Lots of spoilers ahead.
Ano Hana is the story of a group of friends, who drifted apart after their group was struck by tragedy; the death of one of their closest friends, Menma. One day, several years after her death, Jintan, the "leader" of the group, has dropped out of school and become a recluse, and is suddenly able to see Menma. At first he believes she's a hallucination, but comes to believe that she is real, and that she won't leave until her wish is granted, a wish that she herself cannot remember.
This was the best anime I saw from Spring 2011. From the very first episode, I almost constantly cried. I cried because it was painful, because it was tragic, because it moved every fiber of my being. I laughed through my tears, and smiled despite the pain. Every emotion that was felt by the characters, I felt it too. Every tear matched my own.
Despite the fact that it constantly breaks your heart, it is also a feel good series. Yes, it's a story of tragedy, of a little girls death, and the constant guilt over it, but it goes beyond that, moving us through every stage of grief, until at last, we can move on past the pain and smile once again.
Every one of the characters feels responsible for the death of Menma, and they all deal with it in different ways. All of them put up big walls between themselves and others, all becoming very distant from the world. Jintan becomes a shut in, Anaru relies on others to shape how she dresses, expresses herself and spends her time, maybe in order to ignore the massive guilt she feels. Yukiatsu and Tsuruko immerse themselves in studying, and Yukiatsu begins cross-dressing as a way to feel closer to Menma. Possibly the one most affected by Menma's death was Poppo, because he actually saw her die and was unable to help her. He puts on a brave face and travels the world, trying to escape from the sight of her drowning in the river, but he keeps finding himself pulled back to the place he last saw her.
However, Jintan seeing Menma again sparks a revival of the group, even though they don't exactly believe him until near the end of the series. They begin hanging out again, using their old nicknames and realize that they hadn't actually changed as much as they thought, but come to realize that their fixation on Menma isn't healthy, and that they need to move on.
At its heart, this is the point of the series. Menma's mother most clearly exemplifies this, having become so fixated on her dead daughter that she practically ignores her own son. After seeing her is when they most clearly realize how dangerous it is to fixate on the dead, and begin working hard to grant Menma's wish so that she can pass on. Menma realizes that her presence is causing problems as well, and gets extremely upset when they go to see her mother, because all she wants is her mother to move on with her life.
The last episode is one of the most moving moments in anime I have ever seen. From when everyone admits the real reason that they wanted Menma to pass on, and everyone sobs like little kids, to right before Menma moves on and everyone gets one last chance to see her and talk directly to her again, the entire episode moves you completely, and fills you with peace, at finally seeing them make peace with their guilt and move on from their grief.
Yes, it does get contrived at times. It's crazy to think that someone would be in love with the same person from childhood to their teen years. The love triangle at the center of the group gets to be pretty ridiculous, but that's the point. From the death of a loved one, to rejection from the one you love, you need to learn how to move past that. You can't live trapped in a single moment of your life; you have to move forward and have new experiences, love new people and break new hearts. Because that's what makes you alive.
This is an anime I want everyone to see. For every person who's trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, who feels their life had stopped at a single moment, this series reminds us that life continues on past death, and that we need to accept it. And one day, it won't hurt so much anymore, and will be nothing more than memories, bittersweet memories. And that's okay.