Review for Kanon: The Complete Collection (UK)
As I type this, the temperatures are climbing towards an unprecedented 40֯ C plus, shattering the previous record for the UK. I had the thought that if I watch a show set in a winter wonderland, a city buried under inches of snow, breath misting in the air, snowball fights and shivering beneath layers of woollens, I might not the feel the heat so intensely. It doesn’t work in the slightest. That has been a public information message stating the bloody obvious.
This summer MVM are releasing a bunch of vintage TBS shows on DVD, including the two Key Visual adaptations that we in the UK had missed out on, Air, and this, Kanon. This was the Jun Maeda show that I fell for when I first saw it back around 2010, when I imported the Funimation S.A.V.E. release, which had consolidated and completed the previous truncated ADV release before that company went under. I have tried and failed to replicate that joy and sense of wonder with every subsequent Jun Maeda Key Visual adaptation, Clannad, Little Busters, Charlotte, and most recently Air. Now the question is, having seen all those other shows, become familiar with the mechanistic and trope filled storytelling and narrative touchstones, can I still stay in love with Kanon? This release merely replicates the Funimation discs I reviewed at the end of 2010.
Yuichi Aizawa is returning to his aunt’s hometown in the middle of winter to go to high school there. He will be living with his aunt Akiko Minase for the duration. He hasn’t been back in seven years, but for some strange reason, any memory of his previous time there has vanished, and he can barely remember the town or the people he once knew. He does remember his cousin Nayuki though, Akiko’s daughter. She’s now captain of the school’s athletics team, when she remembers to wake up that is. Yuichi’s memory gets its first jog when he literally bumps into a cute little girl with a winged backpack named Ayu Tsukimiya, who is on the run from a fast food vendor.
It turns out that it isn’t the first time that they collided on the street, and that seven years ago they were friends. In fact, most of the girls he meets in this winter town present a mystery. There’s Shiori, who never goes to school because she’s ill, but is always waiting outside. Mai Kawasumi is the quiet one in school who spends most days with her best friend Sayuri, but at night she prowls the school corridors with a sword, hunting demons. And it isn’t long before the amnesiac redhead Makoto Sawatari moves in with Yuichi, Nayuki and Akiko. She doesn’t remember much, other than her name, and the fact that she hates Yuichi. Just what happened in that town seven years ago, and what is happening now?
24 episodes are spread across four discs as follows
1. Silver Overture
2. Introit in the Snow
3. A Forgotten Partita
4. Holiday Caprice
5. Demons’ Serenade
6. A Mysterious Divertimento
7. The Runaway and the Kitten’s Fuga
8. The Fantasia of Reminiscence
9. The Berceuse of the Baby Fox
10. Requiem Atop the Hill
11. Intermezzo of Light and Shadow
12. A Strange Looking Waltz
13. A Dangerous Trio
14. A Cracked Concerto
15. Sonatine of Hide and Go Seek
16. Midnight Oratorio
17. Lieder Ohne Worte of an Elder Sister and a Younger Sister
18. The Disappearing Adagio
19. The Etude of Contact
20. The Nocturn of Farewell
21. A Ronde Without You
22. Symphony of Recollections
23. The Scarlet Red Finale
24. Kanon at the End of the Dream
Kanon gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic NTSC transfer on these four discs. It’s an anime from the auspices of Studio KyoAni, the same people behind The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and if you’ve seen that show, you’ll recognise a lot in the character designs and the sheer glowing effervescence of this show. Kanon is a beautiful animation. It simply explodes with visual intensity and warmth, with a cheerful and very pleasant colour palette, an idealised world design, and very appealing character designs. Incidentally, when it comes to characters, and with a cast or predominantly teenaged girls, you can expect a whole lot of cuteness. It’s fair to say that visually, this show is so sweet that it may cause your eyeteeth to rot. The animation is strong throughout, the character designs remain consistent, and the winter setting is very evocative.
You have the choice between DD 2.0 English and Japanese stereo, with optional subtitles or a signs only track. My preference as always was for the original language track, and I was very pleased with that. It’s notable for the casting of Tomokazu Sugita as Yuichi. He plays Kyon to memorable effect in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and the similarities between that character and Yuichi can’t be discounted, both in appearance and personality. Yuichi is less prone to exasperation, is more playful and amiable, but the same sarcastic world-weariness is there, and the characters are similar enough for the writers to throw in an in-joke or two. I also appreciated Yui Horie as Ayu, who brings the requisite likable cuteness, as well as an emotional depth to the role. Appropriately enough, the music for Kanon is a cut above the usual, with a fair amount of classical music mixed in with the contemporary tunes. Apparently the theme songs for the show date back to the original computer game release, and they have stood up well. I only sampled a few minutes of the English dub, but found it to be a solid enough effort.
The discs boot to static menus.
The US Funimation discs stripped out the original ADV extras. This release from MVM strips out the Funimation trailers.
Can I still stay in love with Kanon? I hate to say it, but I feel as if the love is fading at this point, although it is still an excellent, and emotionally affecting show, telling a decent story with an interesting cast of characters. It’s a great blend of humour, drama, tragedy and triumph, and it still manages to tug on my heartstrings. But familiarity does breed contempt as they say, and you could say that the shine has started to fade, now that I have watched this show for the fourth time. But a far bigger problem is I have now experienced a lot of what Jun Maeda has to offer, the Key Visual adaptations of titles like Air, Clannad, Charlotte, and Little Busters. The more of these shows you watch, the more you recognise character tropes, storytelling short cuts, little video game mechanics adapted to linear narrative, and the video game music style. And re-watching Kanon with all that knowledge diminishes the experience; it’s like knowing the magician’s secrets.
It’s all about the mystery of course, the tale of a boy returning to a snow enveloped town in wintertime after seven years away, yet unable to recall much at all about the last time that he was there. But it’s the friends that he made when he was ten years old and younger, and the events that happened when he used to visit regularly, that will shape and determine what happens to him now. And that is all that you really need to know about the story, any more than that would spoil it, and Kanon is a show that you appreciate more as the story unfolds, revealing more and more layers of its intricately constructed plot. I have to say that I was glued to the screen from beginning to end, and I didn’t see any of the plot twists and character revelations that developed. Even one thing that I was sure of, heavily telegraphed during the opening credits sequence, turned out to be a red herring in the end. When all is said and done though, plot twists, enigma, and mystery are all well and good, and even fun the first time around, but when it comes to a show’s longevity, and the ability to re-watch it, the story needs some meat on it, and the characters have to engage the viewers.
It is very easy to care about these characters, even if you find all things cute and sweet in anime anathema. Cute and sweet most of the girls in this show may be, but they’re written with an emotional depth and strength that fleshes them out beyond the usual anime tropes. They are not just there to please the anime fan in the street’s sensibility, and a lot of thought has been given to the way that the characters interact and bounce off each other. Yuichi is the star around which this solar system of characters orbits. This isn’t the usual weak and ineffectual male lead that you find in the typical anime harem. In fact Kanon isn’t exactly a typical harem show, in that it isn’t about relationship comedy, awkward moments, and crossed wires. The only similarity it has to shows like Tenchi Muyo or Love Hina is that there are several female characters, and only one central male character. But far from weak, wishy-washy or indecisive, Yuichi is a strong, resolute and likeable young man. The similarities to Haruhi Suzumiya’s Kyon have already been pointed out, but he’s also a lot more playful, and apt to tease his friends, while his sarcasm is a lot gentler.
The girls he meets are a varied bunch as well, although all are pleasing to the eye. His cousin Nayuki is quite the oddball, a rising track and field star in her school, but one who needs the help of a couple dozen alarm clocks in the morning when it actually comes to waking up. It turns out that sleeping is her natural state of being, and it doesn’t take much to send her into the land of nod. Her mother Akiko is the rock of the family, warm and supportive as well as open-minded and accepting, although she has an odd taste in homemade jam. Nayuki is obviously disappointed that Yuichi barely remembers her, and is happy to welcome her childhood friend back, but there are moments when she is awkward around him. Yuichi’s memories get their first real jog, and the mysteries truly begin to unfold when he bumps into Ayu Tsukimiya. They were friends seven years ago, but Yuichi has totally forgotten her. It isn’t long before she reminds him. She’s short for her age, incredibly child-like, and innocent and naïve. It makes her a ripe target for Yuichi’s teasing nature.
Less accepting of being teased is Makoto Sawatari, a fiery redhead that also collides with Yuichi, promptly announcing that she hates him. She’s also suffering from amnesia; although it’s a far more complete and total an instance than Yuichi’s selective memory loss. It’s a grudging sort of hate though, the sort of hate that can only be applied if the target is in the near vicinity, which is why Makoto practically latches onto Yuichi early on. When her circumstances become clear, Akiko invites her to live with the family, which is the perfect venue for her to keep trying to attack Yuichi at every opportunity. He quickly learns to sleep with one eye open, as she is often likely to sneak into his room with some prank in mind, pranks which Yuichi usually helps backfire. At school there is Shiori Misaka. Well she isn’t exactly at school. Apparently she has to stay away because of a cold, yet she can be found standing outside the school in the snow everyday looking up at the classroom window where Yuichi normally sits. It isn’t long before he’s spending his free time with her, trying to get to know the reclusive and enigmatic girl. It’s weeks before he even learns that what she really wants to do is build a ten metre high snowman.
Also at school are best friends Mai Kawasumi and Sayuri Kurata. Sayuri is the outgoing, friendly and talkative type, while Mai is introverted, monosyllabic and morose, and worse, mistrusted by the school after a spate of ‘incidents’. Yet Yuichi is soon spending his lunchtimes with them, especially when he learns Mai’s secret. He has to sneak back into school one night to retrieve Nayuki’s notes so that she can do her homework, and he finds Mai there, stalking the corridors with a sword, defending the school from demons. In a situation like that, you’d be calling for the people with the jackets that tie up at the back, but after Yuichi experiences an attack by a demon for himself, he determines to help Mai, whether she wants it or not. More importantly, he wants to help break through her introverted shell and bring her out of herself.
Yuichi is re-discovering this town, getting used to the cold again, settling down and enjoying high school, and making loads of friends, oddball though they may be. He’s even beginning to piece his fractured memory back together, although perhaps it’s because of this that things start falling apart. And we follow him, and feel for him through every heartbreak. Kanon gets the balance of gentle character moments, slice of life comedy, good-natured storytelling and dark, tragic, despair just right. It lifts you up and sends you crashing down again with effortless elegance. If there is one small flaw the first time you watch the show, it’s that come the final few episodes, this emotional roller-coaster left me with my heart in my mouth, and I faced the last couple of episodes with an irrevocable sense of dread, despite how pleasant the story unfolding on screen maybe. I kept anticipating yet another tragedy around the corner. But perhaps this is exactly how the storytellers intended it, for with the final episode, they deliver an ending that is transcendental, that makes all the heartbreak and agony worthwhile. It’s an ending that if you have been invested in the show as much as I was, turns out to be joyful, cathartic, magical and hopeful all in one, the perfect note on which to seal the story. But that only works the once. When you re-watch the show it’s never as effective again.
So what was a ten out of ten show the first time around, feels more like an eight. But really, I think the problem is all the other Jun Maeda shows that I’ve watched. As highly rated as some of them are, I would suggest that you’d pick just one to watch, and keep (personally I still think Kanon is the best of the lot), and avoid the others completely. And then buy Angel Beats, as it’s Jun Maeda just letting loose and having fun, parodying himself to some degree. Kanon is the archetype, and Angel Beats is the perfect subversion of that.