Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Feb 22nd 2014
BD+DVD - Complete Collection
Only seventeen years old, and Nanami Momozono keeps drawing the short straw from the bucket of life. Average at best in all matters from looks to smarts to athletics, she is also cursed with a deadbeat dad. When her father finally decides to abandon her, she is evicted from their shabby apartment, and finds herself on the street: friendless, talentless, hopeless.
Everything changes when Nanami runs into another vagrant, an attractive and mysterious young man, and rescues him from certain humiliation. He rewards her with a kiss on the forehead and an offer to stay in his home, which he "isn't using at the moment." It just so happens that the stranger's home is a dilapidated shrine, and his kiss was a passing of the torch as the area's land deity. Along with the shrine itself, Nanami is also in charge of an unfriendly familiar, Tomoe. He's a grumpy fox yokai, unimpressed with Nanami's weak human limitations but forced to obey her every command after their contract is also bound with a kiss.
Even though she's a god, Nanami's life hasn't gotten any easier! Between answering prayers, defending her shrine, and soothing savage yokai, it's all too much for her clumsy human hands. But as the days go by, Tomoe (and some other supernatural suitors) warm to her infectious attitude. Could summer love be on the horizon for Japan's most ordinary goddess?
"People don't really want new things," the old saying goes. "They say they do. But really, people just want the same old things, 'but different.'" At first blush, Kamisama Kiss is the same-iest, oldest-but-different thing you can imagine. It's a shojo manga heavily inspired (as so many are) by Rumiko Takahashi's work, adapted to anime by Akitaro Daichi, whose familiar and well-loved aesthetic has permanently associated him with a specific shojo style that fans expect. The truth at the end of these assumptions is not a surprise: Kamisama Kiss plays exactly like a 50/50 cross between Inuyasha and Fruits Basket, from the cast of characters to the story beats to the overall tone. It is both pleasant and predictable from beginning to end, a repackaged version of a treat reverse harem fans have been consuming for years.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Old stories done well stick harder than new stories done poorly, and Kamisama Kiss' audience awareness is its greatest strength. You wouldn't know that from the first episode, however, and this is Kamisama Kiss' greatest weakness. For some reason, KamiKiss decides that its best foot to put forward is a wisecracking, 4th-wall breaking granny narrator who trivializes and rushes through the dramatic and tragic aspects of Nanami's story at breakneck speed. The rest of the first episode plows through exposition hectically, taking so little time to dwell on details or emotions that the plot summary at the top of this review seems decompressed by comparison. All the while, laughs are offered only through screaming, overreaction, superdeformed antics, and that darn narrator, delivering a more Excel Saga-lite Nabeshin flavor than Daichi.
It's exhausting, unfunny, and just not how Kamisama Kiss, a story sold on warm fuzzies, hot guys, and juvenile optimism, should be executed. After the first couple episodes, the production team seems to realize this and kills the rankling hyperactive snideness in favor of more character-focused comedy. As a result, the show improves thousandfold and becomes the best of itself. But when an anime is principally noticed for being derivative and familiar, what leaps out as "best" about it?
Well, it has Fruits Basket's inherently sympathetic-but-wacky characterization, and Inuyasha's wild and attractive re-imagining of stuffy folklore on its side, but the way Kamisama Kiss most distinguishes itself from its two clearest relatives is in its sharp sense of humor. Growing pains in first episodes aside, the comic timing and great chemistry between Nanami, Tomoe, and the rest of the cast is way above par for shojo romcoms, largely due to how far the needle slants to comedy over drama throughout. Where Inuyasha's laughs might become cheap and repetitive, and Fruits Basket's soften and yield to sentiment more often, Kamisama Kiss dominates as a comedy that is consistently witty and fresh. Not many harem comedies can feature the lead guy trying to cook and eat his competition, and roll the joke multiple times without making him unlikable. But that's what Tomoe does, with his kitsune transformation powers and a taste for tengu-turned-ostrich, among other previously bishounen dishes. While the rest of the cast contributes to the laughs, (most of all snake-spirit Mizuki, though Kurama's presence in any scene prompting his egocentric image song to be played in the background is pretty silly too,) it's Nanami and Tomoe's chemistry and ability to put the other on edge in new ways every episode that keeps smiles high, and their joyful energy along with Daichi's silly expressions and backdrops evokes a tone both warm and more laugh-out-loud funny than most shojo allows itself to be.
It also looks better than most shojo of its stripe. That is to say the art is rendered more beautifully. The animation budget is only barely above the pathetically conservative standard for reverse harem. (They can't all be Ouran and UtaPri.) Backgrounds are often gorgeous, as seen most prominently in Mizuki's underwater shrine, and little details like Tomoe's fox-fire powers and background monsters ring beautifully of the Edo-era prints that inspired the series' world. Mizuki laments the state of Tokyo upon seeing it for the first time in centuries: "This used to be Edo," he says. "Boy has it changed..." And the art shows us that, thoughtfully and pleasingly.
The acting is also pleasant, both in its original Japanese and an extremely charming English dub that is both impeccably faithful and adapted naturally enough to make all the laughs work. Of particular note is Shinnosuke Tachibana's Tomoe, who has a childlike rasp to his voice that tinges even his moments of cool-headedness with mischief and humor. Tia Ballard is a uniquely believable Nanami, bringing the appropriate amount of spirit and inner strength to the character without taking away her petulant teenage immaturity. You can't go wrong with either language track, although Funimation's more-shrill-than-childlike choices for the shrine's will-of-the-wisps does not help the off-putting tone of KamiKiss' first episode. (Like the show, they become more charming over time.)
If KamiKiss excels in comedy and charm however, it drops the ball pretty hard on drama. This wouldn't be a problem if the show simply didn't attempt drama, but what is any same-but-different romcom without its inspirations' shortcomings alongside their strengths? Like Fruits Basket, it devotes large chunks of episodes to potentially traumatic backstory without ever following up, tickling heartstrings with no resonant pluck in what amounts to only tantalizing questions and wasted time. Like Inuyasha, it can wallow in angst over childish non-problems for a little longer than it needs to, sucking the excitement out of lofty ideas and triumphant prior episodes with the dullness of an amusement park date that's "not going the way it should!" Even teenage girls want their pandering and escapism on a grand scale: they want to go on high-stakes, exciting adventures with their fox-spirit boyfriends, not spend an episode wondering if he's going to walk another girl home from school, especially when it turns out there was nothing to worry about in the first place. The one great triumph in KamiKiss' favor when it comes to drama is its refusal of the "two dummies who don't know they're in love" status quo slog. Nanami and Tomoe become aware of their feelings sooner rather than later, and discuss them, foster them, and have arguments about how to approach a relationship between human and yokai, which is incredibly refreshing.
That said, their attempts at a relationship are just enough to be laudable, but not enough to be unique, and the same could be said of Kamisama Kiss on the whole. It does not have the impact or memorability of the two stories it so heavily borrows from, and it never tries to earn it. It begins with a silly premise and ends with a silly non-climax, with all its bite-sized meat in the middle. It's ripe for a rental, great with a group, and above the shojo standard through execution alone, but the substance under the style doesn't stick to your heart or brain for very long before the next treat comes along. It's not the new classic its relative popularity might suggest, but it's worth its short 13 episodes of laughs and fond feelings.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C
+ Funny and charming, lovely to look at and listen to, crowd-pleasing in all the best ways
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