It's based on a pornographic computer game. The technical term is "adult visual novel", with the actual gameplay having been negligible and the user's participation will have merely involved choosing which predetermined path to follow. You might think that this was likely to have been one-handed, but apparently an all-ages version was released a year later and the original game's sex scenes had been so carefully quarantined from the rest of the plot that that had clearly been in mind all along. (The original game was released by Key in 1999 for Microsoft Windows PCs, with later releases for the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable.)
Surprisingly, Kanon has since become a sizeable franchise whose fanbase includes lots of girls. Even pornographic games can have atmosphere, tragedy and a plot. So far it's spawned a series of five light novels, again both in adult and family-friendly versions. (The adult versions sold over half a million copies in Japan.) Three sets of five-disc audio dramas have been released. There's a ton of manga. Then finally there's anime, with two different studios producing adaptations. Toei Animation produced a thirteen-episode TV series in 2002 and followed it up with a fourteenth OVA episode, then Kyoto Animation remade it as a 24-episode series in 2006-7 which I'll cover in a different review. That's a remake, not a sequel, with almost the same voice cast.
Of the 2002 series, my first impressions weren't good. The first thing you see is a harem title sequence of ugly character designs with car headlight eyes, deformed chins and everyone's mouths up where their noses should have been. However you can forget the show's origins, because there's not even any fanservice in these episodes, let alone any sex. It doesn't care about boobs or slapstick. The tone of the show is sombre and autumnal. Apparently the game's known for the tragic endings to its characters' stories, which even had to be toned down for this TV show! This 2002 series has a slightly insubstantial feel, skipping a little too quickly from character to character, but it's still a sober piece of work that's not afraid to be downbeat or unsettling.
It's not long enough. Thirteen episodes doesn't do justice to the varied cast and its physical, psychological and supernatural problems. It's supposedly set in the real world, in a town so ordinary that it's almost mundane, but underneath there's some weird shit going on. Yuuichi is the main character, returning after a seven year absence to live with his cousin and aunt. What's more, he's not just the usual "insert your own face here" token male protagonist. He's rude, blunt, unconcerned about skipping classes and uninterested in the concept of telling tactful lies instead of the unvarnished truth. He's also forgetful. He hardly remembers anything about his last time here and for a some reason he's not entirely comfortable about returning.
Amnesia is a motif, incidentally. Yuuichi, Ayu and Makoto all have it.
Yuuichi soon meets girls. There are five of them, they all know him from last time and they all have something wrong with them. The tone feels down-to-earth, even when there's a ghost-hunter running around. The characters' problems are recognisable: borrowing an alarm clock, forgetting your promises, being blamed for something you didn't do, a sister who pretends you don't exist, someone hating you for no reason...
Things get more serious in the second half. The weirdness deepens and the tragedy kicks in. There's even romance in the last three episodes, but it doesn't have the usual "happy ever after" resolution. (That's not pornographic either.)
Visually, it's a mixed bag. I'll put up with a lot in my viewing, but it took me several episodes to bludgeon my brain into starting to process the idea that I was looking at humans. However I like the world they inhabit, with discreet CGI that allows occasional dramatic zooms and swoops that would be impossible for ordinary TV animation. This show was clearly inexpensive, but it looks better than you'd think at first glance.
Overall, this is a sombre tale of normal people. Well, apart from the ghost-killing sword-wielding schoolgirl. And the... ahem, yes. Well, they feel normal, anyway. It's also enjoyable to see their friendships growing out of relationships that started out chilly, spiky or downright hostile. Even the supernatural elements aren't quite like anything else I've seen, having more in common with folklore than any of the usual sources. The ending is underplayed, but that feels deliberate. Oddly dreamlike, occasionally haunting, defiantly mundane and not in any way flashy, I found it a really interesting show.