Don't mention that ring of discoloration around Judge William Lee's head. According to doctors, it's not a halo.
Our review of Kanon: Volume 1, published February 8th, 2008, is also available.
Can the future exist without a past?
The visual novel is apparently very popular in Japan, but it's a genre of computer game that I'm not familiar with. The player assumes the identity of the protagonist but limited interaction puts the emphasis on the story that's told through text screens. In its original incarnation, the visual novel Kanon depicted sex scenes between the protagonist and a series of female characters. This was the reward to players for successfully navigating the decision points in the game. That element of the story is absent from Kanon: The Complete Series, which is the second television anime version of the property. Without the sex, is this still the Kanon that burned up PC, Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 machines?
Facts of the Case
At the end of the winter break, 17-year-old Yuichi arrives in the town he hasn't seen since a brief summer visit seven years ago. A transfer student to the local high school, he'll be staying with his aunt Akiko, an infinitely patient woman, and her daughter Nayuki. Oddly, Yuichi can't remember anything about his previous visit to the town. Life gets complicated when he encounters several girls with whom he may have had past experiences.
Yuichi's cousin, Nayuki, is just one of the girls with personality quirks that hold clues to reconciling his past. Ayu is a small girl, easily frightened, who has lost something very valuable but doesn't remember what it is. Wearing her winged backpack, she keeps crashing into Yuichi in the shopping district, stirring in Yuichi faint memories of their childhood meeting. Another girl, Makoto, suffers from amnesia but she's certain that she's justified in hating Yuichi for something he did to her so many years ago. The frail-looking Shiori suffers from some persistent illness that keeps her out of class yet she spends most of her days wandering outside on the school grounds. Finally, there's Mai who is a stern, quiet student during the day and a demon-slayer at night.
This version of Kanon was produced by Kyoto Animation and based on the visual novel by game studio Key. This same creative partnership also gave Japanese airwaves Air: The Complete Series a year earlier. There are noticeable similarities between the two shows: the teenage male protagonist arriving in a new town, the bevy of girls the hero must contend with, the tragic romance with a terminally ill girl, the mystical secrets and town folklore that must be discovered. If the formula worked the first time, why mess with a good thing?
Kanon takes its title from the musical term, as in Pachelbel's Canon in D, which one characters sums up as the repetition of a melody that gains richness and harmony as layers of complexity are introduced. You can apply that to the story thematically as Yuichi retraces his childhood experiences with the girls of the town. Repetition also describes the structure of many of the episodes as the characters' routines vary only slightly on a day-to-day basis. That pattern is interrupted when an individual's story becomes the focus for a multi-episode arc. The slice-of-life atmosphere of the series made me pretty restless for the first four or five episodes. There is a lot of background detail being established and that gives the characters a lot more weight as we get deeper into the story, but I was feeling impatient before long.
It takes a while to warm up to Yuichi as the protagonist since he acts like a jerk most of the time. He initially treats all the girls he meets like little sisters rather than peers or potential girlfriends. That is, he teases or insults them, hits one over the head quite forcefully, plays pranks and otherwise makes life miserable for them. Yet, it's hard to tell how sincere his actions are when he's being good or bad. When he takes Ayu to a movie, he insists on watching a scary movie despite her obvious discomfort. In another case, he acts unconcerned when he leaves Nayuki's notes at school, preventing her from studying, but then proceeds to break into the school late at night in order to retrieve them. Yuichi has a cocky, cool exterior that gradually breaks down to allow his better self to show.
The main mystery concerns Yuichi's history with Ayu and hints regarding this storyline are sporadically dropped in different episodes. As expected, it isn't really dealt with until the final batch of episodes. The show really starts to take off in Episode 6 and continues with four consecutive installments about Makoto after Akiko takes Yuichi's sworn enemy into their home while she recovers from her amnesia. It was during this batch of episodes when I was really drawn into the story. After Makoto's mystery was solved, I was engaged enough with the material to want a resolution to the other characters' incomplete memories. I was also surprised that the small repetitive moments had become comfortably amusing rather than tedious. For example, the running joke about Akiko's terrible jam didn't fail to make me laugh.
The series looks good due in large part to backgrounds rendered with fine realistic details. Lighting effects cast most scenes in the glow of glistening snow or brilliantly warm sunset rays. Colors aren't punchy but the pastel tones create the right dreamy atmosphere. Scenes are not given the fast-edit treatment so many sequences are framed in wide shots displaying full body character animation. For a television series, the quality of animation here is better than average. However, I don't quite understand the design decision to draw every character with a constant ring of lighter color, like a glare or reflection, across their hair regardless of lighting situation.
Funimation has repackaged the formerly ADV Films-licensed version of the series into a boxed DVD set. The image presentation is strong: consistent colors and no physical blemishes to the picture. The stereo sound works fine for this show with clear and strong voices heard in either original Japanese or dubbed English language tracks. The English version is very good as the voice actors find exactly the right tone to match the characters' energy on screen.
The 24 half-hour episodes are spread across four discs packaged in two double-sided slim cases. The slims are housed in a cardboard slipcase. There are no supplemental materials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It takes a while to really get into this series and viewers who only sample the first few episodes might be turned off. Evidence of this reaction can be found in an earlier review of the single-disc Kanon: Volume 1. In that previous decision, retired Judge Rhodes makes some good points about the show—not the least of which is that all the female characters are drawn younger than their supposed ages. However, that issue isn't completely ignored and the script has Yuichi tease Ayu about how young she looks in more than one scene. More significantly, I disagree with Judge Rhodes's view that misogyny lies at the core of this series. While it can't be denied that its genesis was as an adult computer game, Kanon: The Complete Series leaves out those tawdry elements. Yuichi is portrayed as a jerky older brother rather than a Casanova and he seems rather reluctant to play the role of boyfriend. The signs of male dysfunction are there if you look for them, I suppose, but I think this anime's worst offense is that of being an overwrought teen melodrama that takes its sweet time revealing its mysteries.
Fans of the property, from either its game origins or any other media, know what to expect and they won't be disappointed. New viewers willing to give some time to the introductory episodes will have their patience rewarded eventually.
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