If you’re looking for shojo teen romance with more substance than the usual high school hijinks, Sand Chronicles by Hinako Ashihara is the perfect series for you.
Sand Chronicles is Ann’s story, told in flashback to key seasons in her life. At the age of 12, she and her mother move from Tokyo to her grandparents’ rural village. Her parents have divorced due to her father’s debts, and her mother is having trouble coping, with hospital stays for overwork and hints of depression in her past, so her parents take them in.
The idea of seasons is key to the series. An autumn-set chapter deals with melancholy, for example, while summer with its thunderstorms is a time of potential big change whose impact is perhaps not recognized at the time. Spring is the chance of new beginnings and yet, like the cherry blossoms that symbolize it, the season also is about recognition of how brief moments can be. The blossoms are beautiful but don’t last very long, just as happy times may not.
The series begins in winter, with snow damping signs of life. It’s the moments in this series that really touched me. I knew I could identify with Ann early on, when her thoughts about being stuck in the country were, “It’s cold. And snowy. And not one bookstore!” She’s having trouble adjusting to country life and loneliness when she meets Daigo. They accidentally beat each other up over catching a wild rabbit, but even so, she seizes on him. As her life circumstances change, she clings to this childhood friend as a lifeline.
He introduces her to the kids of the richest family in the area. Fuji is a studious boy being prepared for his future role as family and company leader. His younger sister Shika is effortlessly popular but with a very good heart. The friendship of the four finally gives Ann a feeling of belonging.
The second half of the book jumps ahead two years. It’s summer, and Ann and Daigo are 14. Ayuma, a classmate, has her eyes set on Daigo as boyfriend, which demands a change in the relationship between Ann and Daigo. The kids all go away to summer camp, where Ann reaches a milestone in a young woman’s life and both she and Fuji and she and Daigo forge new ground.
The symbol at the core of the series, and Ann’s life, is a miniature hourglass. On their way to their new home, Ann and her mother stopped at a museum where they viewed the World’s Biggest One-Year Hourglass (containing a literal ton of sand). It’s there that Ann first recognized that she and her mother viewed time very differently. Ann had life in front of her, and time stretches out. Her mother, though, feels time flying by, and she looks backwards to when she was happier.
Ann’s attempt to encourage her mother in a very Japanese way, by telling her to work harder, winds up being the worst possible thing she could have said. That kind of well-meaning choice that doesn’t work out as expected is part of life’s hard lessons, as is her mother’s unhappy ending.
This is a more powerful book because of its melancholy. Life is not all sunbeams and rainbows, and the power of friendship is all the more potent because of the background of upsetting real-life events like divorce and moving away and loss. But don’t misunderstand — there’s still plenty of fun in reading about these teenagers growing up.
Some readers praise the sense of nostalgia demonstrated in Honey and Clover, but I find the sense of time’s passage and loss in this series much more affecting. The characters are realistic, everyday people with emotions anyone can identify with, tackling truly significant moments of life and key ages. Ashihara isn’t afraid to portray anger and depression, uncertainty and recrimination.
Volume two covers age 15’s autumn and age 16’s spring. It’s a time of significant change for all the teens. Fuji’s going to high school and college in Tokyo, as suits his status. Daigo’s staying in the village. When her father comes back into her life, Ann has to choose whether to stay with her country family or return with him to the city.
One of Ann’s qualities that makes her worth reading about is the way she says what she’s thinking, bluntly, and without considering the effect her words might have. Confronted with her father’s return and request for her to rejoin him, she cries out, “You just abandoned me!” Only later does she regret the hurt she caused him by telling him how she felt at that moment.
She wants life to stop where she’s comfortable, without time continuing on and forcing people to grow apart from each other. But her choice is eventually made based on what she thinks other people need, as well as herself (an important sign of growing up). Although she’s originally tricked into visiting her father, the experience shows her empathy for what he went through during their absence.
She’s also learning to lie to herself, telling herself that a wish made at the age of 12 to always be together will come true no matter what. That separation doesn’t matter. That feelings don’t change. The second half of the book explores that last question by showing how Daigo and Ann relate after six months of separation as she reaches her sixteenth birthday.
Volume three continues the story of Ann’s sixteenth year, with summer featuring a return to the country for vacation, and autumn bringing her back to her city routines, as the teens return to their jobs and school.
Ann and Daigo’s relationship, when she visits for the summer months, is a bit strained, as it would have to be. You learn about someone being near them, and no matter the good intentions, time apart is hard to overcome. Ann’s already aware of how seductive memories can be, as tradition reminds her of their time together at the age of 12. (Only four years gone by, and she’s already nostalgic for her younger days.)
The setting, spending time at Fuji and Shika’s historical home full of antiques and aged relatives and ghost stories, doesn’t help. Shika’s being pressured to be the perfect young lady, with training in arts and hints about having the right kind of friends, in order to carry on family traditions.
Ann’s making choices based on wanting to continue the way things are instead of based on whether the choice is right or wrong for her. Ann’s relationship with Fuji is also changing as they all grow older.
More importantly, for an heir to a family so concerned with lineage, Fuji has questions about the possibility of his mother’s infidelity. It wouldn’t affect the surface — he’d still be the heir — but his questions (which started in book two) affect how he thinks of himself.
In volume four, winter brings a painful anniversary as well as Fuji’s disappearance. Ann returns to the village for the holidays. I found it strange to notice how little we see her family at the point in the series, but at her age, her friends are much more important to her.
That contrasts with Shika and her family’s worries about Fuji. Their cousin Mariko pushes to learn more about what everyone knows about him and his feelings. The next spring, when Ann is 17, brings even more changes, as she takes a job she hides from Daigo for reasons she doesn’t quite understand.
The book is a very smooth read, with art that flows easily and distinct character expressions. The presentation allows the reader to pause when needed to reflect on the happenings or proceed without interruption through the emotional scenes.
Of works available in English, Hinako Ashihara also created SOS, a book of short stories also available from Viz, and Forbidden Dance, an out-of-print four-volume series from Tokyopop. (The publisher provided review copies.)