There’s something very comforting about games. They’re predictable, logical, easy to understand. Once you nail down the rules, the genre conventions, and the expected playstyles, you could theoretically become a master of the field. It’s just a matter of time and effort, learning the ins and outs of the system to exploit them. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the real world... or can it? Probably not. I don’t see where Tetris skills or first-person trick-shots would help in your day-to-day life, but what about something a little more relevant? For instance, dating sims? You couldn’t actually work a dating sim script and its cliched routes to find love in real life... could you? That’s the end of my cryptic remarks; it’s time for some honesty. I’m excited for this. I really liked The World God Only Knows, so let me tell you why.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Keima Katsuragi is the God of Conquest, having seduced dozens, hundreds, thousands of women in his short teenage life; the one small caveat being that none of them are real women. Katsuragi is a master of dating sims, spending each and every minute glued to his PFP, sometimes for as many as a hundred hours a day (and that’s not even comedic exaggeration, he’s literally skilled enough to play as many as six games at once). Naturally, a man of this stature has quite the internet reputation, his interface a constant stream of messages, updates and requests. One afternoon, Katsuragi receives a vague notification that more or less amounts to a challenge, questioning if he can indeed conquer any girl there is. Undaunted, Keima accepts the request, and ominous clouds immediately roll in, explosively depositing a cute girl onto the school’s rooftop.
Keima is understandably flabbergasted and, upon inquiry, the girl identifies herself as Elsie, a demon from Hell; the natural follow-up being “Why has a demon from Hell come to Earth?”. As it turns out, many loose souls (or runaway spirits, depending on the translation) have escaped from Hell, taking up residence in the hearts of the human population (all being girls and women), and the only way to expel those souls is by filling the heart with something else; namely, love, which is where Keima comes in.
Keima is expected to help Elsie capture any loose souls that come their way, meaning that he must take the soul’s place in the victim’s heart, or (put another way) he has to make them to fall in love with him. There are only two rules to this: any love Keima forms must be sealed with a kiss, and after that kiss, the girl in question will forget the conquest entirely, leaving him conveniently free to set his sights on the next target. Despite Keima’s vocal misgivings about this arrangement, once the buddy contract with a demon has formed, it cannot be removed until the task is complete. There’s no getting out of it, so Katsuragi’s gotta put down the games and pick up some girls.
Plays With Your Expectations
Yes, the premise is amazing. The idea of taking this encyclopedic, dating sim veteran and forcing him to start using those game tactics in real-life is just a very solid concept, fertile ground for lots and lots of entertaining situations, which it completely follows through on. Over the course of the series (or rather, the first two seasons) The World God Only Knows plays with an excellent mix of sticking to the genre tropes and subverting them just enough. Keima first deals with a sporty girl, then an aloof rich girl, then an idol girl, then a quiet bookish girl, and so on.
It starts by taking these well-established archetypes, then adding a little something more, a touch of the real to explain and ground why these girls are the way they are, but keeping them within their trope boundaries just enough that Keima’s game knowledge is still a ticket to their heart. These characters become increasingly complicated in the second season, the highlight being a girl that is not a trope at all but just a regular, boring person, or, as Keima puts it, the person who, in a dating sim, wouldn’t even be a love interest. All of this is helped along by good laughs and solid comedic timing, because (if you weren’t sure) The World God Only Knows is primarily a comedy, in the first two seasons (I’ll talk about the third season later, I promise).
But the reason this all works isn’t because of the girls or their tropes or whatever semblance of plot is involved. No, it’s because of Keima himself and how he deals with this. Pop quiz! What would you get if you took Lelouch vi Britannia, turned him into a gaming nut and plopped him in your average Japanese high school? Keima Katsuragi.
Keima is the indisputable highlight of The World God Only Knows, and the show wouldn’t be even close to the same without him. The fun of the conquests is not the conquests themselves per se, but rather seeing Keima’s mind at work, creating elaborate plans of harmless deceit and manipulation to guide the girl down just the right path, until he can “see the ending”. Granted, real life isn’t always exactly the same as a game (he in fact complains about the lack of save and backlog functions), but his wealth of game knowledge does, in essence, make him a god, able to immediately and effectively grasp the psychological state of any would-be conqueree and conquer them (I know “conqueree” isn’t a word, shut up).
But Keima doesn’t just conquer ‘em, kiss ‘em, ditch’ em and move on. Well, technically he does, but in the process he betters their lives, helps them get over any mental hangups or character flaws, and the effects of that do remain after the kiss, so in a certain light the conquests become heartwarming too.
In some ways, and this may sound strange, I also found Keima an inspiring figure, not in his ability to manipulate the hearts of others, but in how he lives his life. He doesn’t hide who he is or what he wants, doesn’t kowtow to the judgement of others or society at large; he embraces himself, and damned if anybody else would tell him not to, which I can respect. However, do not misunderstand and assume that means Keima is a static character. As much as he adamantly spurns and denies the real world in favor of the virtual, you get a very clear sense that, by the end, he does care. You can’t spend that long methodically crafting false love to not have it eventually boil over and create some sort of actual emotional attachment, even if you try to ignore it.
Mainly, this actual attachment occurs in the show’s third season, a season which ditches much of the comedy in the face of large plot developments. Due to various circumstances, this season places Keima in the unfortunate situation of going after five souls simultaneously, all being girls he had already conquered and who may somehow remember what happened last time; as in, the fact that he kissed them and then unceremoniously left their lives entirely, which is a situation that could be too much for even the God of Conquest to handle. The plus side of revisiting old girls, in this pentagonal conflictory setup, is that it allows for more active and real character development, compared to what prior had amounted to just marginally fleshing out a trope. (Though an adverse effect of this setup is that juggling multiple girls at once, who sometimes even get into fights about which one likes Keima more, starts to turn the feel of the show into an actual harem, rather than the mockery of one that it had been prior.)
A Competent Side Cast
Besides Keima and the revolving door of loose souls, the only other characters of note are Elsie and a couple of her demon colleagues, Haqua and Nora. Elsie herself is fine, but you’ve seen her type before: klutzy, cutesy, airheaded, endearing to a point, but skirts the edge of being annoying. Occasionally the writing does get in some good jokes by taking advantage of Elsie’s obliviousness to human customs. For example, she moves into the Katsuragi household by convincing Keima’s mother that she is an illegitimate child of Mr. Katsuragi, and the marital fallout from this “revelation” is downplayed just enough to actually be pretty damn funny.
The other two, Haqua and Nora, serve to expand the setting and put Keima’s accomplishments into perspective, since most other demons are having trouble with even one or two souls, much less five or more. (Haqua is also a decent character in her own right, even if her book smarts vs. street smarts thing isn’t wholly original.)
Naturally, all three of the show’s openings do what they can to display all these characters. Each one follows a similar setup. It opens on game-y, database visuals, then rapid cuts through the girls of the respective season (interspersing Elsie, Haqua, etc. where appropriate), throwing in some heavenly imagery here or there, then ending on solely Keima himself, which is usually the best part of the opening, both visually and musically.
Speaking of “musically”, the music itself is interesting. It tends to have a choral feel to it, with strong dashes of electronica, thus referencing both Keima’s love for games and his godlike persona. It’s really rather fitting. A slight bizarrity here is that the full versions of these opening songs are long, really long. The third opening is over 12 minutes! Not that that’s a bad thing, or a good thing, it just struck me as very strange.
The soundtrack itself I have little to say on. At times it displayed a profinity for sweeping epic choirs that perfectly accentuate the absurdity (or the drama, near the end), but ultimately it didn’t much stick with me one way or the other.
Usually, when it shoots for comedy, The World God Only Knows play around with clever character writing or occasional game/visual novel references, stuff that’s actually funny, but it occasionally dabbles in, well, let’s call it anime humor. You know the type, something vaguely amusing happens, then a character’s head and mouth gets all big and the art style gets super simple and they’re waving their arms and screaming and dashing about like headless chickens.
That’s anime humor, and I’ve never found it particularly funny. To its credit, The World God Only Knows makes very sporadic use of anime humor, really only popping up in the few-and-far-between non-conquest episodes, but it’s very disappointing whenever we hit one of those rare stretches, because the rest of the humor is so on-point that it’s unduly distracting when it so widely misses the mark.
This next thing is not one that I myself took issue with, but I could see it being a problem for some other people. By nature, much of The World God Only Know’s romance feels unrealistically quick. Twelve episodes for a batch of four girls at a time only affords at most two, maybe three, episodes for each before the eventual kiss, a period of time that can cover only a few days, maybe a few weeks, so if your bar for suspension of disbelief is too high, the rapid blossoming of romance could be hard to swallow.
However, the reason this never bothered me is that it’s a feature critical to the entire premise of the show. The whole point is that Keima swoops in and manufactures love on a dime, so it seems rather unfair to find fault with that. Instead, if you had this complaint, I would ask “Why are you taking this so seriously? It’s not supposed to be a realistic drama. It‘s supposed to be fun.”
A Huge Adaptation Gap
As you can tell, both that “complaint” and the one about the anime humor are pretty minor stuff in the scheme of things, so The World God Only Knows seems set for greatness, right? To a point, yeah; that point being, the end of the second season, because after that point, Manglobe took a strange, strange route with the adaptation. The first two seasons are your normal, run-of-the-mill, sequential adaptation, adapting from the beginning of the manga through an endpoint, in this case chapter 41. Then it stops, with a disappointing but not unexpected “read-the-manga” ending. Fine, whatever, that comes with the territory when you’re watching anime. But then, to I assume the surprise of many, they made a third season, and instead of continuing with chapter 42, they decided it would be much more interesting to jump all the way to chapter 114. Now, to be fair, they did produce a handful of OVAs that adapted a few of the skipped chapters, but even then (with the help of our friend basic arithmetic) you can calculate that the skipped chapters still amount to content longer than the entirety of the first two seasons (114 - 41 - 2 - 9 = 62).
That might not be an issue if these skipped events were ultimately unimportant, just chronicling Keima’s continued conquest of random bit characters, but they aren’t. Easily half a dozen characters established in this adaptation gap make major appearances in season three. A chunk of them are introduced in one of the OVAs (which I suppose is why they made it in the first place), but there are still at least three others that appear with no prior animated introduction (besides a very brief and ineffective recap that the show tries to provide). I don’t know who signed off on this decision, but it was a f**king stupid decision. You shouldn’t be expected to go out of your way and read the manga to make sense of its adaptation. I mean, that’s just common sense.
So, not that I can stop you, but I would not recommend watching only the anime, beyond season two that is (and certainly not only Crunchyroll, as it lacks that important OVA I mentioned earlier). If you want to have a solid grasp of everything that happens in the third season, there’s no way around it, you’ve got to read the manga (or at least the unadapted chapters), which I find a little infuriating.
Despite the adaptation gap, when I was in the zone and absorbed in The World God Only Knows, I had a stupid grin on my face for just about the whole time. It was just so much fun. Keima was endlessly entertaining, the girls were a compelling blend of tropes and mild subversion, and the third season was the third season, for better or worse, or better and worse, depending on which aspect you’re talking about. Not Champloo, not Ergo Proxy, this is what makes me belatedly lament Manglobe’s passing. (Full disclaimer: I have not seen Ergo Proxy)
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S... I cannot in good conscience give this my highest recommendation, but it’s such a good time that I have no qualms awarding The World God Only Knows an A rating. If the material after the second season was handled a bit better, there might have been a case for an S, which sounds ridiculous considering just what this series is, but I think that speaks to how much I loved it. But alas, it wasn’t, so there’s not.
On to the streaming sites! The World God Only Knows is currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll, Hulu and The Anime Network. However, not one of these outlets offer the OVAs, so I urge you to find them through some other means.
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