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 it, 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?
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. While her 10-meter high snowman induced a sigh of exasperation, I found her actually enjoyable.
When her arc kicked in though, 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 along 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.
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.