Exorcising demons through the power of love (and video games).
The start of the first episode of The World God Only Knows sets the out the premise and tone for the rest of the series with admirable clarity and a sense of fun. It opens with some suitably ominous music and some creepy blood red Japanese characters that translate apparently as “LOCATION: HELL”. It’s a kind of high-tech vision of Hell, the systems monitored by a diminutive figure with a cartoony skull face called Chief Dokuro, who is furious at the rather poor results of the teams sent out to gather up loose souls. Short of staff, he has no option it seems but to engage Elcea de Rux Ima (henceforth known as Elsie) to sort out business in the Far East. Her only experience has been working in hell as a cleaning girl for 300 years, but Dokuro promises her that she will have the assistance of an invaluable resource for capturing loose souls. None other than the ‘God of Conquest’ himself.
The reason why it might be useful to have the greatest charmer of women’s heart on the planet as a “buddy” is because demons have a tendency to reside in the hearts of women (tell me about it…) and they can only be displaced by filling their hearts with love. Keima Katsuragi, the 17 year-old high school student fancies himself as indeed the God of Conquest and can count 10,000 hearts captured by his infallible technique and charm. Unfortunately, as his nickname ‘Dweeb’ perhaps indicates, those skills relate only to dating sim games played on the PFP that never leaves his hands. Real girls and indeed real life don’t really feature in Keima’s world, so when Elsie shows up looking for the assistance of the ‘Divine One’ – Keima having unwittingly bound himself into a contract with a demon – to woo several formidable possessed young girls in the college, reality (after a fashion) is about to intrude in a very big way.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I was sold on this anime series from the moment the titles said “LOCATION: HELL”, and I hadn’t even seen any of the animation at that stage. The premise, so entertainingly laid out in episode one, is fortunately followed though with a great deal of humour and style in the subsequent episodes. There’s a little bit of familiarity in the set-up that suggests the geek fantasy of Video Girl Ai or even an Oh My Goddess! kind in its situation of a nerdy character hooking up with a beautiful babe from another world, but rather than following that idea through for comedy-romance adventures, The World God Only Knows finds its romantic comedy elsewhere in its unusual approach to demon slaying and soul gathering. True to his status as a geek or a dweeb, Keima isn’t really interested in the girls whose hearts he has to conquer other than for the challenge they represent, seeing his role as nothing more than an extension of his game persona. The girls who hearts he captures, releasing the demons for Elsie to capture Ghostbusters style, conveniently lose their memory of what has happened, and so it seems does everyone else who is witness to the extravagant schemes that Keima is forced to improvise, with a little assistance from Elsie’s magic Oh, My Goddess-like raiment.
The premise also suggests, due to this pushing of the reset button at the end of each conquest, that the series relies on a certain amount of repetition. Each “conquest” is inevitably going to consist of a girl being discovered to be in possession of a demon, who will violently reject Keima’s advances until she is worn down by the charms and the skills he has worked so hard to master and eventually fall in love with him, unleashing the demon for Elsie to capture. Wipe and start again. Evidently then, repetition is the name of the game – quite literally – and this is even played upon in an in-between episode (Episode 4 or Flag 4.0 as it is tagged here), where Keima obsessively runs though every conceivable routine in a notoriously badly programmed video game with numerable bugs, convinced that there is a way of reaching the end. Despite the repetition, The World God Only Knows works equally hard (so far) to keep each new challenge fresh, presenting greater and greater difficulties and continually finding more and more bizarre and surreal means of depicting the familiar sequence of events.
More than romance or the horror of capturing demons however, The World God Only Knows is first and foremost a comedy series, and its success must be judged primarily on how well it achieves its objectives on that front. By which I mean – does it make you laugh? Happily, the series is often laugh-out-loud funny. The reaction shots in the scene where Keima brings Elsie back home for Elsie to announce to his mum that she’s Keima’s illegitimate sister is just priceless, but there is great amusement to be found in Keima’s outlandish theories on gameplay, wooing women and on life in general that usually have little to do with how the real-world operates. These flights of fancy are animated in a very exaggerated cartoony manga style – there’s lots of super-deformed figures appearing, text interjections, much knockabout slapstick and some baffling cultural references that will probably fly over your head – but it manages to match the tone perfectly and often raise genuine laughs.
In the process, and in a manner that is far from serious or moralistic, the anime series nonetheless manages to touch on real contemporary issues as they relate to the younger generation – games, reality, popularity, shallowness versus real character – and finds a way to relate these issues to a specific age group on their own terms in a fun and entertaining way, with a liberal helping of J-pop musical interludes (particularly across the Pop Idol Kanon episodes). You might even pick up some dating tips here from Keima’s considerable (virtual) experience, but I’d be wary about attempting any of them without the assistance of a member of the Demon Loose Souls Team as backup.
The World God Only Knows contains the 12 episodes of the entire first series and is released by Manga Entertainment as a two-disc set, with six episodes on each disc. The discs are both dual-layer DVD9, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The series looks excellent on DVD, meeting the high standards you would expect from a Manga Entertainment release. Colouration is bold and well-defined, the image fluid and stable. There are only a few of the common issues with colour banding that you’ll only really detect sometimes during fades at the start or end of a scene. Otherwise, this is a nice visual presentation of the series. Although both the original Japanese track and the English dub are Dolby Digital 2.0, both audio tracks are also well up to scratch, with good dynamic range. I preferred the Japanese track, but I also tried out the English dub over a couple of episodes and it worked really well in English with some good voice acting.
English subtitles are available with the Japanese track, or with the English version if you want hard-of-hearing titles, although the subtitles vary slightly from the spoken English. Subtitles are bold yellow, with occasional white titles for background dialogue. There are occasionally additional captions to translate on-screen dialogue, and they can be hard to take in, but this is at least a comprehensive translation.
Extra features on Disc 2 consist of Music Videos (12:45), compiling all the Kanon performances – directly from the episodes – in one place. The usual Textless Opening is there also, as well as Textless Closings for all the variations of the close.
Although it wraps up really well, with a hint that there’s room for a sequel, some questions still remain unresolved by the end of the first season of The World God Only Knows. How and why do these loose souls enter the hearts of women? If there’s an emptiness that needs to be filled, Keima himself would be a prime candidate for possession, so why is it always just women? If a male is possessed by a loose soul, will Keima be forced to be more broad-minded in his conquests? Who knows? (There are hints that Elsie might come more into play in a subsequent series). What matters at the moment is that the series sets out to be a romantic-comedy with the emphasis on the comedy, and with a quirky and lighthearted touch, with some lovely animation, some bouncy pop songs and some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, it more than meets its remit.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum