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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

[Review] Kannagi
Posted by IceCreamNinja in News Articles November 06, 2009 at 05:46:32 AM

What does it mean to be a god? That’s the question Kannagi seems to be posing over the course of its thirteen episode run. Must a god be an all-knowing, all-powerful being; conscious of their role in the world and the nature of their involvement in human affairs? Must a god, in short, be Godly? Or can they be as flawed and as ignorant as the rest of us?

Kannagi tells the story of Jin, a fairly unassuming and nonthreatening first year high school student who one day carves a figure out of wood that suddenly springs to life. The girl that emerges calls herself Nagi, land deity and guardian spirit of Kannagi—the town in which Jin lives—whose presence until recently resided in a sacred tree on the grounds of a shrine which has now been cut down. It just so happens of course that Jin used part of this tree to carve his statue, which conveniently allowed Nagi to unexpectedly manifest herself in Jin’s backyard and totally ruin his art project. With nowhere to go and no real understanding of the modern world, this incident merely becomes the first in a long string of inconvenient and occasionally painful problems inflicted on Jin by Nagi after she inevitably moves in with him.

There are things in the world called “impurities.” These take the form of small, entirely black insects invisible to most of the human population of the town. Nagi believes she must destroy these impurities and, after discovering that both due to her own lack of power she is unable to destroy them on her own, and that Jin can see and capture them for her, she reluctantly enlists his help.

At this point, the plot has the potential to go in one of several possible directions. Perhaps the show could go the route of Evangelion and use the battle against these metaphysical monsters as a means to look inwards and metaphorically explore the nature of one’s own being. Or, perhaps more obvious, maybe it would follow what one might call the Bleach or Inuyasha path, where Jin and Nagi simply start wandering around fighting larger and more powerful enemies until eventually they either find and then somehow fail to stop the evil that was causing all of this—allowing it to escape and laugh menacingly at them for another two hundred boring and repetitive episodes, or they defeat it forever and make Japan once again safe for Democracy and natto-loving people everywhere. Instead and perhaps a bit unexpected though, the creators of Kannagi decided on a slightly different route and boldly forsook these more familiar story arcs to bravely explore the concept of doing absolutely nothing.

There are episodes where all the characters do is visit a maid café or sing karaoke. There are episodes where odd and inane contests take place, and episodes where seemingly important characters are introduced who later turn out to be entirely forgettable and underdeveloped. There are even episodes where the main characters are barely present or entirely missing. One episode for example actually sees Nagi spend almost the entire time in a closet after locking herself in as protest for a relatively minor and ridiculous slight from Jin. The amount of time Jin or Nagi actually spend dealing with impurities is so little and the importance of these enemies so seemingly minor that one begins to wonder why they were even introduced at all. Out of the thirteen episodes that make up the series, perhaps more than half can be considered throwaways, where little or no events occur that seemingly relate in any way to the overall plot of the series.

Is, then, Kannagi good? It’s certainly funny: in the way the lines are delivered, the situations the characters find themselves in, and even the overall relationship the creators have with the audience. Kannagi is one of those rare shows that knows what it is and uses it to full effect. In the episode where the characters go to the maid café, for example, the question is first raised by one of them as to whether or not they should consult the Kannagi manga editor beforehand to make sure they’re allowed, as the editor has final say over the storylines. In the karaoke episode, Jin and the others are warned not to let another character sing, as then she might open her eyes—the character model of course up to now being drawn with the appearance of always having her eyes closed.

The fact that the show is self-referential and often breaks the fourth wall in its pursuit of humor is indeed one of its most consistent and endearing qualities. “There are precedents for this, in a dating sim,” one of Jin’s friends tell him after Nagi commits a fairly common trope. This anime-within-an-anime experience that Kannagi presents is a fairly novel and entertaining concept, and often opens some unique opportunities to explore the ridiculous nature of the medium in general. How much would it actually help if, after deriving most of your knowledge of the world from anime, manga and videogames, you suddenly found yourself within the confines of such a storyline? That’s the situation that some of these characters face at the start of the series. And, perhaps more important a question: if it is an anime-within-an-anime, what kind of anime do the anime-within-an-anime characters watch?

The one major problem that ultimately works against the show is pacing. To understand what this means, let’s consider another anime: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Do you like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? Why? Half of the show’s first season consisted of episodes that were essentially throwaways. The culture festival, the island trip, the one that occurs in winter—while most of these were perhaps entertaining, they did little to develop the series’ main theme or uncover exactly what it was about Haruhi herself that made her unique. But so what? One of the many reasons why so many people enjoyed that first season had nothing to do with the content of the individual episodes, but rather, of how the creators paced the show. Instead of a straight, logical timeline and sequence of events, the show was rearranged so that episodes where important events or information was revealed were interspersed with entertaining and amusing side stories. The audience never truly lost patience or interest in the series during those episodes where the nature of Haruhi was ignored or already assumed, since they knew that another key revelation was right around the corner.

Contrast this then to Kannagi, where after the first two or three episodes, the idea of Nagi as a divine presence and destroyer of impurities— seemingly emphasized as the main point of the show—is apparently abandoned for the typical awkward high school love triangle arc common to so many other works. After a few more episodes where nothing of any true significance happens and where it seems the show is moving further and further away from its original point, the idea that, despite the show’s inherent humor, one is wasting their time becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.

This brings us back to my earlier question: is Kannagi good? Can you spend eight episodes gritting your teeth and tolerating something just because you feel obligated to and then look back fondly on the show as a whole? Or must everything about a show be consistent in order for it to truly be considered an entertaining and enjoyable work? Having seen the final episodes, I know now that those seemingly unrelated and tangential diversions actually do serve something of a larger purpose and do help develop the question Kannagi is trying to ask. Yet, without knowing this, I wonder how many viewers will think as I did initially and will give up before the show comes back around to the ideas it seemingly abandoned. For those viewers it may lose as a result of its retrospectively intentional wandering, can it really be considered good if it consciously drives away its less patient audience? And for those who made it to the end, was it a good experience in retrospect, or is it that you simply no longer mind it wasting your time?

The gods of Kannagi are petty, selfish, flawed beings who are both creations of and yet held to an impossibly higher standard than the many generations of people who brought them into existence. They are expected to be omniscient, insightful, all-powerful entities; embodying the best of humanity and the traditions we hold most dear. And yet, how is that possible when traditions keep changing? When the world of the present is wholly unrecognizable to the world at the time of the god’s first appearance, and when even those who are supposedly under the god’s protection have long forgotten the very name of the deity that watches over them? Must a god in these circumstances be Godly? Would they even be able to? And what happens when they aren’t?
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