vulnerable exposure to judgment traps Yuno in a depressive spiral where she questions her ability to present her art to other people. It’s only when Hiro draws the comparison between her and Sae, who struggles with constant judgment from her editor for her writing job, that Yuno realizes that being judged comes with the creation of any art, and it is the love for that art and its self-expression that always transcends the anguish of criticism. Having learned this lesson going into the events of Honeycomb, Yuno ends up entering in a piece for a competition to be the front illustration of the Yamabuki School Festival pamphlet, which she ends up winning. Hidamari Sketch often uses its art focus as a parallel to the self-discovery and growth of the characters themselves, a double helix that resonates in perfect harmony.

Of course, there’s also a heavier focus on Sae and Hiro who are now third years well on their way to graduation. These two have been inseparable friends since their first year but face the reality that the two of them will likely not be going to the same schools. While Hiro is fully invested in the arts program and has a passion for teaching, Sae is torn between art and following her true passion for writing. There’s quite a few heart wrenching scenes as these two come to terms with their paths in life, especially Hiro who struggles to face the truth when Yoshinoya has a rare moment of wisdom and tries to prevent Hiro from following a path she doesn’t truly believe in. In many slice-of-life anime with a school focus, graduation is an obvious endpoint for a story. School largely exists as a symbol of adolescence, especially in Japanese society where they spend much of that time in school to begin with. Graduation is tantamount to the conclusion of one’s adolescence, and as such, stories tend to close themselves with diploma in hand. While the Hidamari Sketch anime series sees this as an appropriate point to bookend the long journey that came before, it still expresses a different sentiment altogether. Graduation, like parting, is not the end. The lesson that Yuno learned from Arisawa still applies here. During the course of the series, we see the Hidamari girls go from being friends, to close friends, to becoming a full-fledged family of their own. Hidamari-sou is their second home, and having to leave that is a colossal emotional endeavor for everyone. Yet, they still come to terms with it and accept that they will never be truly separated, even when they’re apart from each other. The formative bonds and experiences that shape people do not ever truly disappear. They can be refined or they can rust away, but yet they still remain. Needless to say, the bonds between these four girls – then six girls – are unbreakable. We don’t need to see that to believe it, as the entire series is in of itself proof of these fundamentally human experiences. Even when Sae and Hiro fought back in a later episode of 365, they still made up because quarrels and disagreements are too part of those experiences. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and what isn’t shattered is reinforced forever.

I have a fundamental belief with slice-of-life as a genre in the medium of anime, and it is the core reason why I personally find so much enjoyment from the best it has to offer. This is a belief I’ve said before and I will surely say again: a slice-of-life anime is only as good as its characters. That’s why even in its dullest moments, I never slowed down with this series because I still loved the characters wholeheartedly. The comforting familiarity of Hidamari-sou is so ingrained in its own symbolism; seeing the girls eating in Hiro’s room and talking about miscellaneous things and contextual remarks about the day’s events is like seeing a video of a conversation you had once in the distant past. There’s a sense that no matter how bad or tough things get, there’s always a place to go back to. The earnest Yuno, the carefree but deeply kind Miyako, the shy yet wise Sae, and the deeply empathetic Hiro; by the time the final credits roll, these four feel less like characters and more like human beings who live within a degree of exaggerated truth in their idealized world. Even though Nori and Nazuna get only half the time to become situated with the other girls, the events of the second half of the series succeed in their endeavor to fully establish the first years as part of the Hidamari family. This even extends to characters like Natsume and Ooya-san who frequently weave in and out of the interpersonal web to the point that they are forever sewn into it. In the tail end of the series during the Sae Hiro graduation OVAs, Ooya-san establishes the “Sunflowers of Hidamari-sou” association to ensure that the close friends who spend their time in the apartments will never lose touch and always have a place they can call home. It is at that critical moment where the series yet again reinforces its core belief in human relationships and that not all things need to fade as one chapter of life closes and another begins. As it goes, characters in literature often remain from chapter to chapter, and sometimes even book to book. The stories of our lives are truly not so different from that. To recite another commonly used proverb paraphrased earlier by Arisawa: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Ooya-san forming the association with peak fashion sense

Speaking of staying the same, there are aspects of this series that always keep a consistent level of quality throughout its entire run. The first and foremost of these is the music; both the score itself and the several OP and ED songs that appear throughout the series. All of the background music in the series was composed by Tomoki Kikuya, a composer who would go on to do a lot of other anime that unfortunately are mostly mediocre with the sole exception of Shinryaku! Ika Musume, more commonly referred to as Squid Girl in the west. The first season of Hidamari Sketch was one of his first roles as a composer, and it also happens to be his best. The score is often very light and airy, utilizing elements of traditional piano, keyboard, guitar, bass, string arrangements, horn sections, rhythm sections, and a bit of spice on top through instruments like the accordion and flute. Some tracks also make use of female vocalists who often add flavor to the track in the form of non-lexical vocables. There is an incredible amount of versatility in the score to match the wide range of emotions and situations that the series touches upon from episode to episode, the tempo and instrumental density often fluctuating to fit the scene. With the exception of the final season, each new iteration of Hidamari Sketch came with a brand new set of offerings for the overall soundtrack of the series. Combining just the entirety of the show’s OST sans the full versions of the OP/EDs and supplemental releases like character songs, it ends up being just under 3 hours for the background music alone. It’s amazing how much versatility is shown off in this period of time, and each subsequent addition to the whole ends up taking in the context of new events and characters to create a unified soundtrack that blankets the series in warmth and bathes comfortably in its own motifs. One of the most recognizable tracks from the series is the song that plays during every episode preview, titled “Shinmiri”. It’s a low tempo lounge song with nonsense vocals and a string section that swells quite beautifully like a reassuring embrace, always punctuating the end of the episode with ease. 

Now, that’s not to say that the OP and ED songs don’t deserve the same level of praise. They certainly do! Hidamari Sketch OP songs have a lot of energy but do a good job of harnessing that into something that is fun and catchy without being overly saccharine. The composers for each OP are largely different, so there are quite a few takes on the sound. My personal favorite is the OP for 365, “Hatena de Wasshoi”. This is undoubtedly one of the peaks of all slice-of-life opening songs that are both noisy and fun. The track itself is high octane and infectious, and the effect of that is greatly enhanced by the OP visuals that are colorful and unique, doing so much in just a short 90 second period of time. My favorite part about the OP visuals for this season is the brief cutaway to Miyako sitting at a table eating food that happens about halfway through. Every episode, this scene is either slightly or absurdly different. Miyako might just have more bowls on the table than before, or she might also be tossing a pizza like a frisbee off screen before catching it in her mouth as it loops around the other side. This is a minute detail, but it’s this attention to detail that makes both the visuals stand out and the song itself, which is a real earworm if you enjoy that kind of music. Another honorable mention is “Sketch Switch”, the very first OP of the series that channels a vintage kind of energy with its cutesy singalong vocals and preprogrammed claps that bounce along the instrumental. This has that classic “roll call” visual where it introduces all the characters by name during the OP, which is something I’ve always found novel as it isn’t something you see in most modern anime OPs even for CGDCT adjacent works. It’s also worth mentioning that the SP OVA series also got the privilege of its own OP, which ended up growing on me quite a lot as I listened to the music on my own time in the days following my completion of the series. “Kimagure, Janken Pon!” is another very bouncy track that involves all six of the Hidamari girls switching off and harmonizing their vocals as a high tempo beat rolls in the background. I especially like the visuals for this OP, as it involves all the girls working together to construct this comically large cake, a process that actually was animated very fluidly for a sequence that was only used for a total of two episodes. 

The ED songs are far more consistent in sound as they were all composed by marble, a musical duo that relies very little on programmed instrumentation. The backbone of their compositions is an acoustic guitar, which gives their sound a bit of an indie pop flair which is actually a breath of fresh air as far as ending songs go. The first ED of the series, “Mebae Drive”, sets a pretty solid expectation for what the rest of them sound like; twinkly acoustic guitar with a steady drumbeat and a subtle bassline with chimes in the background as vocalist Micco sings with an airy tone to her voice. Surprisingly, my favorite ended up being the ED for Hoshimittsu, “Sakura Sakura Saku”, which is a very solid high energy j-rock track with a soaring string section during the chorus that really accentuates the guitar work and Micco’s passionate vocal performance. This ending song actually deviates the most from the others in terms of overall sound, and for that reason it ends up standing out more to me as it does a fantastic job of using that deviation to its benefit. As far as the visuals go, it’s a tough competition between this one and the ED for 365, “Ryuusei Record”. Both of these ending sequences have great aesthetic texture to them, but the vibrant use of colors and environments in the Hoshimittsu ED ended up winning me over in the end. For that, it gets full marks. You may notice I haven’t brought up the OP or ED for Honeycomb at all, and the reason for that is because both of them happen to be my least favorite of the whole series. This is less a bash against them and more a testament to how good the other ones are, because they aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. 

Is Miyako eating food or performing a magic trick? You decide!

The second great consistency to this series is the quality of the vocal performances, which are very memorable. It’s such a pleasure to hear a seiyuu grow more comfortable with a character over time to the point that you can tell they pretty much embody the character with every fiber of their being. That’s always been a great boon of Japanese voice direction in anime – they try to dig deeper into the minds of the characters to better fit their personality traits on a vocal level. As far as vocal work goes, there are a few MVPs in this series I feel compelled to talk about. First and foremost is Kaori Mizuhashi, who voices the embodiment of sunshine herself, Miyako. Mizuhashi was already a seiyuu I liked quite a bit prior to watching this. She voiced characters I enjoyed from other series such as Ougi Oshino from the Monogatari series, Mami Tomoe from Madoka Magica, and Michiru Matsushima from the Grisaia visual novel franchise. This is one of the earliest roles of hers that I’ve actually heard firsthand and she really goes the extra mile to channel that balance of carefree energy and genuine empathy that Miyako embodies so well. The contrast between her usual fun and playful self and the moments of genuine insight and empathy that she showcases throughout the series, especially near the end where she’s comforting Yuno more in the face of Sae and Hiro’s eventual departure, is conveyed so distinctly through subtle changes in her voice and speaking patterns. Going back to a point I made very early on – many anime in this genre typically exaggerate speaking mannerisms, as is the norm with a lot of anime centering around cute girls. It’s not that Hidamari Sketch doesn’t do this – it just knows when not to. In those moments, the way the characters talk to each other comes off more natural and human than I would’ve ever expected from a series like this. Miyako is a key figure of this dichotomy, and Mizuhashi’s vocal performance brings her to life in every way.

Another memorable performance comes from the late Miyu Matsuki, who voices Yoshinoya. Undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons Hidamari Sketch will never see the light of day again in the medium of anime is due to the tragic loss of Matsuki to a CAEBV infection in 2015, just two years after the conclusion of the anime. There’s already a lot of sanctity to the observation of established voice roles in Japanese media, and frankly, nobody else could even come close to embodying Yoshinoya like she did. Her vocal performance encompasses both Yoshinoya’s role as an adult instructor and her desire to remain youthful in both mind and body. As such, she strikes this great portrayal of a grown woman trying to sound way younger than she actually is, but still with the capability of imparting passion and wisdom to her students. Yoshinoya’s role as a character with frequent gag sequences ends up further emphasizing those moments where she conveys a sentiment that is genuinely moving; something that Matsuki masterfully conveys through her vocal work by dropping the childish aspect of Yoshinoya’s voice to gracefully convey a mature and supportive tone to her words. Matsuki had a fruitful career during her lifetime, but I genuinely believe Yoshinoya is a large part of that legacy she left behind. 

My last honorable mention in the seiyuu department has to go to Ooya-san, who is voiced by none other than Miyuki Sawashiro. It almost feels pointless to go into detail here because Sawashiro is such a juggernaut of voice roles that you pretty much already know what you’re getting into as soon as you know it’s her voice behind it. However, I’ll do a service for the reader who may or may not stumble onto this and feel compelled to read it with no knowledge of the popular seiyuus in the industry. Sawashiro does best with deeper voices for women, whether that’s in the tomboy department or just a woman who has what are considered “masculine” qualities. Here’s a rattle off list of characters you might recognize: Kanbaru Suruga from the Monogatari series, Toko Fukawa from the Danganronpa series, Kurapika from Hunter x Hunter (2011), Mordred from the Fate series, and the list goes on. Ooya-san of course fits the bill here, and Sawashiro nails her performance effortlessly, smoothly transitioning between her lackadaisical personality and her wisdom as someone who has gone through several stages of their life already and endured the hardships that come with them. As a result, Ooya-san is brought to life as maybe the only likable landlord on the face of the planet.

Throughout the course of the series, Ume Aoki herself lives on the roof of Hidamari-sou in the form of a tiny Metapod-like creature affectionately referred to as “Ume-tentei”. The very first voice line of the entire series comes from her in the opening 10 seconds of the first episode, the sound of her yawning punctuating the start of the day. It’s interesting to think that, as we are watching these characters grow and influence each other, she too is watching her own creations blossom and prosper. There’s something beautifully poetic about that. Stories like this with such a sharp character focus rarely exist in any degree of separation from their creator. There’s always a reflection, each character seeded with a different fracture of the ego that makes us who we are. Perhaps it’s presumptuous to say, but I believe that she too found her own personal growth and self-discovery as she worked passionately on this series. The influence and opportunity that comes with that kind of experience is significant, maybe even beyond words.

Characters like this can’t be created from nothing. The genuine love and care that was so carefully threaded through each familiar face that make up the world of Hidamari Sketch can only come from someone who felt a deep, unbreakable passion and used it as the foundation for creation. In that sense, Hidamari Sketch is a story about passion that could only have been written passionately. For every other individual who poured their talents and efforts into the production of this anime series, there is no doubt in my mind that they too felt the same passion emanating from this work through the reflection of their own contributions. It speaks for itself through every carefully crafted scene, every wonderfully composed eyecatch, and through the music and the voices that form the symbolic choir that carries each moment on its shoulders.

The lesson to take away is this: the world is not always illuminated for us. We struggle and agonize as we try desperately to make sense of ourselves. The lucky ones may find their path sooner, but that does not make walking it any easier. It is so easy to get caught up in the rush of noise and the cycles of negativity that plague us, especially now. Truly though, at the end of the day, we have to cancel out the noise. There are things far bigger than us, and the best thing we can do is find our place in all of it. Treasure your passions, your hobbies, your desires, and your dreams. Treasure your friends, your lovers, your family, and those unbreakable bonds. These are the things that really matter in our relatively short lives. These are the chains that link you to yourself. If you follow them one link at a time, you will eventually reach the end and discover where you truly belong. All things must begin and end, so no downward spiral can last forever. There is always something close to us that is worth being happy about.  The moon will always set, and the sun will always rise again to mark the start of another day. The sensation of belonging and the comfort of purpose; the value of true friendship and the joy of true passion; these qualities are the sunshine of our lives. The journey to find one’s own personal sunshine is what the story of Hidamari Sketch is truly about. Let that sunshine envelop you, and with any luck, you’ll find yourself engrossed in one of the most satisfying character stories I’ve had the pleasure of watching.

And to Ume-tentei; good night, and more importantly, good morning.

Thank you, Ume-tentei!

Bonus Gallery!

Here’s a collection of screenshots I wanted to put into the actual retrospective but decided not to because there would’ve been too many images. They have been presented here for your viewing pleasure and possibly as food for thought. Let your mind wander and be free from the burden of reading any further paragraphs of text!

Yoshinoya and Mona Yoshinoya
Hiro pout levels at CRITICAL
This eyecatch from Hoshimittsu of Nazuna pointing at pizza
Yuno engaging in tomato fever
Miyako’s short stint as a Soundcloud rapper
Wholesome group Christmas photo ft. Natsume
A touching message from the principal to end it off!

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