Oh My Goddess isn't one of anime's mega-franchises like Tenchi Muyo or Urusei Yatsura, but it's a solid second-division title with a fanbase, a long-running manga and a surprising variety of animated incarnations. It's charming and amusing. It's also done the world a service by identifying mankind's most irredemable losers, i.e. those who insist on translating the original Japanese title ("Aa Megami-Sama") as "Ah My Goddess". Obviously it's a heinous crime to translate "Ah" as "Oh", especially when the revised title is clearly superior and the original manga author himself, Kosuke Fujishima, approved the change. Just a small question for the purists... where exactly did that middle word spring from, then? "Ah --MY-- Goddess"?
At its best it's lovely. However at other times it's bland, frustrating or dull. It's undeniably sweet and funny, but its characters are too often unengaging and the show's built on a weak premise. Keiichi is another of those sweet-but-clueless Japanese loser boys who's destined to die a virgin. One day he's trying to order a pizza when a wrong number connects him to the Goddess Helpline and he gets a wish. "I wish I had a girlfriend," he thinks, whereupon Belldandy takes the job.
As so often in these shows, the problem is the central relationship. One almost expects the male protagonist to be an "insert your own face here" cypher, but for once the girlfriend is equally problematic. Even for Magical Girlfriend anime, this show is almost scary in its self-abasement at the altar of sad male fantasy. Belldandy is gorgeous, soft-spoken and would just die if she couldn't spend her days cooking, cleaning and waiting on Keiichi hand and foot. Feminists, stay the hell away. Admittedly there's a (disturbing) Japanese tradition of willing doormat housewives, but it doesn't help that Keiichi is a student while Belldandy is a goddess with enough magical power to flatten a city block. He's not exactly the breadwinner.
However I didn't mind all that. It's off-putting if you think about it too hard, but Keiichi and Belldandy are so sweet and likeable that they're entirely inoffensive. Hey, I liked Ai Yori Aoshi. No, the real problem is that they're boring. You could tell interesting stories about such a relationship, but this show almost wilfully refuses to do so. Even something like Please Teacher had things to say about the problems of throwing two strangers together as boyfriend and girlfriend. Not here. No sooner do they meet than they love each other. Keiichi wouldn't say boo to a goose while Belldandy's serenity is so perfect as to resemble feeble-mindedness, so you couldn't imagine a better-matched couple. Their relationship's bulletproof. You're happy for them, but it's not dramatic. Neither Keiichi nor Belldandy could be unfaithful if their lives depended on it, while the latter's divine powers could flatten just about anything on heaven or earth.
Admittedly their relationship occasionally comes alive. The OVA wrung forth some emotion, but the TV series is rubbish. Keiichi's a car-crazy nerd who can't even imagine kissing Belldandy, who in turn seems to drift through life without really touching it. Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses ends up taking the piss out of her and in my opinion as a result makes best use of the character. As a one-joke character she's funny, although in fairness, comedy is something this franchise consistently does well.
So what about the other characters? As is again traditional in this genre, they're far more entertaining. They range from Gan-chan in Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses to Marla, Urd, Skuld and more in the non-kiddie instalments. I like this supporting cast, my favourite being the goddesses' self-styled nemesis Marla. Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses gets even funnier when she shows up exactly halfway through. It drives her crazy that the goddesses never take her seriously and instead greet her with a cheerful, "Hey, Marla, how's it going?" Of course once you've seen her in action, that's unsurprising. Her plans invariably backfire, which is pretty impressive given that she only gets five minutes to go from conception to cock-up. You'll never see a more unthreatening villain. Ever. Anywhere.
Unfortunately I didn't really care about any of them. Ai Yori Aoshi and Love Hina may have been silly and formulaic, but at least their characters kept me watching. Here nothing much matters. Any problem big enough to affect goddesses will sail over the heads of everyone else. Urd and Skuld are amusing (especially Urd's cleavage), but at the end of the day nothing on Earth can hurt them and they mostly just cause trouble.
Sadly the franchise's most interesting entry is Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses, a super-deformed series of seven-minute kiddie episodes. Keiichi doesn't appear, Belldandy is merely a supporting character and the three leads are Urd, Skuld and their halfwit rat friend Gan-chan. No situation cannot be fouled up beyond all imagination by these goofballs. You'd think Gan-chan would have learned after their first thousand (sometimes brilliant) cock-ups, but no. There's a ton of imagination and parody in these mini-episodes, which are incidentally less bitty than you'd think since a third of the show is two-parters. Overall it's charming but lightweight, the kind of thing you enjoy putting on every so often but might never finish even if you'd bought the DVDs.
Worst is easily the TV series, which is funny and amiable but boring. It plods faithfully through the manga, telling stories that don't matter because even a direct nuclear strike couldn't dent the Keiichi-Belldandy relationship. Having collected the whole Oh My Goddess franchise on DVD, the TV series drove me to sell it all off again. I didn't even finish the discs I'd bought. However in its favour it has all the room it needs for the explanations and characters that couldn't be squeezed into the OVA and movie. It also has theme music by Yoko Ishida, which is simply to die for.
Second-worst is the overrated movie. It looks pretty, but it's juggling: (a) a love story between Belldandy and Koichi, and (b) superpowered conflict with world-changing divine magic. Huh? These don't mix.
I like the OVA, though. It skimps on the explanations and makes Keiichi look like a retard in episode two, but it never slows down and it makes the central relationship genuinely touching. You feel for Belldandy and it's no surprise to learn that this was a hugely influential series back in 1993.
Incidentally the goddesses are from Scandinavian mythology. Belldandy should really be Verthandi or Verthande, for instance. I'll admit that it can be fun to watch all the show's different incarnations looking for cross-references like Gan-chan's OVA cameo. It's also odd to see Urd naked in Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses. I'm not complaining, but in that show? It's in episode 37, by the way. The various theme songs are a mixed bunch too, some being painful but others being absolutely beautiful.
Overall, I couldn't recommend this franchise. I'm fond of some of its characters, but it's built upon a foundation that's dramatically dead. The OVA is worth watching and the Mini-Goddesses are a laugh, but they hardly cry out for repeat visits. As for the TV series, it's hard work ploughing through that even on first viewing!