Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Keima Katsuragi is a cynical high-schooler living in his own little world—the world of dating sims and ero-games. It is in this world that he considers himself a "God of Conquest," having won over hundreds of imaginary 2-D girlfriends. However, when a denizen of the spirit world takes Keima's claim literally, he finds himself caught up in a bizarre supernatural quest. A low-level demon named Elsee must hunt down malevolent "loose souls," and she thinks that Keima's romantic prowess is ideal for rescuing the hearts of girls who have been taken over by these evil spirits. Unfortunately, the only romance he's ever experienced has been on an electronic screen. Now Keima faces his most difficult conquest ever as he has to win the hearts of a star athlete, an impoverished heiress, an aspiring idol singer, and a tongue-tied bookworm ... in real life.
For many discerning anime viewers, the mere mention of "based on a dating sim" is enough to send them scurrying away (or lull them to sleep, if it's anything by Kyoto Animation). But what to make of series that is about dating sims without actually being based on one? And more than that, a series that openly pokes fun at the strange, artificial conventions of these games? This is the unusual territory occupied by The World God Only Knows, which lampoons the logic of the dating-sim genre (not to mention the obsessive-compulsive nature of its fans) while still crafting thoughtful tales of adolescent drama. At turns amusing, heartwarming, bizarre, and even breathtaking, this is a series that—based on its description alone—never deserved to be this good. And yet it is.
The first episode alone is a harbinger of the show's potential, laying down the premise and telling a self-contained story. Keima's first conquest involves wooing the school's track star, and the episode gets the easy stuff out of the way first with comedy antics illustrating just how ridiculous it is to apply gaming logic to real-life situations. After that, however, the story starts to stretch its boundaries: the final act, full of personal soul-searching and surprising acts of chivalry, is as heartfelt as any standard romance-game anime adaptation, if not better. And that's just Episode 1! This rich blend of comedy and drama also fuels the series' longer storylines, with the crowning achievement being Episodes 5-7. In this middle arc, Keima's pop-idol classmate Kanon is the target, and the story becomes so much more than just boy-meets-girl: it is an exploration of personal dreams and goals, a scrutinization of the pressures of the entertainment industry, and an affirmation of the bonds of friendship. If anything, it's all the stuff beyond simple girl-chasing that makes the storytelling great.
Even the side-story episodes are ambitious in their own way, like the mind-bending "Coupling with with with with," which presents the events of a single day from four different points of view and leaves the plot for the viewer to figure out. Granted, it's no Kurosawa masterpiece—episodes like this are mostly just lightweight distractions from Keima's principal quest. Overall, though, there are no bad episodes—maybe just flawed ones, like the early part of book-lover Shiori's arc, which takes too long to develop (although it does redeem itself with an incredible climactic sequence). If there is one aesthetic that guides the series through its many moods, it's an overriding flair for the dramatic; even the throwaway finale where Keima catches up on his gaming backlog is presented as some kind of Olympian feat.
Part of what makes this dramatic flair possible is the animation, which does not cut corners like so many dating-sim adaptations do, but shows expressiveness and fluidity no matter what the situation. Whether it's something as ridiculous as Keima extolling the virtues of 2-D girls, or something as riveting as Kanon taking the stage before a sold-out stadium, every scene is framed for maximum visual impact—even if that means having to draw things the hard way (hundreds of lightsticks for the concert scene) or managing all the in-between frames for rapid-fire comedy outtakes. A varied color palette also makes each of the different storylines stand out, from the afternoon-to-sunset-to-evening shift in the first episode to the muted tones of Shiori's library in the final arc. And while some may call out the character designs for their stereotypical looks, it's actually part of the series' satirical nature, with Keima pointing out the "traditional" features that are expected of dating-sim heroines. As they say, the better you know the source material, the more effective the parody.
Still, visuals are only one half of the equation when it comes to dramatic flair, and the soundtrack fills in where imagery alone cannot say what needs to be said. It would have been enough for soaring strings and sweeping melodies to accentuate Keima's conquests in the early episodes, but the series also proves its worth with insert songs. In particular, Kanon's repertoire in her story arc is more than just rhyming lines designed to take up running time, but is as legitimate as any mainstream J-pop release—if not better. The true musical masterpiece awaits in the penultimate episode, though, where the full-length version of the opening theme plays during a pivotal scene. In its uncut form, the theme song is more operatic rhapsody than pop confection, and really encapsulates how this series can defy expectations and put on a grander show than anyone may have expected from "some guy meeting a lot of cute girls."
The bad news about something like The World God Only Knows is that, now that we have a self-referential spoof on dating sims and harem storylines, it can never be done again—anyone else who tries to poke fun at the artifice of romance games versus reality is just going to look unoriginal. The good news, however, is that a second season is slated for Spring 2011, promising even more of Keima's comical yet heartwarming escapades (not to mention further coverage of the main storyline contained in the original manga). By most expectations, anything involving ditzy demon girls and gaming-obsessed geekboys and a rotating lineup of high school beauties should have been the stuff of critical derision. Yet the show's sharp sense of humor, honest emotions, and polished production values prove that working with familiar clichés doesn't have to result in a clichéd product. With the right prodding and poking, any anime series can indeed become greater than the sum of its parts.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Clever, self-referential humor and heartfelt relationship stories meet in this surprisingly polished series.
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