Kyohei looks like a normal college boy, but in fact he’s from a rich family and a long line of ‘Seki’ – humans with the power to control kakashi, ancient wooden God-like beings. But many years ago after a traumatic incident he gave up his role as a Seki to live a normal life in Tokyo, away from the Karakami village. However, he soon learns that he cannot run from his past forever as his old friend, Aki, has escaped captivity and is after Kyohei for leaving their past behind. His sister Utao, now a Seki herself and in control of Kyohei’s old kakashi Kukuri, comes to find her older brother but a heap of trouble is not far behind.
Kamisami Dolls juggles a lot of different themes and genres; its opening episode starts in a busy pub with a guy stumbling to tell a girl his feelings, then, wham bam, there’s a bloody corpse in the elevator. The series continues along with giant machine-like monsters battling each other, involving big magic blasts destroying parts of the city, but then it’s not afraid to slap in a bit of comic humour mid-fight, especially if the big-breasted Hibino is involved. Thankfully, Kamisama Dolls handles the various jumps in tone rather well; the balance between the different themes feels natural as not one is compromised for the sake of another. The action is well animated and choreographed which gives each kakashi a chance to show off its own powers and identity, and although their names can get a little lost in the dialogue, there’s no doubting that these things are to be admired and feared. The comic relief is peppered right across the series and doesn’t drag on for too long to stop the tension outright. Even the fan service isn’t overly distracting; admittedly Hibino’s large chest will make you do a double-take upon first watch but her character is handled much better than others of her type, she isn’t animated in terribly skimpy outfits to draw constant attention to it, and even in the swimsuit episode her figure is given a few frames to show the audience and then the action wisely moves on. She has actual character outside the rack; she’s not just eye candy. The same goes for the other members of the cast, they’re not clear-cut stereotypes; Kyoshi’s dark past isn’t bloody and horrific to have drama for drama’s sake, it adds real depth to him. His internal struggle to fight his own power, find a place in the world and make peace with what he’s left behind make him a much more mature and interesting male lead than most, he’s not a spineless idiot like other leads in similar shows but he’s not a hot-headed grump either. Utao looks like the cute little sister type but her quiet determination to control the kakashi and prove her worth make her a lot more likeable and watchable over the course of the series, despite the slapped-on ‘big brother complex’ to her character.
When it comes to the plot of Kamisama Dolls, however, decent characters and handling of themes cannot save a show that was obviously given the green light when the premise was not fully realised. There are a lot of grey areas and unanswered questions about the Karakami village, how Seki came into being, where kakashi come from, and so on. Even when they try to explain things, it’s in a very generic way, such as the characters talking about conflicts between the different clans/families in the village but nothing is shown or any examples are given. It’s clear over the course of the thirteen episodes that most of the developments were half-baked before being committed to animation. The areas given the most thought and attention, however, are the flashbacks, which are foreshadowed early on but don’t come into play until Episode 7 and again in Episode 10. And that is where the problem lies; the past is more interesting that the present. The whole of Episode 7 is far more gripping than the rest of the series, and when it flashes back again towards the end, it’s the stakes behind what has already happened that carry the weight of the final episodes. That’s not to say that the present day is boring, but rather that not much is accomplished. One big example is when Kyohei and Utao discover they have another brother separated at birth. Their shocked reactions are only shown over the course of a few scenes, and the explanation given is so glossed- over that it’s like it never happened. Despite a foreshadowing from a figurehead that something bigger is planned, it’s easily forgotten about in the following episodes because the revelation adds nothing to the present story or character development. The heroes continue to talk about their problems and new cast members are introduced but they are played out more as props to a bigger reveal that never comes. The series ends mid-story with a tease for the next season, but with a second season being ‘uncertain’ since 2011, and at the time of writing the manga hasn’t been licensed for a Western release, it’s likely that a conclusion to this particular story is doomed to be left untold.
Animation for Kamisama Dolls is decent throughout with quality kept consistent, even with the heavy-action episodes. Character models and designs are given enough flare to stand out against the crowd, even if there’s nothing new or unique about the backgrounds. The designs for the kakashi however are quite striking; taking elements of Evangelion and Portal, they’re machines for sure but look very alive on screen, the 3D blending of their moves and attacks flows nicely into the 2D animation as well.
I do not recommend watching this series in English; not because the acting is bad (it’s not) or the dialogue-only subtitles are poor (they’re fine) but because the English voices fail to completely match the lip flaps multiple times. For the majority of the viewing experience it seemed to be that the script was one or two syllables too long for the lip flaps, so the character continues to speak even after the lips have stopped moving. On top of this, on several occasions the audio is completely out of sync; in Episode 5 Kirio’s line about midway through the episode is spoken after the character has gone off-screen, another example occurs in Episode 7 where sensei’s mouth starts moving several seconds before the voice picks up – being a complete sentence behind. There are several more instances but the point is that it’s a distracting experience because not one episode is 100% correct. The Japanese does not have this audio problem and the subtitles are all good, so stick with that.
The DVD set comes with a healthy portion of extras on the second disc including the usual (clean opening/closing, Japanese promos/trailers) but also an artwork gallery plus trailers for other anime such as Ikki Tousen Xtreme Xecutor and The Garden of Sinners. There’s also a collection of shorts revolving around the female characters and packed with fan service too, such as a workout segment with Hibino in a bikini and Mahiru sporting a kimono whilst at a fireworks display.
Kamisama Dolls could have been a fun supernatural romp but with its half-baked ideas and failure to draw to a conclusion of any sort warrant this 13-episode meandering a rent rather than a purchase.