It's the forgotten one of the Clannad/Kanon/Air trilogy of Key/KyoAni mega-hits written by Jun Maeda. (Like the others, it even has a parallel anime adaptation by Toei, in this case a movie.) Apparently Key are a bit embarrassed about it these days, but the original visual novel sold 300,000 copies across all platforms.
Personally, I quite liked it, but I'd have guessed that it's a bit too esoteric and weird to attain general popularity. (That shows what I know. I'm an idiot.) Even the characterisation is dream-like. It's also more overtly magical than the other two, with even the show's visuals pretty much drowning in beautiful fantasy right from the beginning, and the ending is going to leave most of the world going "huh"?
There are things all three have in common. They all have a dying girl, although that's not the same as saying that her incurable chronic illness will actually kill her. They all have magical realism. They all have important mother-daughter relationships. They're all gentle harem-ish stories whose male protagonist will often be anti-social and/or have memory issues and they'll all make you cry.
Yukito Kunisaki is, for me, the most interesting of those protagonists. Unlike Tomoya (Clannad) and Yuichi (Kanon), he's not a schoolboy. He's a homeless bum. He has telekinetic powers, but the only thing he ever does with them is make a little puppet walk up and down in front of you. That's how he earns his living, or more precisely "maintains his state of near-starvation". This makes him a lot more immediate than most heroes, since you believe completely that he's not interested in all these girls and their lives. Will they be offering him a job? If not, then sorry, but he's got to go.
The female cast, though, are more generic. It's as if the entire town is a dream, although ironically it's based on a real place: Kami in Hyoujo Prefecture. Half the time, you'll be looking at the most amazing sunset you've ever seen. It's as if the sky's on fire. Everywhere you look, we see seas of beautiful oranges and yellows, with sunflowers and fields of golden grass. It doesn't feel real. Trains don't stop here. No one seems to use money, to Yukito's exasperation. It's the kind of dream realm where someone might come up to you on the street and give you a birthday cake, just when you needed a birthday cake. Jun Maeda's scenario assistant Yuuichi Suzumoto has said that he thinks of Air as like a folk song. I really like all this, by the way. It's an unusual kind of fantasy, especially as a backdrop for story elements like Yukito's mundane, useless telekinesis, and I don't think I've ever seen its like in anime before.
"Have you ever wished you could do magic?"
As a result, the local townsfolk are gentle, a little spacey and mostly of a similar type. When I didn't watch the show for a week, I'd forgotten who almost everyone was when I resumed. Yukito obviously I remembered, but otherwise the only one who'd really stuck with me was the hard-drinking reckless biker chick and deliberately bad mother, Haruko Kamio. She's Misuzu's foster mother and aunt.
I liked all the characters, mind you. They're nice. They're often funny. They have some heartwarming stories attached to them and I certainly wouldn't have forgotten anyone if I'd watched the show straight through as usual.
And then things get weird. That's "weird" by the standards of a telekinetic hobo here and a town that knows when you need birthday cake. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but there's a flashback to 11th century Japan, reincarnation (not necessarily in a human form) and something that may or may not be history-rewriting. It's hard to tell. Is that rubber causality I'm seeing or just highly selective camera angles? I think the former, but I wouldn't dare swear to it. There are the memories of the planet Earth (Gaia?), going way back beyond even dinosaurs to a glimpse of Anomalocaridids in the Cambrian era. And then there's the ending, which requires yet more special drugs to wrap your head around. (It might feel more intuitive if you've played the visual novel, though, in which you apparently have to break a cursed circle of reincarnation.)
Happy endings make people happy. Sad endings make people sad. Endings like this make people boggle, then wonder what the hell it might mean before going off to rewatch Clannad and Kanon instead. Hippies' brains would have exploded had this come out in the 1960s. I respect it, but it's both brain-bending and ambiguously bittersweet and I'm amazed that it appealed to a general audience.
The aesthetics aren't flawless, though. Firstly, it's a 2005 show and one of the early generation of digital anime shows. The line quality's pretty poor on my TV. Secondly, it's yet another show of dated Eye Monster character designs by Itaru Hinoue. The magical seaside town setting is heart-stoppingly beautiful, though.
Have I found a new favourite? No, but it's fascinatingly odd. It's a world of burning golden sunsets in a quiet seaside town at the back of nowhere, where they've closed down the train station. It's a town where you watch turtles and catch frogs in the stream. How did our hero get here? Ah, silly question. He walked. It's warm, human and funny, but you wouldn't be surprised if the fairies came to take you away.
"I can't use my magic until I'm an adult."