It's Not Easy, Being Kamichu
Could this tale of romance and divinity foreshadow the future of anime broadcasting and DVD releases?
Yurie Hitotsubashi and her best friend, Mitsue Shijo are having lunch at their junior high school one day when Yurie suddenly announces that she became a goddess last night. Mitsue, only naturally, does not believe her. Then a classmate, Matsuri Saegusa pulls up a chair and introduces herself as Yurie's new best friend. She believes in Yurie's divinity; since she lives at Raifuku Shrine, she's sensitive to holy power, and Yurie has definitely got it. Deciding to help Yurie to discover her powers, Matsuri takes off towards the roof, dragging along the two other girls. Thus begins Kamichu!, which began broadcasting in Japan during the summer, and has finished its run on TV only recently.
The first episode revolves around Matsuri goading Yurie into discovering her powers, with Mitsue providing emotional support to Yurie. Matsuri tells Yurie to do what the superheroes on TV do: strike a pose and yell something out (hence why they are up on the school's roof). Yurie doesn't know what to say, so Matsuri suggests "Kamichu," an invented word that condenses kami (god) and chuugakusei (junior high school student) into one word, as that's what Yurie is, a junior high school student goddess. Matsuri also tells Yurie that there's a superstition about the roof of the school: if you confess your love in a strong wind on the roof, then it will come true. Yurie has a crush on the sole member of the Calligraphy Club, Kenji Ninomiya, who seems to be totally oblivious of Yurie or anything beyond calligraphy as he practices on the school's roof. (He's lost official school club privileges, as he's the only member, hence he canít use the clubs room in the school.) Thus Yurie concentrates on summoning a wind with all of her feelings as she shouts "Kamichu!"
Nothing happens. However, a wind has begun to blow elsewhere in Japan...
Yurie finds herself feeling really tired, so she sleeps through Literature class. After school, the girls visit Raifuku Shrine, where Matsuri claims that they have the tools to bring out Yurie's hidden powers. Mitsue and Yurie draw fortunes, while waiting for Mitsuri. Yurie's love fortune says that a storm is coming and that she has little luck, while Mitsue is lucky. While Matsuri and her sister, Miko perform a ceremony, Yurie feels something -- a sneeze that knocks over Miko and Matsuri and the shrine offerings.
Yurie is tired after her visit to the shrine, so much so that she can barely move. Once home, she informs her mother to let her sleep until dinner. When she finally does wake up, it's to a news report on a typhoon heading their way -- Typhoon Yurie, complete with a super-deformed angry Yurie face in the eye of the storm. Suddenly realizing that Yurie really is a goddess, Mitsue calls Yurie on the phone, and the two girls agree to meet at the school to stop the typhoon that Yurie accidentally summoned with her wish for a strong wind.
As Yurie steps outside, she notices that the world has drastically changed. She can see her fellow kami, from the floating eyeball spirits called Chibidako (Little Kite) that accompany the typhoon winds to aluminum can spirits and Tofu-chan, a tofu spirit. Yurie, however, simply takes these things in stride and continues on to the school on her bicycle, where she meets up with Mitsue and Matsuri, who has brought ceremonial materials from the shrine. Despite their efforts, they fail. Suddenly, pages of calligraphy begin to fly by, and Ninomiya is drawn into a tornado spawned by the typhoon and swept away. Yurie yells out her trademark word of power and transforms into her goddess form, the only change being that her hair suddenly grows long. She rides a Little Kite into the tornado and saves him. Typhoon Yurie suddenly smiles and dissolves into nothingness.
Remembering Matsuri's words, she confesses her love to Ninomiya as they slowly float down -- landing in a swimming pool when Yurie becomes embarrassed at his lack of a response. He asks for her name, as he doesn't remember seeing her before. She drifts underwater in an embarrassed and angry shock, and the screen fades to black.
It's morning, and Yurie chalks all of her weird adventures as a bad dream as she races to school, as it is noon already. However, once she leaves the house and sees people cleaning up after the typhoon, as well as the same magical beings that she saw during the night before, Yurie has no choice but to believe that everything really did happen; it wasnít a dream. When she arrives at school, she finds out that everyone knows about her divinity now, as Matsuri wasted no time in advertising the fact that Yurie is the first junior high school student goddess in Japan. Ninomiya crosses paths with Yurie, and yet again, he forgets her name. This doesn't faze Yurie too much, as she's just happy that he talked with her. Even goddesses have love problems, as any fan of the Ah! My Goddess series can attest to. The episode ends with Yurie tying her stormy fortune onto a tree branch, the traditional Shinto method of disposing of a bad fortune, and with students asking Yurie for help. She refuses; don't they know that goddesses have problems too?
Based on the manga serialized in Dengeki Daioh, a monthly seinen (young men) manga anthology, the Kamichu! anime is clearly aimed for young male otaku, even more so with the overabundance of moe cuteness, as can be seen clearly in the character designs for Yurie. Koji Masunari, director of the animated Read or Die and Omishi Magical Theater Risky Safety series, is one of the original creators of the manga, and he serves as series director for the animated version. Needless to say, the anime stays close to the manga source, and it contains as much moe as Omishi Magical Theatre Risky Safety, if not more. As in Victorian Romance Emma, previously featured in Animefringe, Kamichu! contains little to no fanservice, giving viewers a welcome break from the more typical panty-clad and heaving bosom shows.
What is refreshing about Kamichu! is how the series dives right into the story, as opposed to spending the first episode in explaining how Yurie became a goddess and giving the characters' various histories. Additionally, unlike many anime shows, Kamichu! is not set in Tokyo. Instead, we find ourselves in the city of Onomichi, in the Seto Inland Sea region of Japan, near Hiroshima. Onomichi has many Buddhist temples and it prides itself on maintaining the traditional Japanese way of life and folklore, thus making it the perfect location for Kamichu! to take place. What is odd is how accepting everyone is of Yurie's divinity and the odd events that revolve around her. Instead of panicking at a typhoon with a scowling super-deformed face, people accept it as just another part of life and continue on. Perhaps this is due to the traditional mindset of the people of Onomichi in accepting divine acts in ordinary daily life.
The concept behind Kamichu! of a girl suddenly becoming a goddess overnight will be familiar to fans of Koge Donbo, except that Kamichama Karin is shoujo and in the magical girl/boy genre. Therefore, fans of the manga series will enjoy Kamichu! as well.
The animation invokes the spirit of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki heavily with its fantastical slice-of-life setting. The animation is also quite fluid, with detailed slight movements, such as feet kicking and arms swaying. The rest house scenes in the second episode seem to almost co-exist in the world of Spirited Away, as the character designs of the kami would fit perfectly in the film. Yurie is very much a Miyazaki heroine, being dragged along by the plot and the rest of the cast until she can find her own feet.
While Kamichu! has this gentle slice-of-life fantasy set-up, it also has a rough emotional side just under the surface. After all, Yurie is a teenage girl who is just beginning to explore her feelings for Ninomiya, who is becoming more of a person and less of a fuzzy distant figure in her daydreams. Some fans have chosen to interpret Typhoon Yurie in the opening episode as the raw power of nature representing the raw power of adolescent sexuality. As Yurie is a character who is far too shy and consciously naive to explore these things in a more direct fashion, she requires a catalyst to force her to face her inner awakening feelings. From this point of view, Kamichu! becomes a tale of sexual exploration and awakening, harkening to the confused madness that is FLCL.
Regardless of your interpretation, Brains Base (Gunparade Orchestra, Shin Getter Robo) has done a great job in animating Kamichu!, considering that their budget had to have been a lot less than the average Studio Ghibli project, and that their studio is not one of the major ones, such as FLCL's Production I.G. and GAINAX.
All of the central characters are voiced by relative unknowns. Mako, the maracas player in the musical group Bon-Bon Blanco, voices Yurie, as well as singing the ending song "Ice Candy". She does a great job, giving Yurie a soft hesitation and uncertainty. The role of Mitsuri is played by Rika Morinaga (Souseiseki in Rozen Maiden), while Kaori Mine plays Mitsue, both of which do an excellent job. Veteran seiyuu Saito Chiwa and Nonaka Ai lend support, respectively as Tama the cat and Miko, but it is nice to see a quality production featuring new vocal talent.
The opening and ending songs, "Hare nochi HARE" ("Fine Weather Followed by Fine Weather") by Maho Tomita, and "Ice Candy" by Mako, are not inspiring pieces by themselves, although "Ice Candy" has a raw garage punk band feel to it. However, the background music in Kamichu! is marvelous, fitting the mood on screen and enhancing it greatly. The soundtrack is currently available, along with the opening and ending songs sold individually as singles.
The opening and closing animations are somewhat lackluster, as the opening reuses animation from the previous episode to remind the viewer of the story up to now, and the ending consists of a still cartoon shot.
Some background story is given as the series goes on. The reason why Matsuri latches onto Yurie and begins to exploit her sudden divine status so quickly is that Raifuku Shrine is bankrupt, to the point where the family is selling their own possessions to make ends meet. She believes that by replacing their local shrine god, Yashima with the young and cute Yurie, Raifuku Shrine will become popular, and thus, wealthy. It should be noted that Matsuri has no innate spiritual sight to see yami other than Yurie, while her younger and more devoted sister, Miko (her name literally means "shrine maiden") has this second sight ability naturally.
While Matsuri acts as an idol's manager and feeds the divine aspect of Yurie, Mitsue tries to protect Yurie and to keep her life as normal as possible as a junior high school student. Among the two, Matsuri is clearly the stronger force, but Mitsue plays a quiet and more subtle role in balancing Yurie's dual nature.
Kamichu! has a number of easter eggs. Some fans claim to have seen Yomiko from Read or Die in the background of a scene in the first episode. All of the family names of the main characters contain numeral kanji, with Yurie Hitotsubashi as one, Shinji Ninomiya as two, Matsuri and Miko Saegusa as three, and Mitsue Shijou as four. Additionally, all of the episode titles are song titles from Japanese idol pop songs during the 1980's and 1990's, fitting in with the motif of Mitsuri as manager and Yurie as idol.
Although Kamichu! consists of sixteen episodes, only twelve shows were broadcasted on TV in Japan as part of a marketing strategy to sell DVDs. The marketing concept of DVD-only anime episodes is a relatively new one, which was recently seen in the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children DVD release in Japan, with the inclusion of the DVD-only Final Fantasy VII: Last Order episode.
Some fans will feel betrayed at being strong-armed into buying the complete set of Kamichu! DVDs (eight DVDs, two episodes each, with some additional animated footage previously not broadcasted) as what information that we have on the four DVD exclusive episodes point to them playing an important role in the overall series, thus making the TV broadcast of the series to seem to be nothing more than merely promotion for the DVDs. Episode eight concerns Yurie's cat, Tama, who plays a supporting role in much of the series. Episode eleven has a love triangle, episode thirteen is the Christmas episode, and episode sixteen is the final, closing episode. Whether this technique would be employed in the US if Kamichu! were to be licensed is still up for debate, but it does present what could become a trend in anime production.
Regardless, Kamichu! is a great series to see if you enjoy supernatural romance and you are somewhat familiar with Shinto beliefs and practices. The plot may not be the most original, but it does touch the heart.