Yutaka Yamamoto, the man, the mystery, the sensation. Known to some as “Yamakan,” he’s been deemed one of the fresh faces in today’s candy coated, moé-filled and flagging Japanese cartoon industry. Since his breakout directorial work in 2006’s always controversial The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, suave, charismatic Yutaka has been under a Hollywood-like spotlight. After his infamous resignation from Kyoto Animation during the production of 2007’s much maligned Lucky Star, Yamamato catapulted himself into a league of his own. Now heading his own production assistance studio, Ordet, hand-in-hand with Sony’s Aniplex and A-1 Pictures, Yamakan wants to set the world ablaze with his fury.
Harsh reality that it may be, yes, my dear sociopaths, Yamakan likes and prefers to work on Japtoons of a certain moé variety. Fear not, for this man of virtue does not limit himself to the multi-million-dollar otakubait moé industry’s stereotypes and limitations. He doesn’t rein in his dignity for a mere paycheck, diving into that vast sea of dull, drab sameness. This studio rock star tries to keep his head above that sort of insipid mediocrity by injecting his own brand of warm semi-realism, and, unexpectedly, creativity into his cartoons. What better series to display my bro Yutaka’s genius than Kannagi, his first and so far only major work with Ordet and A-1 Pictures. Paired with the experienced and talented screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata of Kamichu and Read or Die fame, Bakemonogatari composer Satoru Kousaki and other industry talent, this all-star formula seemed as if it could do no wrong.
Granted, Eri Takenashi’s Kannagi seemed spun from a similar cloth as other works in the trite harem genre, which is where my hangups stemmed from initially. I flipped through Kannagi out of curiosity, for I am not a mere philistine as to dismiss on genre alone, and was turned off immediately. Beyond the art there was no hook, no sort of satisfying meat to the material. Kannagi came off as a carbon copy of standard harem fan service trash. How could Yamakan, Kurata and their crew possibly salvage a compelling comedy, drama and mood piece, anything of redeemable value out of this?
Before I lay down the law around here, don’t be alarmed if Kannagi breaks very little new ground in the tired “girls on parade” genre of animation, it doesn’t. In fact, the first two episodes, if well story boarded and animated, did not impress me. I was initially turned off by the old, phoned-in “guy meets girl, girl complicates life for guy” cliché, exhibited endlessly in works such as Ah My Goddess! The only diamond in all this rough was the opening sequence, not surprisingly, another well-animated Yamkan-directed dance routine. A lovingly constructed one minute and thirty seconds of animation with nearly the quantity of frames and quality of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Overman King Gainer’s “King Gainer Over!” Not for the same fans as Tomino’s neo-future mecha opus, yet just as instantly catchy.
Past that exception though, I wondered to myself if psycho soldier Yutaka Yamamoto was losing his way. Not dejected, as mere cartoons do not chip away at my manly stature, I promptly forgot about Kannagi for another day.
I revisited Kannagi with some reluctance on the recommendations of a few trusted friends. I figured at worst I was to about to experience the same whitewashed tedium for an episode or two more.
Trudging through the obligatory swamp that is the first two episodes, I was put off again by the inane misadventures of hapless loser Jin and flat-chested dream girl starlet “goddess” Nagi with trademark moé bangs and all the trimmings. Being a man of my word, I persevered through this near-endless desert of banality.
Next episode, I observed shift to a school’s art club setting, which gave me some minor relief from the trite idiot duo banter. The rest of the cast members were quickly introduced: gentle comic relief giant Daitetsu, postmodern ironic otaku Akiba, redhead childhood friend Tsugumi, silent senior Shino, rambunctious older tease Takako and, finally, the jealous, possessive older sister Zange. It seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Amazingly, I was feeling some cast chemistry and laughing a few times here and there. The characters were decently compelling and I was interested in seeing more. How was this possible? Maybe humanity’s savior Yutaka Yamamoto had tapped into his trademark warmth to free my black heart.
Over the next few episodes, I was highly entertained by a mix of comedic hijinks that were somehow funny, regardless of what the vast majority of prior Japanimation humor had led me to believe, with a varied, spirited cast and some very charming moments. Who knew that harem adventures in a maid café or cast get-togethers standing around a closet could provoke a smile and numerous laughs, outside of much older series like Kimagure Orange Road. Complement this with a semi-realistic mood and portrayal of characters, combined with fluid animation, slightly refreshing, not-so-cartoony character designs and detailed hair movement. Few times have I seen an Eastern cartoon turn around from such a weak pilot in such an uplifting manner. The sitcom-style episodic content was capped off by a karaoke session, where devious tease Takako blows everyone away, including resident otaku Akiba, with an audacious idol-styled performance.
Alleviating some of the ham-handedness, the central focus was not often on resident imbecile protagonist Jin; if it ever was, his actions and thoughts were usually glossed over in favor of the supporting cast. In fact, Tsugumi, portrayed as a coy, honest-to-life childhood friend, was almost spotlighted as the main focus at times. She’s the only character whose thoughts and insecurities we delve into as viewers, painting her as a charming individual.
While most of the series brings the characters together in a comedic tone, the last three episodes delve into, sadly, an unwanted exercise in plot-centric futility. I am quite sure Hideyuki Kurata, unless he was out of his mind, tried his hardest to fix up the tired Shinto mythological back story from Eri Takenashi’s graphic novel to no avail. As typically occurs, Kurata and his staff likely had to stick somewhat to the source material. The results are not pretty: haphazard, schizophrenic scenes of talking heads and religious symbolism, including a bizarre Neon Genesis Evangelion-like freak out sequence. Thankfully, the downward spiral in creativity and entertainment did not ruin my overall enjoyment, thanks to the previous seven acts I ate up voraciously.
In the end, I’ll have to recommend Kannagi to even the most cynical type of visual media fan. Few series’ take on the mantle of old-school romantic comedy sensibilities, paired with 00s-era modern wit. At the very least, us braggarts can never go wrong with striking rural Japanese backgrounds. Once again, I have to thank glorious Führer Yamamoto, his trusty General Kurata and their faithful staff for the fine work. Normally I detest this genre, and it’s quite a feat when it just plain works.