The winter of my discontent with Kanon — an #anitwitwatches post

I’m having a difficult time with Kanon.

The sad girls in the snow have led me to the winter of my discontent, and I’m still sorting out my feelings.

It’s not a bad show, except for when it is, and it’s not a good show, except for when it is.

It’s a rare beast when I come across a show where I can praise elements like the cinematography, the plotting and mood setting, yet can find an equal amount of problems with characters, plot and even with mood setting.

All of those thoughts are colored by my own preconceptions and prejudices around shounen romance from this period and its reliance on moe.

Let me be clear. When I started watching Kanon as part of #anitwitwatches, I knew it wasn’t going to be a show that I loved. This is was going to the irresistible force of moe that are the Key shows from the mid-2000s against the immovable object that is my skepticism of this brand of shounen romance.

But I tried to keep an open mind as I began watching it. There was always a chance that I would come out of the other end a true convert for Key shows. Maybe this would be the one to change my mind about moe and harems.

While it obviously wasn’t that, Kanon holds a special place in my own anime history. It is part of the trinity of Key shows that came out in the mid-2000s that included Air and Clannad. All of them were produced by KyoAni when that studio was not nearly as beloved as it came to be. While it was never as universally loved as Clannad, it was always liked by the people who like these kind of things.

I’ve always considered it laying the foundation for shows like School Days and Higurashi. While those shows took the elements of harem and moe and subverted them, Kanon is trying to further the genre itself.

What Kanon is trying to do

At it’s heart, Kanon is about making you feel sad.

I’m sure there are people out there who would say that I’m simplifying it, and I am a little bit. Kanon is a show about tragic girls who are doomed, sometimes by their love of main male lead Yuichi, sometimes by fate, sometimes by a combination of both.

Why are they doomed, you might ask?

Well, to make the audience feel sad.

That’s not to diminish the artistry that Kanon uses to make you feel sad. Its combination of a wintry setting, its clever use of camera angles and even it’s music are designed, sometimes overly so, with that intent in mind.

Even its urban fantasy setting is more about feeling then its about logic. For example, does it really make sense in a town covered in snow for one hilltop to suddenly be green? No. But it pays off during a scene when that lush green field suddenly turns back to snow.

Let’s talk about those payoffs, because those are Kanon’s single biggest strength. If there is a meaningful line, it will come back, and it won’t be in a hackney way. If there seems to be a throwaway comment, you will see the significance later.

At one point, a character says the line, “They call them miracles because they don’t come true.”

This line resonates throughout the rest of the show as they talk about miracles, and those lines aren’t forced. They seem to flow out of the course of “normal” conversation.

While the dialogue comes off as if it’s written for a stage play, it is never awkward. The unnaturalness of it makes it seem like a fairy tale or even a fable.

Here is the crux of my problem with Kanon. For a show that wanted me to have all of the feels, it missed more times as it hit. Now I’m a sappy guy. I can easily be led to water, and if a movie or TV show wants me to cry, I will probably cry. I shed not a few tears during The Rolling Gils and Wandering Son to give a couple of examples.

But when I finished the first arc, everything in the show was telling me I was supposed to feel sad.

And I didn’t.

While I shed some tears when we learned Sayuri’s story, Mai’s tale left me feeling empty even though it was supposed to be equally heartbreaking.

Even Ayu’s tale left me similarly meh at its most heart-wrenching moment (by the old tree.) When we get the resolution in the next episode, I just felt distant from it all.

This is why I’m struggling with Kanon. I can see all of the ingredients for a tear soup, but when they come together I just see the ingredients and not a complete whole. So I’m left with a single question: Is it just me? Am I simply immune to the call of shounen romance. Do I not have any love in my heart?

Or is there something fundamentally flawed in Kanon?

Shiori’s Tale

Fair warning. Up until this point, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but I can’t avoid them from this point on. If you want to keep going, that is on you.

While there were parts and even whole episodes that I enjoyed in the show, there was only one complete story that I loved: Shiori’s

The story about the mysterious girl who suddenly started appearing outside of Yuichi’s school was compelling. From her first introduction outside with Ayu and the long walk home, I found her fourth-wall breaking comments legitimately funny. While her 10-meter high snowman induced a sigh of exasperation, I found her, as a character, actually enjoyable.

And when her arc kicked in, I found her struggle with her sister Kaori to be truly heart-breaking. I wanted them to make up before Shiori shuffled off this mortal coil. Her wanting to be in school with her sister rang true to me.

Her final note where she disappeared did everything that this show wanted to do. I felt devastated. I kept hoping to see her come back, so much so that I was willing to write off her miraculous recovery at the end of the show.

So why? Why did Shiori’s story accomplish what the rest of the show failed to?

My answer is that it had real stakes. If Kaori and Shiori don’t make up, there is a real chance that they will never make up. Even if we hadn’t just seen the real cost of it in the last arc, it’s obvious that Shiori is devastated because all she wants is for her sister to love her.

I was invested in this story that was completely separate from Yuichi. While Yuichi was the instrument to bring it to a resolution, it wasn’t his story. It was Shiori’s story.

Yuichi is the worst part of Kanon

OK. I’m being a little facetious here. Yuichi isn’t really the worst part of Kanon, it’s what he represents that is worst part of Kanon.

He is the otaku stand in. And I don’t mean nice guy otaku that just wants to be loved or left alone with his gunpla models and his Char Aznable body pillow. Well, maybe I do mean that otaku too, but really this show is meant to present a series of little sisters that guys can feel sorry for and they can pick their favorite non-threatening girl to imagine having tea with or eating a sundae or maybe cuddling with.

Yes Yuichi it is.

Because, dear lord, this is the most chaste romance show ever.

The result is that two of these girls don’t really have an internal life. We spent the entire show with Ayu, but the most I could tell you about her is that she likes taiyaki, she glomps onto people, she misses her mom and she seems really friendly. I don’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. I don’t know what she is afraid of.

While there are “story” reasons for this, they don’t translate into a character that I care about. And this is the girl I’m supposed to care about.

The same goes for Makoto, who similarly has a handful of traits, she is a tsundere, she likes manga and she picked up a bunch of traits from the woman she imitated.

Even Yuichi’s internal story doesn’t seem very well developed. He goes from being a jerk early in the show to being not a jerk at the end of the show. But we’re only hinted at that it was because of his experiences. He never really reflects on this change. It’s never acknowledged by the world outside of him.

It’s no surprise that my favorite stories in the show are the ones where the girls actually have internal and external lives that are separate from Yuichi.

The otaku influence goes even deeper. So much of this show is spent on long walks on snowy streets where nothing really happens. This is because slice of life was popular, and so much of that is about atmosphere.

This ends up further compounding the weaknesses in the characters because so much of the time that could be spent on conflict or even drama is spent on taiyaki and parfaits.

Finally we see it in its most dark form when the creators seemed forced to make Naiyuki a “potential love interest.” Because of course she has to have a seven-year-long unrequited love for her cousin. This serves zero story purpose and seemingly was only put in to give permission to otakus that really wanted to ship Naiyuki.

This is the single most irritating element of this series because it poisons what would otherwise be touching scenes by coloring them with her unrequited love.

A sad, sad winter goodbye

Without characters to latch on to there simply aren’t any stakes to any of these relationships. How am I supposed to care about Ayu vanishing, when I don’t really know who she was to begin with? Why should I care about Naiyuki’s and Yuichi’s eventual reconciliation when all I can think is, so are they going to kiss?

There are elements in this show that are good. When the comedy works, I laughed, which is a rarity. When the drama worked, I cried because I really cared.

I usually like using a five-point scale when I think about fiction, and there are points in this show where I think it’s a four, or maybe a five. But there are so many others when I think it’s a two.

So I bid Kanon a fond farewell, and I hope the people who like it will continue to watch it, but, for me, I’m glad to be moving on.


15 thoughts on “The winter of my discontent with Kanon — an #anitwitwatches post

  1. “so much of the time that could be spent on conflict or even drama is spent on taiyaki and parfaits.” LOL! It’s true, this anime spends a LOT of time on food, for some reason!

    I think you make some good points about Kanon’s flaws, but I always get sucked in by the emotional moments, so I really enjoy this show, regardless of it’s weaknesses.

    I also would have preferred if Naiyuki hadn’t been in love with her cousin, though. It’s weird and unnecessary for the story.

    1. I can totally understand why it would appeal to people. It’s one of those shows where I can see the craftmanship, but it never clicks for me.

  2. Keep in mind that the anime is based on a visual novel, where women like Naiyuki and Mai are valid romance tracks. KyoAni could have chosen any of them as the main heroin. Once that choice was made they had to fit in the stories of all the others, in order to keep the fans happy. I think their main problem was trying to do too many stories at once. Giving Naiyuki and Mai cameo walk-ons might have been a better approach.

    1. I think that would have helped. I think they could have even worked this many stories in, but there is so much wasted space in the show that either they needed to do less or they needed to do more with what they had. I mean I felt all of the pathos in School Days.

      But I could see a show that is only focused on one of these relationships being a good 12 episode show.

  3. It’s fun to see this show under discussion in 2021. It’s a long, long time since I watched it, but I remember not especially liking it then, and I doubt it’s aged well since. Still, I suppose it has historical interest nowadays…

    In any case, yes, I wouldn’t file this show as your kind of thing!

    1. I think it would be interesting to look at this show in a historical context, especially now that slice of life has mostly been pushed out of the way by isekai as far as the new hot thing.

      1. Speaking of historical context. It strikes me that all of the characters are now in their early thirty’s, married, and pursuing careers.

      2. Someone should make that show. I’ve been jonesing for some good josei. I would love a show about some grown up anime ladies trying to make their way in the world.

        That reminds me that I’ve been meaning to go back and try Orange again.

  4. That bit about the little sisters makes me think: Does Ayu and Yuichi’s kiss near the end not matter in the scheme of things? Also, what is the opposite of that and would you like it? (as a thought exercise in what could work for you)

    The answer to the 2nd question would either be a bunch of older brothers who you don’t feel sorry for which girls can pick from – which is, admittedly, quite the successful thing. Heck, it even exists in anime and associated media, with “reliable older brother(-type)” being one of the common otome tropes. The humour from seeing tough guys doing the activities you listed off is already enough to make a good anime. Alternatively, it could be a bunch of well-characterised older sisters who these otaku can pick from, which is more what I think you’d want, but the vagueness from the term “well-characterised” is enough to make this annoying.

    I think the girl vanishing in each arc was the part I didn’t get the most. I get you’re meant to weep when they’re gone because Yuichi had a good thing going then poof! (until the end), but you could just as easily do the same thing without them vanishing for who-knows-how-long.

    1. So I’m not sure what you mean about Ayu’s and Yuichi’s kiss. How would it matter?

      I assume you mean what would a gender swapped version of that relationship be like? Honestly I could see something like is in Kenichi the Mightiest Disciple. The relationship between Kenichi and the main woman character is very much a power swapped version.

      You almost see it in Kanon when you meet the real Makoto. If that relationship had been built out more that would have been a helpful older sister character.
      I might like that better, but only because it would feel like the characters were on a more equal footing. Throughout a lot of this show, it felt like Yuichi was just putting down the other girls.

      As far as well-characterized, generally what I want from characters if for them to feel like they have a life when I’m not seeing them on screen.

      This can be really simple. One touch I really liked about Shiori is that she ate ice cream in the cold. I mean there had to be a reason for that. We also know that she had doctors appointments and was “sick.” (Though I think that last one is a bit questionable.)

      I just want to feel like the characters have a life outside of their relationship with the main characters. And I know that is unfair to expect from Kanon since so many of those characters literally did not have a life outside of Yuichi, but still that’s what I want.

      What I want is something more josei, where I feel like these characters have goals and dreams and plans. I mean even in Wandering Son, I felt like the characters were defined by more than their romantic pairings.

      Even the relationship between Youko and the main character in March Comes in Like a Lion would be interesting to see play out as a romance. I also like her relationship with the other Shoji player.

      I haven’t played any otome games, so I can’t comment on the tropes in those.

      Honestly having the characters weave back in even after their arc was done, would have been a nice touch as well.

      1. The “picking your favourite non-threatening girl” bit sort of ignores the fact Yuichi x Ayu is canon. Certainly, some fans will inevitably ignore that one kiss in favour of their own pairing, but by trying to dilute that to please everyone, it made everything seem a bit tamer than it should have been.

        I figured if Kanon is not what you wanted (at least enough to be dissatisfied), then its diametric opposite would have been it. One version of that was the gender-swap version, but I know that’s not within your wheelhouse, hence the other version.

        Real Makoto didn’t get a lot of screen time…I’d assume this is to not confuse her with fox Makoto. I enjoyed some of the banter between Yuichi and the gals, but I can see where you’re coming from on the rest.

      2. And I enjoyed some of the banter as well. Like I said some of the jokes really did land for me.

        Honestly, if I was going to pick an opposite of Kanon, it would be Honey and Clover. I started rewatching it after finishing Kanon.

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