It's funny how trends, tastes, and even perceptions can change over time. Less than a decade ago being called a geek, nerd or otaku was considered an insult, and while those terms have maintained their derogatory status to a degree (especially in Japan), the steady march of technology has dictated the rise of the "Beta Male", and nowhere is this more apparent than in the entertainment industries.
In 2001 the PC and Dreamcast game Comic Party was adapted and released as an anime, and with it came the birth of a totally new genre - the otaku comedy. Since that time there have been numerous manga and anime that have utilised the theme in some manner, from the romanticised look at otaku life that is Genshiken, to the insane classical stylings of Nodame Cantabile's heroine, Noda Megumi. These days the number of titles that have some involvement with the genre is on the rise, and while some take a decidedly rose-tinted view of the subject, there are others (NHK ni Youkoso!, Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu (no, seriously), ChäoS;HEAd, etc), that allow glimpses into the darker side of otaku life.
There are also those that approach the subject of otaku in an imaginative, yet decidedly tongue-in-cheek manner.
Kami Nomi Zo Shiru Sekai (The World God Only Knows, or KamiNomi), tells the story of Katsuragi Keima, the "king" of bishoujo games (galge), and dating sims, who is better known throughout the internet as the "Capturing God". He is content to live his life in the virtual world because "reality is just a crappy game" where the girls are impossible to deal with. All of that changes when he answers a mysterious e-mail addressed to the God of Conquest (another one of his monikers), and subsequently meets the demon girl Elucia de Lut Ima (Elci).
The plot attempts to meld several different themes into one continuous narrative, and in order to do this it utilises a number of devices that can sometimes get in the way. Like Amagami SS, the storyline follows the "short arc for each girl" format, complete with the "reset" at the end. This is accompanied by some fairly typical "soul possession" concepts, basic yet still humourous slapstick, and a rather interesting take on dating sims in general.
Unfortunately it doesn't completely work.
The problem is that while KamiNomi is essentially a straight forward otaku comedy, the inclusion of so many disparate themes eventually causes a degree of conflict within the framework of the story. The major issue is the idea that one can use dating sim methodology to form a real world relationship, and while it is possible to learn the basics, this can never replace actual experience. In addition to this is the fact that the viewer is supposed to believe that a notorious game addict like Keima can suddenly turn on the charm when dealing with real girls, many of whom he initially can't stand to be around, and this in itself raises the question of suspicion on the part of the girls.
There is an attempt to rectify these issues, but this relies on the tried and tested method of memory manipulation rather than an explanation of how a social recluse is easily able to communicate with others. That said, the series utilises some well placed visual gags to divert the viewers attention away from any plot holes or conflicts, and the story is interesting and humourous enough to make it accessible to a much broader audience than one might initially expect.
When it comes to looks, KamiNomi is pretty much back to basics in virtually every department, with one area of notable exception (we'll get to that in a moment). That said, while the degree of genericism in the visuals is high, there's also something slightly more subtle at work as well. The character designs are taken directly from the manga by Wakaki Tamiki, and what's interesting about this is that while the mangaka made a conscious effort to allow the comedy to flourish, he also tried to show what each character is, rather than simply trying to define them as individuals.
Confused? I'll explain then.
The plot is partly derived from that of the common or garden dating sim or galge, and as regular players of these games will know, characters of a specific type will share certain visual features. Wakaki has attempted to incorporate some of these into the design of the girls that Keima goes after, and this in turn defines their personalities as they have been created to fit a specific mould. In addition to this, because the player is usually faceless in these games, Wakaki chose to parody a few of the better known "genius" characters from anime for his "God of Conquest", in particular Lelouch vi Brittania and Yagami Light.
So don't be fooled by the simplistic looks.
The area that really stands out is the effects, in particular the variety, timing and imagination that has gone into making them. While the rest of the anime may look colourful yet average, KamiNomi is surprising for the quality of a number of its visual set pieces, but it's the audio choreography that changes those scenes from simply being pretty into something worth watching.
In anime, as in life, timing is everything, and in this respect Manglobe have a very good pedigree. But then what else would one expect from the studio that brought us Michiko to Hatchin, Samurai Champloo and Ergo Proxy (unfortunately they're also responsible for the abysmal Sacred Blacksmith, but we won't go there). While this is very clearly a comedy series the studio has made the effort to deliver a quality show, and because there's little that can be done about the design of the visuals, a lot of effort has gone into making this anime sound great.
The opening sequence is indicative of this ethos at work, and features some clever imagery that is well timed to match the changes in the theme song (God Only Knows, performed by Elisa). The ending sequence is a bit more complicated as there are actually four tracks and sequences on offer. The main ED, Koi no Shirushi, is a fairly average J-Pop track, but for the majority of episodes the female leads take turns singing it (while the rest perform backing vocals). As for the remaining tracks, Tatta Ichi Do no Kisei by Sakurai Tomo (episode four), along with the visuals, is meant to be a play on the average ending sequences of dating sims and galge. On the other hand Happy Crescent by Toyama Nao is supposed to be a "live" idol performance, so it's a shame it's such a generic song.
To be honest, the best of the EDs, is the final one, Shuuseki Kairo no Yume Tabibito, which is sung in a completely amateurish and off key style by the lead man himself, Shimono Hiro (with support from the female seiyuu who apparently are collectively known as Oratorio The World God Only Knows), and is very much in keeping with the slightly delusional and slapstick comedy of the series.
Unfortunately there's one big flaw in KamiNomi, and that's the lack of character development. Normally this shouldn't really be an issue for what is effectively an otaku comedy/parody, but because of the inclusion of certain plot themes, aspects like characterisation and growth become more prominent.
Basically, the more complicated a story is, the better the characters have to be.
While there is some development due to the soul possession aspect of the story, it never really impacts on the overall narrative due to the "reset" at the end of each girl's arc. This has the effect of nullifying what has gone before, and even though Keima and Elci aren't subject to it as a rule, there is very little given over to their growth over the course of the series.
The real strength of the characters comes from the comedy side of the show, and in this respect the seiyuu are pretty good. Shimono Hiro (Keima), and Itou Kanae (Elci), are great as the proverbial "Odd Couple", and while there are some great skits from the other leading ladies, their timing and delivery, especially with each other, is sometimes a joy to behold.
Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai is a strangely mixed bag that works on certain levels, but ultimately it would have been better off trying to weave fewer themes into the plot. Individually the concepts behind the series are imaginative and somewhat inventive, but the complications caused by trying to blend several ideas together sometimes creates a quagmire in the storyline, and inserting a joke to brush over it is nothing more than papering over the cracks. That said, the series is enjoyable enough to warrant at least one watch, and viewers should also keep in mind that this twelve episode anime is nothing more than a prelude of things to come, especially as the manga has already gone beyond the 100 chapter mark.
While the incomplete nature of the story may put people off, the fact that a sequel is on the horizon may signify that all hope is not yet lost. Then again, they may simply "cop out" by ending the series before the real storyline begins.
We'll have to wait and see.