Initially, I wasn’t really sure if there was a point to reviewing this one. I mean, it’s the third season of a self-aware harem comedy/parody. If you’re watching it, you know what you’re getting, and if you’re not, you know why you’re not. What would be the audience for a piece like that?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this season basically makes the show. Sure, it’s always been funny. Sure, it’s always taken pointed but lighthearted jabs at harem scenarios and anime character writing. But this season takes the gloves off. This season makes a point.
Alright, I’m gonna use one of my least favorite words here. Normally, I think it’s both misapplied and meaningless, but for once, it just might be appropriate.
TWGOK S3 completes the show’s arc as a deconstruction of harem comedies.
I know. The word sucks. I hate it when people apply it to Eva, and I hate it when they apply it to Madoka. Not because it’s inappropriate, though yes, I also think applying it to those shows kinda betrays a lack of familiarity with what those genres already contained. But mainly because it’s so reductive – I don’t like Eva or Madoka because they point fingers at silly ideas, I like them because they tell really good stories. They are not merely reflective works, and nobody really needs to hear that giant robots or magical girls are kind of inherently ludicrous concepts.
TWGOK? Well, it’s not merely reflective either, but it really does drive an iron spike right into the heart of the genre. And it does it lightheartedly, and it never really gives up on what it is (not in the way something like School Days utterly repudiates everything about the genre, at least) – but it does not pull punches, either.
Alright, I should probably start talking about this show or something.
If you actually haven’t watched the show, but are still somehow interested in hearing me ramble about it for three thousand words, the premise is this: evil souls from hell sometimes escape to the real world, conveniently hiding in the hearts of teenage girls. In order to ferret them out, those hearts have to be clogged up – clogged up with love.And so servants of hell (who also all seem to be teenage girls, astonishingly enough) recruit humans to fill up those souls, under punishment of having their heads blown off. One such human is our hero Keima Katsuragi, the self-proclaimed “god of conquest,” who brings his mastery of dating sim logic to bear on the unwitting, loveless girls around him.
Seriously. That’s the premise.
And for what it is, those first two seasons are honestly pretty damn great. They’re self-aware comedies with great gags that largely hinge on an awareness of and loving flippancy towards how bad anime (and I suppose visual novel, though I don’t have the experience to say) storytelling and character writing tend to be. They feature one of anime’s only legitimate Lelouch characters – Keima Katsuragi. And I say “legitimate” because unlike someone like Lelouch, who ends up looking like a genius because the plot makes reality bend towards whatever absurd plan he comes up with, Keima actually has total awareness of his universe. This isn’t because he’s brilliant, although he is a pretty smart guy. It’s because he lives in a world of typical anime characters.
Typical anime characters don’t surprise you – anime characters fall for dudes merely because they’re persistent, anime characters are all secretly suckers for hackneyed romantic paeans, and anime characters are all hamstrung by one critical character flaw that when “fixed” will make them fall directly into your arms. Keima is the one-eyed man living in the world of the blind, and his ability to understand and manipulate exactly how predictable everyone will be makes him a love-seeking mastermind. His constant refrain of “I can see the ending” is largely funny because it’s so goddamn true – who doesn’t get that feeling when watching characters like this go through motions like these?
Not to say the side characters are all one-note clichés. Well… alright, they kind of are. But they’re wittily portrayed and bounce well off Keima’s absurd roleplaying and even occasionally pull together moments of actual power (such as the first season’s Shiori arc, which, while overtly manipulative in the way all of Keima’s exploits tend to be, also portrayed social anxiety both truthfully and entertainingly, and built to a genuine dramatic setpiece of an ending).
But honestly, the characters being kind of bad was sort of critical to the show being pretty good – because when you divorce a harem comedy from absolute ungrounded lunacy, you get School Days. Harems are fundamentally power fantasies, and the premise most often robs the female characters of any true agency – they are objects to be taken care of or won, not equal partners in equal relationships. Keima goes about his “conquests” like a put-upon salaryman, and adding actual emotional resonance to this situation would almost certainly grossly highlight the fact that Keima spends all of his time lying to and controlling girls to make them fall in love with him. Not only would that make him a wholly unsympathetic character, but maintaining him as a protagonist meant to be identified with (as opposed to the School Days route) would make for an incredibly unsympathetic show – an actual harem show, where girls really are things to be won and guys “deserve” love just for going through the hackneyed motions.
Enter season three.
The opening song itself kind of gives the game away this season – the show brightly declares “I know it’s not a game anymore.” Ostensibly, this is because the stakes have been raised – Keima is no longer wandering around begrudgingly gathering loose souls between retreats into his beloved videogames, because now the people around him are actually in danger, and he must commit fully to his Lelouchness for the sake of everyone. But taking the whole show’s trajectory into account (manga aside – honestly, this show works so well as a three-season message that I don’t know if I’d want another season), it’s clear that there’s something else he can no longer treat as a simple game – the feelings and desires of the people he is manipulating. He is no longer alone in a world of props reacting to him – he is no longer god.
Up until season three, the core conceit of the show (that girls forget Keima after their arc is through) had basically handwaved one of the central grossness-es of harems – the way they tend to involve building a menagerie of broken birds, having the protagonist construct a literal harem out of “fixed” girls (or even just girls who love him because he’s a “nice guy” or whatever) who comically squabble over the self-insert MC. Keima was more like an emotional fairy godmother (something the show unsurprisingly points out in the second season) – he’d appear in a character’s life, perform his romance cliché magic, and disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving no emotional baggage behind. But in season three, there is no handy memory wiping to cover Keima’s tracks (the whole season concerns Keima attempting to discover which prior girls still remember him, because that means those girls house goddesses, who are necessary for fighting some demons because of blah blah fantasy politics), and combining that with the heightened urgency of the goddess arc results in Keima constantly bouncing between romances, his two-, three-, or four-timing becoming more brazen and pronounced the further the season progresses. When presented with the dreaded double-sick-visit event, his first thought isn’t “this is demented,” it’s “I can do this.” His faith in his godhood is absolute, but his confidence demands a simple world the show suddenly finds itself unwilling to provide.
Because a lack of consequences isn’t the only thing this season’s taken away – it’s also kind of started to give those people he’s manipulating some agency of their own. When Keima attempts to seduce two girls at once, he doesn’t fail because his tricks are no longer effective – he fails because the girls have priorities other than him. When the potential goddess-bearers have been reduced to just Ayumi and Chihiro, Ayumi actually backs away from him – not because she doesn’t have feelings for him, but because Chihiro is her friend. This completely blindsides Keima, who reacts first with incredulity, and then simply with a dogged insistence on sticking to his plan. Keima continuously extolls the virtues of his 2D worlds where everything makes sense, but up until this point, the 3D world (yeah, this is kind of a weird distinction to make in the context of an anime) hadn’t really pushed back against his methods of interaction, either. He had made his plans in the context of a world where desires are binary, where simple ideas of love trump all else, where emotions are simply a matter of selecting the right answers, and where if you make a mistake, you can simply do over and try again. However, when you’re dealing with real people, actions tend to have consequences – and this all comes to a head with Chihiro’s confession.
Chihiro is the other key variable in the show’s point about harems, so it’s probably worth backing up for a moment to put her in some context. She originally appears in season 2 as one of the standard arcs, but the differences between her narrative and the others is pretty critical to her role. As opposed to the “sporty girl” or “ojou tsundere” or “idol,” Chihiro is defined as the normal girl – as the girl too standard to ever be a protagonist, who represents everything Keima finds lacking in the real world. She initially shows no interest in Keima, and is instead ostensibly concerned with pursuing a wide variety of other potential boyfriends. Her scorn for Keima’s lifestyle initially throws him seriously off his game, but he rallies with a strategy he’s never tried before – instead of playing the man she wants in order to make her fall in love, why not help her become someone like him to gain recognition from whatever other boy she wants? And so, instead of becoming the false, generic Main Character her broken bird narrative requires, he lets her into his world – he discusses event triggers, capture tactics, the best way to become who everyone else wants you to be. And instead of following his directions, Chihiro ends up falling for this Keima – the pissed, manic, obsessive, but passionate Keima who actually exists as a real person in the real world. Ultimately, she confesses that from the beginning she was attracted to his scorn for the real world, something she can empathize with as a person who feels she has no special defining nature. And Keima gives her the canned “you can be special if you want to be” speech, and they kiss, and that is that.
For a season and a half, that is that. But of course, come time for the goddess roundup, it seems Chihiro still harbors affection for him. That clearly means she remembers the conquest, right? So Keima does the song and dance, and takes her on a date to the school festival, and brings Chihiro up the roof, and puts on those incredibly ham-fisted Keima moves. And she confesses she’s loved him for a while now – as before, it wasn’t the conquest that did it, it was his actual personality. Speaking of which, this is her first kiss, so…
Yeah. She doesn’t remember. No dice.
He backs off. He says he was kidding all along, and that he simply wanted to mess with her. He says he feels nothing at all. He acts like the game MC he’s always thought of himself as – he acts like a monster.
And the show certainly doesn’t play this for laughs. The scene is devastating, from their mutual awkwardness leading up to the confession, to Keima’s inability to square her human honesty with his standard lines of inhuman behavior (“Should I say I just wanted to ask her how Ayumi feels?” he thinks, wondering if he can backtrack after pushing her onto the bench), to Chihiro’s playing it off and running away. The message is absolutely clear – when you treat people like objects to be toyed with and won, you are making yourself less than human, and there are consequences.
Not that Keima is actually made of stone. This one really shakes him – the next scene finds him alone at home, more exhausted than we’ve seen him, fed up with this entire situation. He doesn’t want to be the harem protagonist – he never did, really. Not in the real world. Unlike his games, and the fantasy version of the world he’s been living in for two seasons, the actual world can hurt you – it’s a place you escape from into harems, not a place where you can ever get away with consequence-free power fantasies. That lack of consequences is perhaps even more important than the power – in your fantasies, your mistakes can just go away, but truly, deeply hurting someone is something that stays with you, even if you only wanted to be alone in the first place.
But the show must go on! And so Keima pulls himself together and begins the song-and-dance with Ayumi, though of course it’s no longer so simple. Ayumi saw what he did with Chihiro, and though she still has feelings for him, she’s understandably wary of the boy who just stomped all over the heart of a close friend. And as those generic malevolent forces surrounding our hero begin to close in, he’s forced to once again break kayfabe with Chihiro, more or less explaining the actual situation and dragging her along on his final attempted conquest.
Chihiro is of course less than thrilled about this turn of events, but as was true in her own arc, it’s actually the real Keima that she’s always had feelings for. She understands his tricks (though she’s rarely impressed by them), and can see the strings of his behavior – but that doesn’t mean she accepts it. Unlike Keima, Chihiro refuses to set aside the personal – she demands he explain the truth to Ayumi, and refuses to accept the idea that it’s ever acceptable to treat someone as a set of variables to be won. In doing this, Chihiro is pretty much directly attacking the very idea of harem storytelling, or of wish-fulfilling storytelling altogether. The fundamental assumption such stories tend to rely on is that people are predictable, and basically just “waiting to be won.” Keima assumes no-one around him is an active agent, the controller of their own destiny – and were this a standard harem or visual novel, that would actually be true. Hell, were this the first or second seasons of this very show, that would be true. This inability to adapt, to collaborate, to accept the danger and pain of life, is Keima’s fundamental failing, and though he ultimately does succeed in his capture, the show doesn’t let him get off easy for it. Ultimately, even Ayumi spells out his weakness, directly condemning him for only seeing things his own way. And though she does fall for him again, the show hammers in the idea that it was her active choice – she was not merely a pawn, she was a person, willing to take a leap of faith for another. She is greater than Keima, because Keima’s trust can never extend so far.
TWGOK does not have a happy ending. Keima does not learn to trust others. Keima does not accept the pain and the fear and the uncertainty of the real world. Keima does not escape his narrow mental pathways. In the end, when Chihiro offers a final olive branch by asking if he had some justification for dating and then abandoning her, he burns it – he says she had nothing to do with any of this. Even when given a chance to escape from his web of false selves and actually redeem his actions, his only response is to back away, to lie again. And Chihiro leaves unhappy, though as a person willing to trust and risk and go beyond herself, her final moments betray the fact that she now has a chance to move forward. And Keima leaves unhappy as well, and though he did not change, he at least regrets his failure to do so. And the small worlds that used to give him so much happiness are empty to him now. Until he can treat others as fully realized people, until he can share his true self and accept the risks that brings, acting not as a savior, but as an equal partner, he will remain alone.
TWGOK S3 has a strong visual aesthetic, witty and fast-paced dialogue, and excellent direction throughout. Though the fantasy elements are undercooked and the beginning somewhat rushed due to adaptation issues, it has solid characters and some relevant, strongly articulated themes. For basically saying everything that ever needed to be said about the fundamental lie of wish-fulfillment romance, and kind of breaking my heart in the process, I give TWGOK S3 a 9/10.
TLDR Chihiro best girl.