Sunday, July 24, 2011

Kamisama Dolls 1: A God Arrives

We open in confusion. A raging battle is going on, with strange creatures duking it out and people shouting things that are hard to understand without context. There's a giant explosion, and then we fade...

...into normal life. An ordinary guy with his ordinary guy problems, relating to an ordinary girl (well, ordinary except for her massive, torpedo-like breasts) and an ordinary college experience.

This is, give or take a few details, a standard (if not the standard) anime opening. Something crazy*, then something mundane. Watching a lot of shows in the new anime season looking for gems I've already seen it in Sacred Seven, No. 6, and Blood-C (which bases its entire first two episodes around this beat), and I expect to see it again. This kind of opening is a promise to the short attention-span viewer: this may look like a realistic series but don't worry, the supernatural stuff you came for will show up later. In this way it manages to reaffirm itself as a genre show while still having time to situate its main character in normality and build up that sense of normality just enough to have it mean something when it's disrupted. It also adds a kind of puzzle element to the show: how does this (a college party) get here (an apocalyptic hilltop battle)? Sci-fi anime has a long tradition of presenting its mythos as a puzzle for the audience to figure out, often with no clear explanation given in the show, with examples ranging from Neon Genesis Evangelion to Eureka Seven. This kind of opening serves as a miniature version of that puzzle.

So Kamisama Dolls seems to be thoroughly following the rules of sci-fi/fantasy/action anime, and is (at least judging from the first episode) a fairly normal installment in that tradition. But it's better than two more high-profile aforementioned shows in the same vein, Blood-C and Sacred Seven. In part it's just the absence of high-school cliches, brooding bishounen and bad writing, but it's also the fact that instead of keeping its cards pressed to its chest Kamisama Dolls is willing to let the audience in on most of its backstory and mythos. By the end of the first episode we know that the protagonist, Kuga, comes from a secretive village where certain people named seki can control crazy doll monster things named kakashi. We don't know everything, but we know enough to make sense of the action. This is a nice contrast to the typical anime trend (as seen in the two aforementioned shows) to try and keep the viewer in the dark as long as possible. This is done partly through voice-over narration and partly through Shiba, that generously endowed co-ed, who acts is the surrogate for the audience who doesn't know anything. Refreshingly, Kuga lets her in on his secret by the end of the episode, saving us from a lot of derivative plotlines about him trying to conceal things from her.

(Seriously, she's got to have back problems.)

Of course, I'm always wary of reviews that praise a show (or book or movie or whatever) more for what it isn't than what it is. And so while I can say that Kamisama Dolls is definitively a better show (or at least had a better first episode) than Sacred Seven, I'm not going to go out and call it good yet. It's a competently executed genre production in a genre that frequently lacks competent execution. But it's also the kind of genre story that is simply a collage of elements from other stories. This is most obvious in the characters, who are already easily identifiable types: the nondescript everyman protagonist, the accomodating love interest, the energetic little sister, and the psychotic villain. The central conceit of young characters commanding giant monsters is also extremely familiar. For genre fans there's a certain joy to a show like this: a hodgepodge of things you've already seen before, a new universe that you're already familiar with. But as an artistic achievement it leaves something to be desired.

I've stated before my belief that the credit sequences of just about anime house it's soul, so let's take a look at those of Kamisama Dolls.

The OP is actually quite well-done from a technical standpoint, featuring great animation and a song that's a pleasant relief from the usual J-Pop. On one level the visuals are pretty standard opening credits material – lots of images of the major characters staring off into the distance and a few tantalizing action shots. The major artistic conceit is the coloured panels which overlap with all the images and contain fragments of other scenes and images, sometimes shadowy and indistinct, sometimes in clear contrast with the main image. This reflects what is at least the basic premise of the series, if not its overarcing theme (which it's probably too early to talk about): things showing up outside of their carefully constructed categories, the breakdown of the divide between country and city and tradition and technology. This is encapsulated in the final shot, a juxtaposition between an idyllic forest landscape and a modern Japanese city. The device of the coloured polygons is gone: the two sides are given equal space and equal prominence. In other words, the OP of Kamisama Dolls is preparing us for a conflict between the old and the new. This is a thematic conflict that appears in a lot of anime, most famously in Hayao Miyazaki films like Spirited Away, and only seems appropriate for a country whose change from traditional Shintoism to Western modernity was so sudden and violent.

Kuga has wholeheartedly embraced modernity, abandoning his village steeped in supernatural tradition and taking up an urban college life. He explicitly dismisses his hometown as a “village that time forgot”. But as soon as he arrives he learns that tradition extends even into the cities, as the diaspora from his old village helps him get set up in the city. This is a positive effect. When his little sister shows up with a gaint monster, with a more vicious beast in pursuit, this tradition seems not so positive.

And yet the “gods” can't be described as wholly creatures of the past. Kukuri, the good-guy monster that Utao hangs around, has a distinctly sleek and mechanical design, so much so that if you look at his back I'd expect you'd find the Apple logo. Aki's monster is less so, but reminds me more of a science-fictional alien than a traditional mythological creature. Both have a tendency to appear in elevators, and Aki is able to defeat both the traditional samurai-style warrior that the village sends after him and the crew of modern sanatorium-style workers they send afterwards. The music also plays into this kind of juxtaposition, mixing dissonant woodwinds with the mechanical la-laing that seems to constantly accompany Kukuri (which may or may not be diegetic.) Kamisama Dolls presents us with a past/present dichotomy, but there are encouraging signs that it doesn't entirely trust that dichotomy.

The ending credits, which I can't find a Youtube video of for the life of me, is a pretty slapped-together affair, which mostly consists of clips from this episode and the next one. The interesting element is the lack of a clear dividing line between recap and preview: I didn't realize at first that it had switched over until I realized how unfamiliar the scenes had become. It echoes the fixation on breaking down the past/present dichotomy, blurring together two timeframes which are usually scene as entirely seperate. This blurring only seems to be occuring at the edges of the series, where the main plot can't get in; whether or not this is thematic foreshadowing will only be seen in the weeks ahead.

There's also another kind of blurring, which occurs in the matter of genre. While outwardly a supernatural adventure show of the type patented by anime, there's also a distinct undercurrent of horror in Kamisama Dolls. Kukuri is allegedly one of the good guys, but that's hard to reconcile with his appearance, emerging ghostlike from the bottom of the elevator, looming in front of Kuga and trapping him in the elevator. His creepy musical cue and the fact that Utao doesn't entirely have control over him suggests that not everything is sweet and wholesome in the unnamed Village (which sounds kind of Prisoner-esque, honestly). As E Minor documents here, there's been a bumper crop of recent series recognizing horror in the quaint Japanese village recently, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kamisama Dolls continues the trend. The writing is telling us a straightforward adventure story for now, but the series' visual and auditory choices are telling us to be on guard.

Kamisama Dolls is adapted from a manga by Hajime Yumamura, which I have read nothing of. The series is directed by Seiji Kishi and scripted by Makoto Uezu. Both have worked on a lot of stuff, mainly adaptations, and notably worked together on the goofy comedy Astro Fighter Sunred. That doesn't show up much here, although there's some (pretty banal) comedy in the second episode. They also both have shows under their belt that would lead one to suspect a horrific twist here (the Persona 4 anime for Kishi and School Days for Uezu). Then again, I'm not sure how much you can really glean from crew lists here -- as I mentioned in my Game of Thrones review an adaptation usually calls for less artistic vision and more workmanlike skill, and Kishi and Uezu seem here to do the former and not the latter. (ANN doesn't have individual episode credits for this one, so I'm assuming that these two have worked on all the episodes so far.) It's made by the increaingly prolific Brain's Base studio, whose work I've already talked about here before (Dororon Enma-kun). This show and the art in it doesn't quite live up to their reputation – like everything else, it's an acceptable, workmanlike performance but I feel as though the increased workload for the studio might be weighing on them.**

You know, I like this show, but I'm really not finding that much to say about it in general. Most of the interesting elements are things which could happen, incongruous stylistic choices which reflect a different ambition than the series outwardly presents. In a way there's something soothing about a show like this, reminiscent of the 90s adventure anime I grew up on, that so escapes critical analysis. It's a fun way to spend a half hour, but so unambitious that I'm just going to cut this review short right here before I produce any more blatant filler.

* Re-watching the sequence after having seen the rest of the episode, it's now pretty clearly a flashback, featuring younger versions of Aki and Kuga. There's nothing to indicate this on the first watch-through, though.

** Though to be fair, this is probably their B-project after the excellent Mawaru Penguindrum.

Next Week: ...well what do you know? It's that thing I just mentioned in the last paragraph. Welcome to the bizarre world of Mawaru Penguindrum.

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