I love this show to pieces. It's delicate, charming and realistic, despite its fantastical premise. It's one of those shows where the characters are just ordinary people and that's the point.
The main character is Yurie Hitotsubashi, who's timid, easily flustered and a bit dim. She's an ordinary girl at junior high school in Onomichi, a city located in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. Even her friends think she's a bit of a hopeless case, although they love her anyway. She's sweet. You'd struggle even to call her competent.
She's also a Shinto god.
This incongruity is the most glorious thing about Kamichu. Yurie doesn't know how she became a god, or what it means. It just happened, overnight. She comes into school and tells her friends, "I became a god." Throughout the show, she remains the hopeless case she's always been, generally clueless and reluctant to push herself forward in anything. Her reactions are those of an ordinary girl, or even a bit younger than her years. Deification, for Yurie, is like a part-time job. She's still Yurie. She still hangs out with her friends and she's still rubbish at her exams. However now she can also see invisible monsters and make miracles happen.
This is hysterical, but in a gentle, understated way. Yurie is the opposite of everything you'd associate with a god. Her reactions are priceless. She could make me laugh just by looking out of a train window, while she's so ill-suited to her new job that you're cheering for her twice as hard and all her victories are twice as satisfying.
I should also talk a bit about Shinto. It's the native religion of Japan, except that it's also not, because calling it a "religion" is to shoehorn it into a category. I asked Tomoko about Shinto and she's a normal Japanese person when it comes to religion, i.e. she has no interest whatsoever. She does all the ritual stuff, obviously. She'd go to a shrine at New Year and she'd observe Buddhist practices for a funeral. However she couldn't even tell you the difference between them and if you ask her if she believes in Shinto, she has trouble understanding the question. Shinto's just... there. It doesn't have a founder or sacred scriptures. It's a bunch of animistic myths and rituals that have been maintained into the present day. Shrines are nice. You can go to them. You can get tie your fortune to a tree.
It also has millions of gods, although you could just as easily translate it "spirits". Anything can be a god. If it's awe-inspiring, it qualifies. Good or evil, big or small, strong or weak... that doesn't matter.
Anyway, Kamichu is all about Shinto. That's the kind of god Yurie is. The nearest it gets to mentioning other religions is in episode thirteen, when Matsuri decides to set up a rival holiday to pull the punters away from Christmas... and even that's not doing literal Christianity. Kamichu's view of Christmas is commercial, with the conflict not being faith-based but instead with the town's shopkeepers objecting to Matsuri damaging their Christmas sales.
The other thing you need to know about this anime is that it's a homage to Hayao Miyazaki. This is more unusual than it sounds. The weird thing about Miyazaki, you see, is that he's the most famous name in anime by light-years, yet he's oddly unrepresentative of it. He's gentle and slow. He's about observation and the taking of infinite pains. He makes underplotted movies, where the magic comes from the delicacy of his observation and the way in which the details come together. His movies are gentle and accumulative, whereas the anime industry as a whole tends to be far more high-octane, explosive and about extremes of plotting, characterisation and emotion. Had someone come to me asking about anime like a Miyazaki film, until now I'd have been stuck for recommendations.
Kamichu is still a TV anime, of course. The opening and closing sequences are breaking the spell somewhat, although as it happens I quite like them anyway. Also, obviously, the budget's only TV-level, which means that there's relatively little Miyazaki homage in the actual animation. Episode one has some, since it's traditional to splash out on first episodes. The way characters move past each other on the roof, for instance. However the art is full of Miyazaki-isms, from the character design (Yurie looks like a potato) and the blush spots on people's cheeks (Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away) and the way the camera will stand back from the action to frame the characters within their world. The long shots are very Miyazaki, as is the painstakingly accurate evocation of Onomichi and its surroundings.
It's doing Miyazaki's timelessness. I've seen it said that it's set in the 1980s, but you'd honestly never know. It could be set in any era. Kenji's hobby is calligraphy! (The Chinese origins of Japanese calligraphy go back almost four thousand years.)
It's also set in a Miyazaki world of spirits, mononoke and cute monsters. I've seen this show called "My Neighbour Totoro the TV", but to me it feels as if it's set in the same universe as Spirited Away. It's not, but its spirit world is populated with similar beings.
This show kept surprising me with its humanity and its intelligence. Every so often, they'd do an episode about a fairly well-worn premise (the school council election, the Christmas episode, the Valentine's Day episode) and then overturn my expectations by how deep they'd dig in exploring their themes. This show kept getting cleverer and more thoughtful. Sometimes Yurie will spend an entire episode ill or in her front room, under the kotatsu. At other times, she might get a summons from the Prime Minister to handle Martian negotiations (no, really), or have to help the sunken World War Two battleship Yamato return to its hometown. (The Martian episode's fantastic, by the way. I was in hysterics even at simple things like a pass saying "God".)
It can be funny seeing Yurie do (or be asked to do) anything. She's so timid and reluctant that she can be flustered equally by talking to a boy or by having to stop a hurricane. (She'd started the latter, mind you.)
This is another Brain's Base anime, by the way. After this and Mawaru Penguindrum, I want to watch everything from that studio.
I don't think this show puts a foot wrong. It doesn't have a plot, but no matter. Similarly its gentle, understated realism could easily have been boring, but in fact it's charming and often funny, especially given the show's subject matter. (Mind you, I personally found the religious angle thought-provoking and really enjoyed seeing quite a few inversions I'd never seen before.) Yurie is a glorious lead character, although I love her friends too. This is the kind of show where the correct way to neutralise soldiers is to quote the Japanese constitution at them. How can you not fall in love with a god this bashful, nervous and humane? I love what she does with the beach house (episode seven), for instance.
If real religion was like this, I'd be a worshipper.