Impressions: Honey and Clover and a story about love

Nearly 20 years ago, I had a crush on a punk rock girl.

She was the coolest person I had ever met. She had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of music that was staggering.

Not only that, but she dyed her hair, and had cool stories, liked cool movies and had lived in California. I was entranced. Now, I never admitted any of this to her, and I’m willing to bet that she doesn’t read this blog. At least, I hope she doesn’t read this blog.

Now I met this girl at the worst time in my life. I was homeless, hungry and felt miserable. I desperately wanted to get off the floor I was sleeping on and into an apartment.

Oh, and she was in love with someone else. So it didn’t matter if I was the coolest guy ever, my chances were pretty slim.

So why am I talking about this? Well, for the first time in probably 10 or more years, I watched Honey and Clover. So I have to thank Discotek for releasing this so I could pick up the Blu-Rays.

For the people who aren’t familiar with this show, it’s arguably one of the more unusual pieces of anime that I’ve seen. I’m sure other josei stories tell the tale of five lovelorn art college students, but I certainly haven’t seen them.

The 36 episodes are based on a 10 volume manga that ran between 2000 and 2006. So I think the length of the manga compared to the length of the show should give some idea about the stately pace the first season proceeds at. There are whole episodes where really nothing happens.

We are presented with our main five characters, Yuuta Takemoto, Hagumi Hanamoto, Ayumi Yamada, Takumi Mayama and Shinobu Morita, and a couple of other characters Rika Harada and Shuuji Hanamoto.

I’m torn on trying to detail the relationships between these characters if you haven’t watched the show, and if you have, well, then you already know them. But let’s see if I can do it without boring anyone.

Yamada, a pottery student, loves Mayama, who seems to be studying architecture, but Mayama loves his part-time boss Rika, who is mourning her dead husband. Later on, we’re introduced to a man who is interested in Yamada.

Then in the other unholy mess of a love dodecahedron, we have Takemoto, who falls in love with an artistic genius Hagumi (Hagu for short). But she falls in love with Morita, a mysterious seventh-year student at the art school. Morita loves her in return but has a host of other worries stemming from his brother.

For the majority of the first season, not much really shakes up these relationships. Takemoto, at one point, decides to bike from Tokyo to the furthest most northern point in Japan, just to find himself. I’m not sure if he does, but really, it’s the end of his story.

The second season is really where all of the relationships shake out. So it was strange to go from the stately pace of the first season to the dead run of the second season.

But still, and this is where I’m going to get into spoilers. I got to the end of the season feeling like it was an incomplete story, like I had been promised something, and it was never delivered.

So here’s where I have to get into specifics, so again, please bear with me.

Romance stories

I’m finding that I have a strange relationship with romance stories in general. I like the good ones. Give me a Toradora, a My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU or a Paradise Kiss any day of the week. These are stories where characters have arcs, and it feels like they move through a world that makes sense. 

But a good romance story for me can end in a couple of spots. Either it ends when the couple gets together. This is where Toradora and SNAFU end. The tension in those stories revolves around when and how the main couple will get together. I don’t have a better way of describing it, but there is a moment of catharsis that happens. For the entire length of SNAFU, I was holding my breath and waiting for Hachiman and Yukino to finally admit that they had a thing for each other. 

When they have that moment on the bridge, it’s clumsy and halting, but it’s also beautiful and heart-wrenching. It is the moment where everything that Hiratsuka set up earlier pays off. 

(Look, I realize that there is an after story, but after reading the synopsis of it, I do not want to see it. Ever. The story ends with Yui coming into the club room as far as I’m concerned.) 

The other kind of romance story usually is about the relationship itself. Paradise Kiss and My love Story! are good examples of this. Usually, the two characters meet early and fall in love, and the tension is generated by how they’ll navigate through whatever the latest problem is. 

These kinds of stories are usually much messier in terms of the relationships, especially in the case of ParaKiss. This is because the relationship is not just something aspirational; it’s actual. And like Rob Gordon says in High Fidelity:

“You have great lingerie, but you also have the cotton underwear that’s been washed a thousand times, and it’s hanging on the thing and, and they have it too! It’s just I don’t have to see it because it’s not in the fantasy. Do you understand? I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist. “

The problem is that Honey and Clover exists somewhere between these two. So what we get are a half dozen relationships that are just about to start or just about to end. These are people that might be on the precipice of that bridge moment that we get in SNAFU. At any point, I could imagine Mayama winning Riku over or Hagu finally deciding on Morita.

Buuuut. That never happens. While there are hints that Mayama might be sleeping with Rika and at least one night that Morita and Hagu spend together, they are not conclusive about any of the relationships in this show.

The thing is, the relationships in this show are definitely messy. Yamada’s near-obsession with Mayama leads to more than one tearful scene. Mayama’s feelings toward Rika lead to one moment where I seriously worried about her safety. Takemoto is driven to flee on his bike because he can’t really process his feelings at all, and Morita gets on a plane and flies to the U.S. to escape having kissed Hagu.

When I reached the end of the second season, I found myself disappointed that I didn’t have more solid answers. Is Yamada going to move on? Would Rika stop mourning her husband? While the Hagu love triangle did come to a more definitive end, it wasn’t any less disappointing.

But the more I kept turning it over in my head, the more I kept coming back to a single line Takemoto gives us in the last episode of the second season.

Was it all worth it? 

In the final episode, we are presented with a voiceover from Takemoto asking a question. It looks pretty fitting because the story started with him talking about just riding his bike away from this place. Now he’s planning on leaving the art school and everything else behind. 

“I’ve wondered about this for a long time, whether a love that never blossomed has any meaning. Whether when something has vanished, it’s just like it never existed in the first place.”

As I was pondering the end of the show where several loves remain unresolved and the ones that are resolved don’t end happily, the meaning of that quote hit me. Honey and Clover is not a romance in any traditional sense. We are not seeing people getting together so they can navigate messy relationships. 

We’re also don’t get that cathartic moment when a couple kisses or holds hands or whatever passes as formalizing a relationship. 

No. What we get is a story about love. Not the fulfilled love that most romance shows are about, but the messy unrequited love many people have experienced. This is the story of the punk rock girl that I was infatuated with. In some way, I’ve asked myself that same question over the years. Was it really worth it? 

For Takemoto, his answer comes as he’s leaving on the train heading toward his first restoration job. Hagu hands him a pile of honeyed bread with a four-leaf clover pressed inside. (It’s a callback to an earlier scene, which is only somewhat important.) It signifies that she wishes him well and wants him to succeed. 

As he’s crying, Takemoto gives the audience the answer. That, yes, a love that never happened still means something, even if it’s just for the memories that remain with us. 

When I realized this, it brought the story into a whole new perspective. Mayama’s and Rika’s story had reached an end of sorts. Their relationship was unequal, but she had come to rely on him. Yamada’s relationship with Nomiya had started, but it also remained unequal. Probably most importantly, Hagu’s relationship with Shuuji remained unequal, even though he was willing to sacrifice his work to take care of her. 

At its heart, this is what Honey and Clover is. It’s a story about the love that never was, the love that was stunted and the love that was troubled. It’s a story about the heartbroken. 

And maybe that is all it needs to be. 

As always, thanks for reading. 

7 thoughts on “Impressions: Honey and Clover and a story about love

  1. There is a great line from the film, Adaptation that has always stuck with me: “You are what you love, not what loves you.”

    Even if unrequited the love you have for punk rock girl will always be yours to have and no one can take that away! We don’t always know what drives us but you know this already! 😂

    I have a weakness for romance myself and I love glacial pace story telling in all forms so this definitely piques my interest!

    1. Man I haven’t thought about Adaptation for a hot minute. That is likely among the best Nick Cage movies I’ve watched.

      So I recommend giving it a watch. I know anime has a certain reputation, but this is one of the shows I hold up and say that it doesn’t really deserve that reputation.

      1. I work swing shift and when I’m on nights I get more alone time to check out anime – Irina got me into To Your Eternity because of how subtle it seemed. I’m going to try and check it out. Always good to hear from you, friend.

        And every Charlie Kaufman is a masterpiece 😂

      2. You’re right. That story has about six different levels operating at one time. Probably his most complicated screenplay ever.

  2. I watched this a long time ago and I was trapped in an abusive relationship and was starting to have very negative perceptions on love. It was also around the time I started watching anime. I was frustrated with all the flowery romance portrayals. So, when I watched this and it was a hot mess of young people trying to sort their feelings and lives out and just stumbling all over the place, I became so in love with it. It’s such a sincere representation of what it means to be young, uncertain, wanting to love and be loved while also fearing it, and so much more. I remember thinking, “This is what life is really like. It’s a mess and a bag of anxiety and the unknown with fear tossed in for good measure.” Even though it has a lot of ambivalence with respect to the romance situations, that’s what I loved about it. That’s what resonated and stuck to the bones with me for al these years. Great write-up. 🙂

    1. Thanks. I’m sorry that you had to go through that. I agree that the show manages to capture all of the messy relationships people have at that age.

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