Kanon and Sentimentality

Kanon (2006) is available to stream from Funimation. The original game is not available for direct purchase in North America.

We all have to start somewhere.

I may have technically been watching anime way back in the late ‘90s, when they made up a good half of the Saturday-morning cartoon block, but I started watching it intentionally over a decade later, first with a weekend marathon of Miyazaki’s films, then on the implicit recommendation of online peers and creators. As it turned out, a lot of them leaned more toward slow-paced, wistful stories than the action or sci-fi series that were more visible by way of the toy aisle and movie rental shop.

One of the very first of these that grabbed me was the 2006 adaptation of Kanon, which I still credit with getting me hooked on the genre / medium / nonsense in the first place. Its beautiful snow-laden backdrops appealed to my Midwestern heart, all the characters were bright and cute in their portrayal (though not exploitatively so), and more than anything else I was taken in by the show’s willingness to wear its heart on its sleeve and fully indulge in its own emotional stories.

Nowadays we’d call that “sappy” or point at it as a sign of sentimentality over substance. It’s not even a wrong takeaway. Visual Novels even have direct genre label for this: the “utsuge” (depressing game) and “nakige” (crying game), which set out deliberately to get a rise out of the player.

And call me a sucker, but I bought way into that and still do. For a long time I’d even re-watch the series every year or two when February made its wintry setting conveniently “in-season”. So, as you might imagine, I got really familiar with these characters and all the ups and downs of their individual arcs. Or, at least, the television version of them.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that I’d finally played through the original visual novel as translated by some generous fans. After going through the more linear show multiple times, I was looking forward to seeing how the same material fared as broken out into individual “routes”, giving each of the heroines their own dedicated focus and space to breathe.

And, after reading and letting the source material settle in by mind for a few months… the anime adaptation is still the version that sticks in my head.

That isn’t to say that the visual novel doesn’t have some great advantages over the show, though; and that’s not just the prudish “the-source-material-is-always-better” instinct talking. Not entirely, anyway.

As noted, a generous three-to-six hours of reading per story route definitely gives each individual character a lot more focused space to display their nuances and interact with the protagonist – and his penchant for tricking unwilling participants into straight-man-funny-man gags. A dark-horse favorite character gets her own side-chapter and backstory that the anime doesn’t even touch on. And there’s all sorts of internal monologuing that, while the show captures surprisingly well with its character animation, is naturally fuller and more explicit in writing.

But, as you might expect of anything made 20 years ago, it’s really starting to show its age. Most of the art assets just did not make a graceful transition to a digital format, for example, even before you take into account character designer Hitaru Inoue’s divisive “doe eyes” style. And probably more importantly (albeit less smack-you-in-the-face-antly), its female leads just don’t have the same degree of agency that we’ve come to expect in more modern heroine-focused stories like I Want to Eat Your Pancreas – or even compared to works that Key would put out just a few years later.

Then there’s the pesky fact that there’s a ­lot of friction involved in finding a Japanese-language imported game from 1999 and getting it to run on a modern, English computer with an unsanctioned translation patch. That can put a damper on the whole affair before it even starts.

(I’m going to take only this sentence to acknowledge that the original release does involve mature content – but as this was removed for virtually every subsequent release and does not feed into the main story, the relevant scenes are by all rights no longer part of Kanon’s current identity.)

But unlike other adaptations, the 2006 anime makes itself a worthy successor not only by very closely following the core storylines as presented in the visual novel, but in streamlining them in the process.

Vague spoilers follow the image.

Granted it’s a studio’s first attempt, but some of the visuals are distractingly wonky – especially background characters.

There’s a certain logic to the show’s flow: first, the two characters whose stories would most encroach on others (actual monsters materializing most nights may be somewhat of a distraction). Then to the most neutral of the main five characters, then one that semi-permanently alters the status quo around the most visible supporting characters, and finally out plot-designated main heroine, whose story is re-worked a titch to tie into the other’s much more clearly in the anime portrayal.

Running them all in sequence like this definitely works better than it otherwise might considering that there’s a definite downer moment at the climax of each story in the visual novel. It’s a convenient point at which to exit a character’s story while almost-but-not-quite resolving it – and in most cases it’s even a more elegant way out, too. With one exception, the final scene in each route of the visual novel tends to sweep problems under the rug in the visual novel as an “everybody gets better, the end” fashion. It’s sweet, but a bit jarring and not quite so satisfying.

The anime arguably does a better job of introducing its persisting supernatural elements early on, then leveraging those near the end to tie together and justify those more hopeful endings all at once. The final arc paints the story as much more of an “earn-your-happy-ending” situation, and one that draws on its main heroine in a more powerful way.

But the upbeat ending isn’t what the story is about.

Like all of KEY’s offerings, Kanon has to balance its optimistic conclusion against the bumpy road to get there.

And that’s bumpy, mind, not just dour or painful. Part of what makes the whole package work so well is that Kanon seems to have a strong hand on the proverbial gas knob, knowing when it needs to lay on a thick monologue, when to pull back to show a friendly chat, and when it can just coast on its own melancholy. You get to see all sides of the characters this way – their best days, when somebody just metaphorically killed their puppy, and – crucially – on the dozen days between when they’re kinda just doing okay. If Nayuki has enough problems day-to-day between her club, perpetual tardiness, and being the chief recipient of the protagonists’s gadfly tendencies; throwing that into a proper, fully-explored tragedy at hour seven is even more wrenching than a character who was clearly doomed from minute one.

And it gets worse in that, for the most part, everyone is stuck with their lot in life. You’re relatively powerless to actually turn their situations around – terminal illnesses are still terminal, and the world doesn’t bend its rules just because it’s convenient for the protagonist. And while some have come to terms with their situation or struggle against it, the best ending the anime will give any of them for a while is a moderate success with a notable caveat, if not a bittersweet non-ending.

Honestly, it pulls these downers off so graciously that for a long time, I assumed that’s just how the visual novel ended. Everybody is stuck where they’re at (until Ayu magically gives them a feel-good conclusion) , and that’s ultimately okay. There were difficulties in getting to their still-difficult situations, but that’s not the whole picture. Even on a downward path, there’s a lot of levity along the way, and despairing twenty-four-seven is just unrealistic.

No matter how bad things get for them, they’re still alive and kicking, and they still have other people around them to lift them up. The ending that feels the most “real” for them isn’t the unambiguously happy one, just like none end at their darkest hour.

The truest answer here is an acute sense of melancholy.

And I guess a love for that sense is what Kanon‘s left me with most over the years. Though not just because it’s a more “safe” form of sadness that brings out the tears without necessarily feeling hopeless. More because it feels honest.

Art imitates life, after all, and both its highest and lowest points tend to be fleeting. What we really aim for is both experiences, but with a true baseline in one of those vastly underrated middling emotions. Even if that baseline is further down the scale than we might want, it’s someplace from which you can be hopeful, live with intent, or just carry on being content in spite of circumstances. And it always seems a more reasonable place to bounce back to than reaching all the way back up.

Melancholy doesn’t feel emotionally harmful in the same way as a deep tragedy or exhausting or untenable like something relentlessly upbeat. That more temperate, measured sentimentality certainly has its own charm.

It may be an odd thing to seek out, but I could do with more melancholy.

Both cold and adorable.

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