The premise of Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai, on paper, promises lurid hijinks and innuendo: a dweeby high school student who does nothing but play dating sims accidently strikes a deal with a cute demon girl, and he must now use his gaming skills to seduce a panoply of girls, each of whom fits parameters ripped right from his games. For little boys who go to sleep with images of panty shots and inadvertent boob grabs dancing in their heads, this scenario would be divine gift. Unexpectedly, there is relatively little truly ribald content in Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai; instead, each seduction scenario spends a great deal of time dramatizing — empathizing with — the inner lives of the girls Keima must “conquer.” A series highlight is the paean to the splendors of reading in the arc devoted to Shiori, a shy librarian with a crippling fear of speaking to others, which plays like a segment of Disney’s Fantasia. The amount of time spent on giving the female characters lives and personalities of their own suggests a profound respect for them as individuals and women.
Which isn’t to say that the series is without deeply problematic aspects.
Katsuragi Keima is, to put it bluntly, a perfect ass. The majority of each episode is a cascade of stereotyping and manipulation of each “conquest,” peppered with derogatory references to womankind and many of the girls specifically. Then there’s the premise itself: each girl has been possessed by a “Loose Soul” from Hell that takes up residence in an empty space in each girl’s heart. Elsie, the demon that tricks Keima into his contract, expects that in order to force each demon out, Keima can fill that empty space in each one’s heart by making them fall in love with him. (The token of that love is, of course, a chaste, fairy tale kiss.) In itself, this is rife with antifeminist provocation. Does every girl in distress need a man to rescue her? Must the emptiness in any woman’s heart be filled by a man? Must every girl — and love affair — be little more than a “conquest?” That’s not even counting the fact that every relationship in the show is patently heterosexual.
It gets worse. In Part II of the series, we find out why it’s so important that these Loose Souls be exorcised quickly: if left alone, they will grow like embryos, eventually being reincarnated (that is to say, born) as humans. That’s why the Loose Souls only possess females. The rape connotations are unmistakable, and while the immediacy lent to the situation by this development heightens suspense, it also lends it a fouler aftertaste. Once again, it also hoists an antifeminist standard, a flag proclaiming that not only do these girls need to be rescued by a manly, heterosexual conquistador, but he must do it in order to safeguard their virtue!
The source of these issues is partly a product of the aim of the series to satirize dating sims. Based on a manga by Wakaki Tamiki, the anime must first abide by the conventions and tropes of dating sims before it can attempt to subvert them. I don’t have much experience playing dating sims, but between the show’s helpful exposition and my propensity for absorbing pop culture trivia, I believe I’m able to appreciate what the series is trying to do. Like many great satires, one of the reasons that Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai succeeds is that, while it pokes fun at and deflates a lot of the conventions of a romantic comedies/dating sim games, it also acknowledges what makes them fun and popular. An easy analogue would be the films of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz parody zombie and action flicks, respectively, but they are great parodies because the makers also enjoy watching zombie and action flicks. The merciless flaying of genre tropes is so incisive because only people who enjoy and appreciate them on a gut level could skewer them with such intimacy. A similar dynamic emerges from Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai. Original creator Wakaki might find much to ridicule in dating sims and romantic comedies, but I suspect that’s only because he appreciates with what makes them so appealing.
Empathy is a powerful tool in the craft of this series, and while adhering to the conventions of a “love conquest” narrative evokes a lot of unpleasant implications, it also opens up the characters and scenarios more. Neither Keima nor his conquests would be capable of genuine growth if there weren’t some genuine feeling invested in them, and it’s this growth that feeds the core of what makes Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai tick.
Though he’s often literally dragged kicking and screaming into helping the possessed girls, there’s more to Keima than his gruff demeanor and fundamentalist commitment to the world of gaming. Just as the series invests a lot into the interior lives of the girls Keima conquers, there is a parallel investment in Keima’s own ostensibly warped worldview. Repeatedly and with absolute conviction, Keima denounces reality, declaring fidelity instead to the world of games. By most measures, this would be categorized as psychotic behavior, but the series doesn’t let Keima’s escapist impulses turn into dangerous delusion. Instead, he is the locus of a tension between a sort of transcendental, idealized realm and the mundane, practical realm of reality. Keima recognizes that his games are not reality; he just prefers to live as if they are. Only the pesky real world keeps intruding.
How fortunate that his utter commitment to the idealized world of his games has real-world applications!
Without his comprehensive gaming knowledge, Keima would be unable to succeed in his conquests. Without succeeding in his conquests, each of these unique girls would be lost, a mere vessel for a malevolent entity. The lessons Keima internalizes from his games allows him to empathize with and offer a spotlight to each of his conquests. And despite his monastic commitment to his games, ostensibly abjuring real girls, each encounter with a real, live, flesh and blood woman leaves a mark upon Keima. Though the series has not offered any flashbacks or exposition on Keima’s childhood (a welcome change, actually, from many anime whose entire plot hinges upon friendships and traumas from long ago), it gives the irrefutable impression that something (or things) have happened to him that drove him into this gaming world. Maybe they were good, maybe they were bad. In any event, something caused him to reject reality, and though the series respects his sincere ideological commitment to his gaming life, it is abundantly clear that, even in Keima’s heart, there is an emptiness that games alone cannot fill.
Essentially, each girl is another step toward Keima’s self-actualization, just as he is a step toward hers. This is another potentially antifeminist canard, but it is also a recognition of a more human (if not quite universal) truth that each of us needs others. Keima is convinced that his life could be perfectly satisfactory without any human interaction at all — and the hilarious, savage, and strangely beautiful episode, “More than a God, Less Than a Human,” almost makes his a compelling case — yet by the end of the series, he arrives at a slightly different conclusion. Paradise, for Keima at the beginning of the show, is a life lived entirely in the fictional universe of games, where everything is “real” to Keima, and perfectly idealized because there can be a correct route to choose and a best possible ending to be unlocked. In the finale episode, Keima wonders if, just as even crappy games can offer a measure of genuine grace, the brutal real world also contains a “correct” route with a happy ending.
His path to spiritual enlightenment begins in fiction and winds up finding its footing in mundane reality. This only comes about because of nonhuman interaction (his games, which are fantasy, supplemented by his own mind) and human interaction (the real world, supplemented by his games). Though each of the girls Keima conquers are stepping stones for his own putative enlightenment, and even though they can be mastered via the rules of misogynist dating sim video games, each of them, in turn, represents the redemptive power of finding joy in reality, of engaging with it on a fundamental level, of finding a way to integrate ideals and insecurities with an active life. Though Keima is the “Divine One” who intervenes in the lives of the possessed girls, each one of them cracks Keima’s barrier of fantasy ideals — but instead of just destroying Keima’s idealized interior life, his interior life is simply enriched and expanded. Reality and fantasy therefore complement each other. Fantasy knowledge has real-world implications and the complexities of the real world enrich Keima’s fantasy.
For nonreligious people, religious faith is, at best, a beneficent fantasy and, at worst, a pernicious delusion. It is an irrational wrinkle in the lens through which believers view the world, and it skews the way they see everything; whether it brings peace or violence, faith is something of great power. Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai presents reality and fantasy not as separate, unrelated spheres, but as integral to each other. Faith is a practice, rather than an object. This is something believers understand and live with on a daily basis, but even we forget this fundamental lesson from time to time. I loved the way that Keima’s “divinity” is an expression of his unwavering devotion to his games, and I loved that, as an extension of this, he’s an arse. Most people don’t understand the way that his games nurture him; even Elsie, his magical girl companion (who masquerades as his little sister, and who is thankfully freed from the constraints of being a fetish object in that role), doesn’t quite “get” how games work for him, but she at least respects the power they give him in their joint quest to collect Loose Souls.
Her faith is of another stripe. Rather than believing in a fantasy for her spiritual strength, Elsie has faith in her brother’s efficacy. Just as there are religious believers who emphasize the doctrinal truths of a more transcendental variety, there are religious believers who emphasize the necessities of living a better life. However unconventional Keima is, he gets the job done. His practical, real-world actions are redemptive. Whether he is emotionally invested in these actions is nigh-immaterial to Elsie; he does them, and that’s good enough. Two visions of faith are thus presented in Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai, and neither is mutually exclusive. Instead, just as Keima’s fantasy life and his real world exploits complement each other, the active faith life of each protagonist nurture and informs the other.
This synergy is a result of their bond. Comically presented, the sword of Damocles hanging over Keima and Elsie (losing their heads if they fail to collect all the Loose Souls) can be viewed as an offering of grace. Keima has the free will to reject his redemptive mission… at the cost of his life. But he does have the choice, even if Option #2 really sucks. Living with the more positive choice (oft begrudgingly) means that this grace is extended to all the girls for whom Keima is an agent of divine intervention. Thus continues the process of mutual self-actualization mentioned earlier. Redemption is presented as a continuous process of refinement, rather than a one-and-done deal. Keima doesn’t exactly work his way toward redemption so much as live it daily as a result of the one-time offering of grace.
Despite its potential ideological pitfalls, the delicate balancing of sincere romance with satirical comedy feels as fraught and finely tuned as anything I’ve experienced in trying to live my own faith. Naturally, I realize that Takayanagi Shigehito and Kurata Hideyuki (series director and screenwriter, respectively) weren’t trying to speak to the idiosyncratic viewing habits of American Midwestern Christians who hail from a Protestant background. I think that’s a strong testament to the strength of Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai’s execution. Don’t get me wrong: a great deal of the appeal of the series is the simple pleasure I take from its comedic antics and unabashed romanticism. Tracing the contours of Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai as they mold to my interpretation is, yes, a series of hermeneutical leaps on my part, but it’s also a deep response to the textures present in the work itself. Just because something is a modest piece of entertainment doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly meaningful. Great craftsmanship is supple and flexible enough to support the weight of many, diverse viewing. It nurtures and expands the mind of the viewer, supplementing his mundane existence and narrow worldview with ecstatic glimpses of the divine. Discovering those flashes of the sublime is one of the great joys in my life, and they are abundant in the fabric of Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai. ☕