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Is it time for another show featuring sad girls with gigantic eyes? Why, yes, it is! It must be time to discuss another Key/Visual Art’s work! This time, we look at Kyoto Animation’s 2006-2007 anime adaptation of the original 1999 Key work, Kanon.

Kanon is often referred to as the ‘sad girls in the snow’ show, partly thanks to Fred Gallagher of MegaTokyo, who coined the term through said webcomic in his own oft-parodied obsession. That said, like all things, it’s best we immediately divorce Kanon from any association with MegaTokyo and leave some things well buried and forgotten.

The show begins with its protagonist, ladies’-man-by-necessity Yuichi Aizawa, arriving in a city buried under heavy snow. Kanon’s winterbound setting plays as central a role as Air’s summertime scenery by the sea – the city where it takes place is unnamed in both anime adaptations, as well as the original visual novel eroge. A reference to Kuroishi, a small city in Aomori, is made on a sign early in the series, but the city itself is presented as more of a quiet metropolis comparable perhaps to Sapporo. That said, the nod to Kuroishi, which sees heavy yearly snowfalls, much like Sapporo, may be a simply planted hint to the creators’ inspiration for the work’s setting.

Yuichi had previously stayed with his relatives in this city during summers as a child, but for an unknown reason, he’d stopped seven years ago. Now seventeen, for otherwise unexplored reasons, he moved in with his aunt and cousin to finish his last two years of high school there, transferring in the middle of the school year. After reuniting with his purple-haired cousin Nayuki Minase, the two headed back to the usual house, a cozy modern Japanese home run by her domestically gifted mother, Akiko. “Mrs. Akiko,” as the old ADV era subtitles somewhat awkwardly refer to her, looks pretty much like a slightly older version of her daughter, because that’s how genetics work, apparently. There’s no father in the picture in the Minase household, and this is only addressed once – in a brief, albeit appropriately dramatic fashion – late in the series. Still, one can only conclude that Akiko reproduced asexually through cell division. Probably using that creepy mystery jam of hers that soon becomes a running gag. But let’s not inspire a whole new line of fan art, shall we?

The first several episodes of Kanon are primarily interested in introducing the show’s veritable harem cast of characters, following the slow-natured yet surprisingly fast track star Nayuki with the taiyaki-obsessed and often embarrassingly infantilized heroine, Ayu Tsukimiya. She and Yuichi literally end up running into Shiori, a quiet girl with a mysterious illness appealing to those who like the ‘little sister’ type. Then Yuichi crosses paths with the mysterious, taciturn Mai Kawasumi, a girl literally fighting her own demons. And finally, the wild Makoto Sawatari rounds out the central moe harem cast, suffering from an even more crippling case of plot device amnesia than Yuichi himself. All of them have huge eyes, small mouths, recurring personality quirks – clumsiness being a frequent one – and a personal favorite type of food or flavor associated with them.

Over the course of the show, Yuichi faces that his whole childhood in the snowy city seems to be missing, as connections in his childhood to several of the girls begin to appear, and some of them face their own lost memories. They really squeeze every drop of blood out of that plot device. Things get more cryptic as each character’s personal storyline – most of which are rooted in something supernatural that everyone else just accepts – is resolved. Structurally, the show segments itself into individual arcs, always foreshadowing future events, but primarily focusing one one girl or another for several episodes at a time until their story reaches its climax. Over the course of each focal girl’s storyline, Yuichi develops more of a brotherly relationship with them, often tinged with an almost romantic undertone, hinting at the overall story’s origins. Still, the show does make a point of committing Yuichi to a sole romantic interest by the end for a dramatic story arc many harem shows wouldn’t touch for fear of losing audience to the end of the possibility of the guy getting with any of the girls.

This particular adaptation is actually the second Kanon has received, as well. Back in 2002, Toei Animation released their own 13 episode TV series followed by a single epilogue OVA, ten episodes shorter than this 2006-2007 Kyoto Animation version. The show uses a different opening and ending which are delivered with original songs performed by Miho Fujiwara. The show tells the story in an inevitably more condensed manner, with a few notable differences that including a little more focus on Nayuki’s longstanding feelings for her cousin. The KyoAni adaptation is often much better about foreshadowing and telegraphing its upcoming plot twists than its predecessor, which is partly due to the show’s length. That said, while the unlocalized Toei adaptation was enjoyable, KyoAni’s work is ultimately the richer, superior production. With the additional episodes, each storyline is able to unfold more gradually and receive far more development. This is especially true of the climactic final arc, which receives more than double the number of episodes in the KyoAni adaptation that it had in the Toei production, allowing the climax to unfold in a more evocative manner.

Another notable difference between the two adaptations is how they handled the appearance and personality of the protagonist, Yuichi. In the Toei adaptation, Yuichi is a fairly bland, ordinary nice guy. He’s empathetic, but still largely lacking in personality, since he’s merely a conduit by which we experience the girls’ stories. In reference to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, I consider the transformation Yuichi went through in the writing of the KyoAni adaptation to be a sort of ‘Kyonification,’ recalling the constant sarcasm with which Haruhi narrative protagonist Kyon faced the continually odd goings-on of that series. This version of Yuuichi is much more humorous, sarcastic, and even a bit mean-spirited for a laugh at times. Like Kyon, though, he’s still naturally portrayed as a caring individual. As a result, the KyoAni take on Yuichi is the more interesting and entertaining of the two. Also much like Kyon, he was redesigned to look older than the other girls – including Mai and Sayuri, both of whom were older than him – where in the Toei adaptation, he too had the same odd facial proportions with the huge eyes and small mouth that the girls retain in in both versions.  KyoAni has a history of using protagonists to snark a bit about their source material, especially in cases of visual novel/eroge based adaptations like this. Whenever something ridiculous happens out of sheer plot convenience or necessity, as makes sense in game writing, they can have Yuichi crack about it.

By contrast, we often see the young female characters infantilized in one way or another. They’re especially guilty of that in the case of Ayu, who’s a childlike character to begin with. Part of this makes sense when her character is fully developed at the climax of Kanon’s overall story, but part of it also comes off as creepy fetish pander. Ayu’s “Uguu” catchphrase has more or less become a meme among nerds aware of how creepy and sad anime can be for a reason.

Some might inevitably object to the fact that the narrative largely comes down to a bunch of sad girls needing the lead guy’s help in order to confront and overcome their problems. This, ultimately, is an issue of the show’s eroge visual novel roots. It’s something you have to be able to forgive at least a little bit in order to fully enjoy the series. As a result, the show does leave you wanting for more of a sharp, clever female character who could outwit Yuichi, but the closest the show offers is in Kaori, and she doesn’t appear in most episodes. As a positive, though, the male lead’s ‘help’ doesn’t entail also having to alleviate their ailments with a round of the horizontal hokey-pokey.

Musically, the KyoAni adaptation is closer to the original game, in using its opening and ending, Last Regrets and Where the Wind Reaches respectively, both performed by Ayana of I’ve Sound. The background music isn’t unpleasant, but the memorability of each composition of varies. Some, particularly the more piano based atmospheric tunes that suit the show’s frequent imagery of falling snow, stick out as especially calming and suiting of the quiet, wintry atmosphere the show effectively captures. Others could be compared to elevator music. And some are a little overplayed, like Makoto’s theme, which has a few “They’re playing that again?” moments. Overall, though, the sound of Kanon suits its wintry focus well. Each episode’s title in this KyoAni adaptation features a classical music reference in some form or another as well, at times leading to titles that are more goofy than poetic.

The show’s dialogue, while typically fine, occasionally strays into clumsily vague territory, where characters refer to something unclear and it doesn’t translate well into the subtitles. Whether Ayu’s discussing a mysterious, unknown precious item she’s searching for, or Shiori’s dodging the question of for whom she’s waiting for at the school. While all these things are inevitably revealed, this style of dialogue will inevitably grate on some viewers’ nerves, since people are rarely so indirect in reality. Even in Japan, where indirect speech is king, Kanon spends a little time in overkill territory. When dialogue becomes so vague that the wording of some sentences becomes unnatural and cumbersome, it’s clear that the script could have used some revising. I suspect that in the cases of this sort of dialogue, they stuck close to the original game script. The subtitles also somewhat suffered from being a late era AD Vision release. Frankly speakng, many of ADV’s later releases left me wishing they’d spent a little more time touching up their subtitle scripts and improved their transliteration a little more. You can’t blame FUNimation for keeping the subtitles, though – retranslating probably wouldn’t have been worth the cost or effort.

Returning to Kanon’s strengths, there’s no neglecting the setting, which I found most appealing. The interiors of the homes and buildings the show spends much time within feel cozy and well designed. In a sense, you live in them with these characters, as the show progresses. You move to the city with Yuichi in the very first episode and get accustomed to his new room, home, school, and life with him. A lot of the little details of daily life casually included in the narrative contribute to the show’s general cozy, inviting feeling. The city really comes to life over the course of the series, with many scenes set in memorable, defining locations, like the lit-up fountain with its changing colors that Yuichi hung out with Shiori around as her arc played out. The show also contains some of the best snow effects in a modern anime series, with a simple style of realistic CGI snow that makes you feel like you’re locked in the clutches of the dead of winter as you watch, in the very best way. The show often sets its moods with certain tones of light as well, especially during the night scenes. Over the course of the show, they give you a setting you wish you could visit and wander around in for an entire winter season yourself.

Compared to Air – which actually followed Kanon in terms of the original Key/Visual Art’s games – Kanon is less cruel in how it resolves its characters’ storylines. There’s no lack of harshness in these characters’ experiences, however. Each of them experiences a sense of powerlessness at some point. Loss is among Kanon’s strongest themes, with many characters having faced either outright loss or the prospect of the loss of at least one family member at some point in their lives. For all that they suffer through, they earn their stories’ resolutions, where Air’s is largely strange and cruel, with its Buddhist influences.

When I look back at Kanon, for the roles each adaptation played in my life, I’m naturally inclined to look on all of it with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles. Still, removing those and examining closely the show’s cracks as I have here, despite all its flaws, the story of Kanon is still an enjoyable, touching one. And it certainly represents a better side of what you can end up with when you strip all of the screwing out of an eroge visual novel. For as much pandering as they do and as many tropes as they work in, all the way down to the amnesia cliche heavy in this show, Key/Visual Art’s know how to tell legitimately enjoyable stories and create atmospheres you’d like to stay within. Kanon isn’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for something quiet and affecting, you could do much, much worse than watching the sad girls in this show.