03 Oct 2012
If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that (among my other ramblings) I am a big fan of the original manga for The World God Only Knows. While I've taken a look at the anime from time to time I have never watched the whole of the first series, partially out of a fear that it would not "measure up" to the preconceived notions in my silly head. So how does this first season shape up when faced with my rabid fandom?
The storyline for TWGOK (to shorten the lengthy title) is a little convoluted and difficult to compress without losing some key element of what makes it (at least to me) interesting. Keima Katsuragi is a massive fan of Dating Sim games (or as Sumiyoshi in Excel Saga may say, Date-a-Lass games), so much so that he is known as the "Capturing God" in fan circles for his proficiency at them. An adorably dense demon named Elsie shows up hoping to use his abilities to charm real world girls in order to drive out detrimental spirits (called Loose Souls) that inhabit the hearts of humans. At the risk of losing his head in a Running Man style exploding head collar incident, Keima must now apply his knowledge of dating sims to the real world and drive out Loose Souls from various girls with the power of love - something he is not exactly overjoyed with.
"That sounds a little creepy" I hear you say, but what saves TWGOK from devolving into wish fulfillment is the execution. Keima isn't some hapless twit hounding after a kiss from the heroines and conveniently falling into their cleavage, he's a massive nerd who views the enterprise as a problem-solving exercise from one of his games. Most arcs in the show take the angle that the main issue is resolving the heroines on-going personal problems, with the romance being a side effect of this. This takes a lot of the creep factor out of the show and makes it feel like a more honest character study; something which is helped by Keima's begrudging attitude to the process and the fact that you get to witness a lot of genuine struggle and growth. It also helps that Keima is often forced to re-evaluate his rather narrow view of things, making each storyline interesting to watch as both Keima and his current target muddle their way through things.
It is pretty safe to say that TWGOK can be a love or hate show depending on what (or who) it is focusing upon at the time. With the heroines of the show being such a massive focus, a lot of the show's enjoyment hinges on whether you can empathise with them and their troubles. When these hit TWGOK is an engaging, enjoyable romp - while "emotional rollercoaster" would be over-egging it, the stories presented have enough little surprises and hiccups to draw you in and keep you glued to your TV. Thankfully for me, the majority of the character arcs in this first season do just that and make up an enjoyable procession of pleasant plot beats with more than a few laughs, most of which are aimed either at Keima and his disconnection with reality or at his Demon partner Elsie, who is an adorable klutz.
If the character or their arc falls flat then the show can be an absolute slog to watch. While the comedy beats still hit just as well, the rather sluggish pace of the series overall becomes painfully apparent as events play out and you find yourself clockwatching or thinking of pressing the "Next Chapter" button to move things along. This happened to me in the second half of the series with the three-episode arc that follows Kanon Nakagawa, a rising idol singer. I simply could not connect with the character at all, and while it still had some nice comedy moments and a very well done denouement I was bored out of my skull for the duration.
Perhaps the most consistently amusing episodes of the series, and those free of the polarising influence of any ongoing arc, are the stand-alone comedy moments. These tend to centre on Keima's utterly unhealthy addiction to dating sims, or on his demon partner Elsie and her attempts to adjust to the human world. These are a genuine delight to watch, jumping from gag to gag with gleeful aplomb.
Another feather in TWGOK's cap is just how damn pretty it looks and sounds. Given the lack of any real action or fight scenes the budget in the series is used to make make the characters themselves look damn pretty, a large part of which can be attributed to Akio Watanabe, who adapted the character designs from the manga. While the style can look a little overly glossy at times it ties the show together with a strong visual identity as well as being damn nice to look at, giving the cast an expressiveness that helps drag you in. Begrudgingly I have to admit that Kanon's musical numbers are magnificently animated, and are admirable for their energy and production values even if you dislike the character. The background music is also very nice, helping to set an appropriate tone for various scenes. Chief among these is the digital electronic "tutorial" music used when Keima is either giving expositon, or geeking out over some video game item. It feels pitch perfect, as if it was ripped from a game. The show's frequent use of leitmotif also shines through and really ties the show together at pivotal moments.
I was slightly surprised that TWGOK was dubbed given the rather involved premise, but not displeased. The dub itself is inconsistent - it has inspired moments when it really hits and times when it feels like a zero-effort production, and oscillates between these states at random. On the good side you have some great adaptation of the script to make it more accessible and help the comedy come across, but you also have moments where it sounds like a literal translation of the Japanese and falls flat. Chris Patton turns in an equally bipolar performance as Keima, at times nailing the character and at others sounding flat as a pancake, although this may well be due to flaky direction. Star of the dub is Luci Christian, who voices Elsie and is bloody good at it, capturing the character perfectly. While I do still prefer the Japanese voices, the dub is certainly worth a shot.
You won't find another show like The World God Only Knows, either in it's slightly convoluted premise or the way it actually makes the premise work in a manner that doesn't leave you rolling your eyes. The comedic moments, especially the way the show pokes fun at its main cast, are great and bring a lot of welcome levity to the emotional plot beats. As mentioned before, the show has the power to really draw you in and wrap you up in a storyline, making time fly by. Conversely, when the show whiffs it can feel like an absolute slog. Even taking into account that I wanted to skip the entire quarter of the show that contains Kanon's arc, I still feel secure in recommending the first season on TWGOK due to how strong the rest of it is. Fingers crossed Manga Entertainment releases the second season!