Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 31st 2006
DVD 1: Little Deity
Yurie Hitotsubashi surprises her best friend Mitsue when she casually mentions one day that she's turned into a god. It's not something that happens to every middle-schooler, and boisterous classmate Matsuri—whose family runs a Shinto shrine—is suddenly very interested. What kind of god is Yurie? The girls' attempts to find out result in an accidental typhoon, and Yurie's got to stop it, which is hard when you're not even sure of your powers yet! Gradually, Yurie gets the hang of this business, tracking down a stray god in the spirit world, fending off a run of bad luck and poverty, and befriending a visiting space alien. Even with otherworldly powers, being a god isn't easy.
"Last night, I turned into a god." With these words begins an anime series of unusual grace, where divine transformation is something you casually mention over lunch, and talking to spirits is as easy as saying hi to them on the street. Kamichu! walks a unique line between the real and fantastic, buoyed by crisp, imaginative visuals and an overall mood that's sweet without ever being stupid. This is a world where spirits and humans meet; this is a loving portrait of small-town Japan; and most of all, this is the story of a young girl growing up.
Right from the nonchalant opening, it's clear that this is a different take on the ordinary-kid-gains-extraordinary-powers concept. Yurie's attainment of godhood is not something that takes all episode and culminates in a splashy transformation sequence. Instead, it just happens, right from scene one—"Oh yeah, I kinda turned into a god!"—and the rest is a slice-of-life journey with charming folk-tale twists. If there are any faults, it might be that the subject matter tends towards the light and fluffy. When elements of the fantastic creep in, they simply add flavor to Yurie's story instead of being events in themselves. But this is why the series succeeds—rather than making a big deal out of spiritual happenings, it focuses on the characters interacting with a spiritual world.
And what delightful characters they are. Yurie, even though she falls firmly into the moe aesthetic, has a thoughtful innocence that raises her above the typical fan-pandering schoolgirl archetype. Her friends round out a well-balanced cast: quiet and practical Mitsue, the more excitable but well-meaning Matsuri, and Yurie's dopey, spaced-out crush, Kenji. It's her spiritual friends, however, who really enliven the series: the flaky "local god" Yashima, unusually sentient housecat Tama, and a delightful ensemble of minor spirits that include wind sprites, fish-headed fishermen, and Yurie's personal assistants, the tiny boar, deer and butterfly of Team Shiawase.
Keep your eyes open for the minor spirits, because they—among other little details—give the series that special third dimension; the sense of a world that really exists. The setting of Yurie's coastal hometown is clearly well-researched, from detailed streets and buildings to landscapes that go beyond the cookie-cutter settings of typical anime. However, Episode 4 fails to fit that mold, disrupting the tone of the series: in that one, Yurie heads to Japan's parliament to deal with a Martian visitor, which is not only too far-fetched, but takes her out of the appealing small-town setting.
None of this detail and subtlety would be possible without top-notch visuals. When the biggest complaint you can make is that Yurie's cheeks look off-model in Episode 3, this is clearly a superior work. The character designs are attractive—maybe a little too cutesy, given the mostly female cast—but have a crisp, consistent look that rivals most full-budget anime movies. Even the minor characters shine with creative finesse; strange-headed spirits, prototypical maneki neko, and gods of everyday objects (laserdisc?!) show a witty aesthetic that would be right at home with the creatures of Spirited Away. Backgrounds are treated with similar care and detail, especially with the lush foliage and nostalgic houses around Yurie's town. Keeping it all together is a rich palette of color, and animation so smooth that when these characters move around, they've got all the little quirks and flourishes that make it more real.
A gentle, pastoral music score adds the final touch to this gem of a series. Orchestral strings and woodwinds handle most of the melodies, evoking a fairytale sound crossed with mid-19th-century Romantic, but also adding traditional Japanese influences to remind us of the god factor. If anything, it's almost like the Kiki's Delivery Service score, with composer Yorihiro Ike channeling the whimsical side of Joe Hisaishi. Both theme songs also maintain the positive mood; the opening has a pleasant folk-pop sound, while the more boisterous ending (sung by Yurie's voice actress, Mako) even sneaks in a Beatles riff.
The lilting sound of the young Japanese female voice is one of the trickiest things to dub in anime, but Megan Harvey is one of the few who manages to pull it off in her role as Yurie. With a tone that's sweet but not sugared-up, Harvey successfully captures Yurie's middle-school simplicity. The other female voices strike a similar balance, although Matsuri is maybe a bit too spirited. Dub aficionados should also recognize veterans Johnny Yong Bosch and Yuri Lowenthal stepping in as Kenji and Yashima. The dub script takes various small-scale liberties with the dialogue; the biggest change is the added sarcasm in Matsuri's lines that make her wittier than the original. Unfortunately, Japanese puns are left unexplained, so Kenji's misreading of Yurie's name and her quirky nicknames for Team Shiawase lose their comic effect.
A reversible cover, mini-pencilboard and "behind the scenes" insert written by the show's creators make this DVD package more attractive than the typical release. The production gallery on the disc also features more than just the usual character sketches. Promotional art, director's doodles and profiles about the gods and spirits add to the entertainment value.
Kamichu! has been hailed by many as "Spirited Away the TV," and rightfully so: not only does it touch on the themes of deities among us and a young girl finding her place in the world, but it's got the ingenuity and production values to rival Studio Ghibli. A down-to-earth, likeable core of characters pulls us into the world of a middle-school god; rich background details and whimsical spirits keep us immersed in this world. Yurie's adventures might be forgiven for being fluffy and sometimes silly, as the contents of the story are exceeded only by the way it's told: in smooth, vivid animation, with pleasantly understated music, and a genuine feel-good attitude. Rarely has "divinely inspired" been so appropriate.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A+
+ A beautifully produced, charming blend of fairytale and slice-of-life.
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