What kind of show could drive nerds to tear apart their comic books with rage? Kannagi is poorly put together, but also deeper than it appears at first glance, and much, much more insiduously evil.
Of all the anime I’ve watched so far, Kannagi operates on the most levels. Partly because it does have more subtext than every series Studio Gonzo has ever animated, but mostly just because the commercial interests of TV anime turned the show into a horrible mish-mash of themes and memes. You’ve got a generic harem straight out of a dating game, a parodical comedy straight out of Lucky Star, the former director of Lucky Star itself venting his frustrations about being fired, and an allegorical drama about the role of traditional values in a changing country. This thematic confusion is a common symptom of anime’s desperate struggle to attract as many viewers as possible in order to recoup production costs, but in trying to maximize their appeal they’ve hopelessly wrecked any semblance of a coherent and enjoyable television series.
Let’s try to deconstruct this mess. When the show begins we are led to believe it might be a kind of Shinto-themed version of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, with the everyman Jin trying to keep up with the crazy antics of the sassy Nagi, who just might be a goddess. It’s actually an apt comparison in that both shows quickly break down into masturbatory fantasies about being the object of three girls’ affections at once. There’s no real reason the ladies are always attracted to the ultra-boring dating sim style male leads, they’re always completely plain and unremarkable except for being total perverts; compare Kyon saving the embarrassing photos of Mikuru to Jin first staring at Nagi’s crotch, then very nearly molesting her in her sleep, investigating her dirty underwear (twice), hiding his huge box full of pornography, and then listening to her pee at night.
Classy. The annoying part is that the show is explicitly aware of its own harem, Takako at one point actually envisions it as a dating game and there are many references made to ‘flags’ being triggered. That joke was funny in Lucky Star because Lucky Star wasn’t itself a lame harem show (not that it didn’t have its own problems). Parody only works up to the point where the work is a parody of itself, then it’s just sad. The show takes jab after jab at nerds like Akiba and the posters on Nagi’s fansite, but the people they’re making fun of are the same ones who are watching Kannagi, dorks who spend their time obsessing over cartoon girls.
Of course there’s a reason the show is so like Lucky Star; the director, Yutaka Yamamoto, was fired from his position as Lucky Star’s director after four episodes. He holds a hell of a grudge against KyoAni: in addition to the characters from both shows encountering each other at karaoke, Lucky Star protagonist Konata appearing on television, and a suspiciously ribboned girl appearing at the mall, Yamamoto includes a scene in which Nagi fans her crotch using a magazine with Haruhi and Lucky Star voice actress Aya Hirano on the cover. Not enough? Well he also appears directly in the anime, as himself, to make a snide reference to his dismissal.
Even if you argue that the show’s constant fourth wall violations are more humorous than they are petty and hypocritical, they really take away from the story’s integrity. Humor can be used effectively in drama, and Kannagi does have some genuinely funny points, like Nagi’s affection for terrible puns and the TV show Magical Girl Lolikko Cutie (finally Kannagi makes fun of other anime in a way that doesn’t apply just as well to Kannagi itself). But it’s hard to take the show’s serious parts seriously when it spends the rest of its time basically ridiculing itself.
Not that the real story of Kannagi is any less offensive than the tired clichés of the harem subplot or the whiny self-aggrandizement of the metahumor. For all its trashiness, the story does have a pretty serious subtext about religion. Nagi, a Shinto god, makes ridiculous demands of Jin, the everyman, and performs strange rites of purification whose purpose is not fully understood; her history is obscured, her purpose is unclear. The manga artist is questioning the role that traditions, including Shintoism, play in modern Japan. The changing times have led to Nagi’s sacred tree being uprooted and because of a fire that destroyed religious records she is an unknown deity, with only a few surviving followers. In this way she represents the decay of Shintoism and other bits of traditional culture in modern times.
There’s another half to this softcore metaphor: the antagonistic Zange. If her nun outfit and crucifix hairpin didn’t clue you in, she represents the forces of Christianity in Japan (she’s actually another Shinto deity, but her holy tree was planted on the grounds of a church which presumably influenced her character). While Nagi’s body was made from the earth of Kannagi (both the title of the series and the name of the city it’s set in), Zange is literally an invader, who posessed the body of a girl with a crush on Jin. And while Nagi excorsizes impurities for no charge, Zange asks 100 yen for ‘confessions’ (which she admits to Jin are worthless because you should confess directly to whoever you’ve wronged). Plus instead of destroying the impurities she finds she merely gathers them together (an internal inconsistency: she destroys one with her bare hands in the episode in which she’s introduced but later claims to only collect them in a holy watering can). The two sisters despise each other and openly quarrel over Jin, but of course his choice is a foregone conclusion, after Nagi begins to doubt herself and tries to vanish Jin pursues her and tells her that he believes she is a god and that she shoud come back, representing Japan’s choice to restore tradition to its rightful place.
But that’s not the end of the Nagi/Zange dichtomy or the traditional values the author is promoting. Although Nagi talks tough and brings plenty of tsuntsun to the relationship, it becomes clear before the end of the first episode that she’s completely reliant on Jin. Without him to catch the impurities they attack her before she can exorcize them, at one point it looks like she might be killed by a demonically posessed superball. On top of that she has no place to stay except his house (conveniently free of parents), and they quickly develop an oddly domestic relationship. Zange is much more independent, she’s deceived her host body’s father and subverted his authority, and although she plays helpless when she first meets Jin, she later shows that she’s perfectly capable of defending herself by beating the shit out of 3 hapless would-be rapists (in what’s actually a pretty good action scene). She also earns money through her confessions and jobs at a local TV station and later a maid cafe where she planned to antagonize her sister. But when she shows up for work, her sister is already gone.
That’s because Jin doesn’t approve of Nagi having a job, he thinks the clothes are too indecent. Nagi enjoys her work and has a talent for it, and wants to earn her own money for clothes becuase Jin is too stingy, but Jin is threatened by the way Nagi is attractive to other men, so she offers to quit and he accepts.
The appeal of a tsundere character to the average otaku is to see the formerly hostile girl conqueored and forced to accept her feelings for the main character. In this way the tsunderekko is denied control of her sexuality, driven by “love” to accept a man she detests. Maid Cafes are obviously not the most progressive institutions by most standards, but in a third-wave feminism kind of way Nagi was actually empowering herself as well as seeking financial freedom, and Jin just couldn’t stand that. By contrast, Zange is allowed to sell her confessions and work in the maid cafe and even put out a CD of love songs, beat up men, and most importantly pursue Jin openly, without a tsuntsun facade. But the show implies that this independence is actually what makes her indecent, even slutty, and her martial antics leave Jin terrified.
The clearest evidence for the analogy of the story to conservative views of a woman’s role is in the story’s conclusion. Nagi faces a crisis of identity, she asks herself why she does what she does and, more importantly, who she really is. Troubled by trying to answer these questions, she gets into a fight with Jin and runs away from their home, leaving a note that says she was lying all along (lying to who, she doesn’t say). Desperately trying to find herself, Nagi goes back to the one of the families who were acting as her shrine’s guardians. Does Nagi look inside herself and build a real ego that belongs to her alone?
Of course not. Nagi’s identity crisis is solved by Jin, who grabs her by the arm and tells her that he believes that she’s a goddess and that should be enough for her to come home where she belongs. This entire sequence of events, right down to the male character promising that they’ll start looking for the female character’s identity right away, together, is straight out of A Doll’s House (the 19th century Norwegian drama not the hilariously awful Fox series), but Ibsen’s play didn’t end in the wife surrendering to her controlling husband, and it definitely didn’t end with a convenient accident causing the male lead to fall on top of the naked girl. Nagi’s acquiesance represents not only the return of not only Japanese religion but also Japanese women to “where they belong”, as defined by Japanese men.
Kannagi is a lousy allegory with a hateful message, badly assembled, tastelessly told, bitter with the self-loathing of its audience and soured by the small-minded vendetta from its shamed director. “Conservative family values” with regards to women and religion make up the rhetoric of the people responsible for ruining America, for Japan’s sake I hope they don’t catch on there too.