Sayuri and Yuuichi sit in the cafe.. The steam from their coffees wafts through the air which is filled with gentle strings of some classical music.
"Do you know this piece?" Asks Sayuri. "It's Canon. Pachelbel's Canon. That central melody repeats itself again and again, as layers are slowly added to the music, making it richer and more beautiful each time." She pauses. "Wouldn't it be lovely if life was the same way? If it changed delicately and softly as we live from day to day?"
If there is a line that more effectively underpins the series, or if there is a clearer example of Kanon's philosophical poetry, then I apologise for leaving that stone unturned but I could think of no better way to begin this review.
As adult visual novel adaptations go, Kanon (2006) is mature, dignified and sensitive, much like the earlier Air and subsequent Clannad. Of course, it has its share of oddball and loud personalities but they serve to amuse rather than to irritate. In fact, such moderation is something of a hallmark of the series, every bit as recurrent as Kanon's principal plot themes of memories, promises and miracles. Although most characters are eye-sparklingly cute, you an still empathise with them as real people. Although the imagery is clever, it is never boastful. Although the show is funny, it's not too funny. In fact, the humour in Kanon is masterful in knowing its role. It doesn't elbow you in the ribs and laugh raucously at its own jokes; instead it lightly strokes your shoulder, reminding you that it's always there and giving you the choice of whether to laugh or not.
This moderation is key because it allows the show to go ahead and tell its story without gargantuan diversions detracting from this primary aim. The structure of Kanon's narrative is typical of the genre. A handful of shorter, character-specific story arcs are played over the main story, which lasts throughout the entire length of the show's 24 episodes. Ideally, such a structure would allow for a variety of tales and a multiplicity of different emotions to be presented as each one unfolds. Dismayingly, Kanon forgoes such a structure, instead preferring to focus on one emotion and one alone - sadness. Every story is sad. Yes, there are moments of joy and even some of triumph, but tragedy in Kanon is all too commonplace. It is the incessant lifeblood that pulses all too visibly beneath the thin membrane of kawaii which initially seems to envelop and identify the show.
The most painful consequence of this omnipresent sorrow is not a continual rending of the heart strings as one might hope. Rather it is the onset of disappointment and despondent indifference on the part of the viewer. In its delivery of tear-jerking moments, Kanon is something of a relentless tease. It threatens time and time again to move you, to break your heart, to give you a story or a moment that you will never forget; and yet it never does. Whether it is because the show saturates itself with sadness or whether it is because the stories refuse to set foot upon the plateau of true poignancy, this series fails to make good on its first avowed intent - to effect the viewer emotionally.
Kanon's animation is simply sumptuous. It is hardly controversial to claim that Kyoto Animation represent the zenith of their particular style. As well as luscious backgrounds, every epsiode boasts the distinctive character design, nigh-on perfect lighting and constant attention to small details which are typical of the studio's releases. Although the term "winter wonderland" has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, I feel that Kanon's whitened landscapes can be described no other way. It is almost as if the snow consciously chooses to fall upon Nayuki's town, because it knows how delightfully it will be animated.
As such, any qualms should be seen as relatively minor. Those that I have are mainly to do with something of a cuteness overdrive which many of the girls seem to possess. Although I maintain that it does not preclude the ability to empathise with them, some of their features and expressions are exaggerated almost to the point of parody, whilst their ridiculous floods of tears occasionally serve to dampen emotionally charged moments with unwitting comedy.
Although I cared little for the songs that play during the opening and ending credits, the soundtrack is, on the whole, marvellous. Seemingly every piece of music does its job with efficiency and panache, as mood is built up through the background music just as much as it is built up through dialogue. Surprisingly, and almost uniquely, some tracks are memorable enough to stay with the viewer long after the series has run its course.
The voice work is also of a high standard. Whilst more sensitive ears may have difficulty tolerating Ayu's frequent use of her "Uguu" catchphrase, this is more a quarrel with the script than the VA, who manages to keep the repetitious utterance from grating. The voices are adaptable enough to maintain strong and distinct characterisation whilst presenting a spectrum of emotions and steering the protagonists away from being two-dimensional stereotypes.
Dramas of Kanon's ilk need to strike a delicate balance in creating their cast. The characters must be sufficiently quirky to be memorable, but must also be human enough to engender sympathy and undergo a true development in personality. This is a lofty goal, but one which Kanon generally attains. I qualify this last statement because the anime errs slightly on the side of caricature on occasion, particularly with the characters of Ayu and Makoto, whose obnoxious immaturity wavers indecisively between the amusing and the overpowering. However, if you are prepared to indulge the pair their foibles and see them as simply being somewhat unorthodox, then there is no reason not to see at least a spark of realism within all of the show's protagonists.
Futhermore, due in no small part to the strong personalities exhibited by some individuals, the character interaction is always enjoyable. It not only creates a lot of Kanon's trademark comedy but also ensures that the dialogue contains many lines which are truly priceless.
For my part, I found every character in the show to be likable, and to possess some trait which I was able to identify with, or at least enjoy. This is the main reason why I was so wholly disappointed with the series' failure to grip me on an emotional level. Although I stand by every positive comment I have made in this review, I feel that Kanon falls tantalisingly short of what could have been greatness. Its insistence on telling tales of woe is tempered by an inability or unwillingness to go the proverbial distance and present something truly affecting.
In small doses - as I discovered when re-watching this series - Kanon is a competent emotive drama. The exceptional animation and sound ensure that it is sublime as a passive viewing experience, and there are enough excellent pieces of dialogue to consider it memorable. Taken as whole, however, it is enjoyable but occasionally numbing. I would recommend the series if you have enjoyed similar animes, such as Clannad, Da Capo, and Myself; Yourself. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a truly moving and thoughtful tragedy, then perhaps search elsewhere.