It's an Akitarou Daichi anime! I was thus almost guaranteed to watch it. The first half wasn't as great as I'd been hoping, to be honest, but the second half is stronger and I'm delighted I bought it.
It's another "schoolgirl becomes a Shinto god" anime. (A friend of mine at work tells me that it's almost identical to the original manga, by Julietta Suzuki.) This is a fantastic genre, but for a while I was under the impression that I was watching a lesser series than the likes of Kamichu!
or Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha. Those are realistic shows. Comparatively speaking, anyway. They ground themselves in a gently mundane real world, creating a lovely, delicate contrast with the supernatural.
Kamisama Hajimemashita, on the other hand, isn't pretending not to be nonsense. Nanami Momozono has had a tough life, but it's hard to get too upset for her when she's about to get promoted to godhood, with worshipful spirits waiting on her hand and foot. (It's a desperately low-rent divinity, mind you, confined to a single run-down shrine on a hill.) She'll be surrounded all day by magical boys who are ridiculously hot and can't tear themselves away from her. Oh, and her school life is unrealistic even for anime. She only turns up to school when she feels like it (eh?), but when she does, there's a supernatural megastar pop singer in her class (making all the girls scream) and gods and demons are about to become an everyday occurrence there (again making all the girls scream, because all they can see is lots of dreamy boys).
Those early episodes are basically just light-hearted fun with gods, to be honest. One doesn't sense that there's much more to it than that. The art style is simple, while the spirit world manages to look boring. Even Nanami being in mortal danger from yokai that want to eat her doesn't make it exciting or scary. Fortunately we won't be spending much time there and the story soon forgets about killer yokai.
Meanwhile school life feels like a cartoon, while the characters are still in the process of unfolding. Tomoko was watching this with me (until she bailed, leaving me to continue in my own time) and to her the male romantic lead felt predictable. She's seen more shoujo manga than me and she found him too obviously fangirl-pleasing. He's a standoffish tsundere with a short temper who's rude to Nanami all the time, despite being her devoted servant, etc.
Oh, and I'm not really a fan of the theme music. It reminds me of the theme music to Daichi's Fruits Basket, to which I had a similar reaction.
Nonetheless, personally I still liked those early episodes. Akitarou Daichi is still as witty and supple as ever in his direction. Tomoe always struck me as more interesting than Tomoko saw him, with an attitude that's literally worshipful and yet also cold, dismissive and resentful. He's also a tamed killer. Meanwhile there are layers of subtlety to Nanami, so for instance the way she gets upset at Tomoe in ep.2 is deliberately undercutting the obvious way to play the scene. You'd expect their fight to be comedy shouting. You know the sort of thing. Rumiko Takahashi slapstick. In practice, though, the animation and the voice actress (Suzuko Mimori) underpin Nanami's reaction with restrained calm even after Tomoe's made her cry. They're playing it for real, not just for comedy.
The situation is fluffy silliness, of course, but that's not a crime. I liked the story of ep.3, in which Nanamim helps a creepy fish-faced yokai find love with a socially inept dork who likes Rubik's Cubes. Nanami's divine powers are almost useless, but it's still nice when she helps people. Meanwhile the magical boys are quite entertaining and Nanami's pleasingly pro-active about her life.
However the show's second half steps up to a different level.
This series is at root a romance between Nanami and her fox spirit familiar, Tomoe. For a while, this didn't mean much. The episodes weren't about that. Nanami-Tomoe tension was just an undertone to tease the audience, in a way we've all seen a million times. You didn't actually expect it to go anywhere.
Then, halfway through, it did. Nanami works out her feelings and actually comes out with them to Tomoe. She tells him. Tomoe takes it badly and before long someone's been dropped off a building, but a watershed has been crossed. The romantic element is no longer just a tease. Instead it's become the story. Subtext is now text. Nanami is trying to break through Tomoe's shell and he in turn is practically breaking himself in two trying to do the right thing, as he sees it. Both of them can be oversensitive in a very specific, sympathetic way. Trying awkwardly to understand the other person's point of view, they overcompensate and overreact to things that the other person might have done as part of their own clumsy attempt at being thoughtful. Tomoe, it turns out, can be like glass inside. He's been at least three completely different people. He's been abandoned by a master once before and is still haunted by it. He's a violent monster who's putting Nanami on a pedestal, which is never a good sign. He can be oddly shy. I think he's ashamed of himself, although he'd never admit it.
These are complicated people. It's not painful to watch them, though. You like them and you trust them to find a way forward. Nanami's too sensible and Tomoe's too faithful for anything too silly to happen.
A snake demon becomes a third member of the family. He's jealous and admits it. He's a bit of a goofball and a harmless guy under most circumstances, but this surely can't end well. We also get to know two of Nanami's human schoolfriends, which makes a huge difference to the show.
In short, the show has stopped being about its supernatural situation (which it hadn't been examining in much detail anyway) and is instead focusing on the inner lives of its funny but surprisingly deep cast. As far as I'm concerned, that's a big improvement. I'm looking forward to season two, I'm hoping Daichi makes a third season after another few years and I'm tempted to read the manga. I like Tomoe's past. I like Nanami's directness. I'm not wild about her approach to school attendance, but I'll admit that the problems of divinity provide some degree of excuse. I've also been promised that season two continues the show's upward trajectory. When's that coming out in the West on DVD, then?