One bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted what Nozaki-kun and Barakamon did this summer, but shows like Kokkuri-san make me appreciate those summer comedies all the more, because it really is difficult to make a show (a) consistently enjoyable/funny, and (b) fill it with a cast of characters that are all likable (or at least not actively distasteful). Granted, a lot of good series have weak links, characters or plot points that bring down the overall quality but don’t kill the show entirely. But wow, the introduction of Inugami in Kokkuri-san is a whole new level of “weak link,” as he’s made what was a darkly funny series with a warm heart into a truly unpleasant viewing experience.
There are a metric fuckton of problems with Inugami’s character, but I think if we were to speak in the broadest of terms, it comes down to the delicate balance between threat, power, and intention that creators struggle to maintain when introducing a “comedic antagonist” figure. These characters are supposed to make some of the other characters’ lives harder, but what makes these interactions funny is that the threat the character poses is trivial, the power the character possesses is minimal, and often the characters’ antagonism comes more out of idiocy or obliviousness rather than an actual intent to harm.
[Very vague, mild Nozaki-kun spoilers in the following two paragraphs. You can skip ‘em if necessary.]
To see how this balance can be effectively maintained, let’s take a quick, general look at Nozaki-kun, where I’d argue that the two primary “antagonists” are Seo Yuzuki and the editor, Maeda (Kashima is an antagonist of sorts, but Hori gives as good as he gets, so their relationship is more of a back-and-forth). Seo is a friendly asshole – she doesn’t mean to be a jerk, and the threat she poses is basically just “increased levels of stress” (and the occasional bruise during basketball practice). Furthermore, there’s something of a power balance between Seo and Waka – in her own way, she does actually care about his feelings, and he certainly has the ability to put his foot down and tell her off (he’s just not very good at it).
Maeda is a slightly different case – he actually does have some real power, and his meddling has a definite effect on Yukari’s stories – but again, that threat is minimized because it’s an absurd one: he just wants to shoehorn adorable animals into the panels of her comics. Also worth noting is that Nozaki-kun understands that Maeda is an unlikable character and uses him very sparingly, so his antagonism can be mined for actual humor instead of just to grate on people.
[Kokkuri-san specific discussion continues below]
But compare this to Inugami, a pedophile dog-spirit who is not only “in love” with Kohina but is actively, aggressively pushing himself on her. His threat is very real and his intentions are selfish and malicious. You could maybe minimize this threat with a power balance, but the series doesn’t even try to do that. Yes, Kokkuri frequently puts Inugami in his place, but Inugami doesn’t pose any real threat to Kokkuri. It’s Kohina who’s in trouble here, Kohina who’s repeatedly harassed and terrified, and Kohina who is at the mercy of this awful spirit. She has told Inugami she doesn’t like his behavior, she tries to get him to listen to her, but he ignores her at every turn.
One of the reasons Kokkuri and Kohina are such a winning pair (and their moments together continue to be the only bright spots in these two episodes) is that they do have a kind of power balance, where both want/need the other, even if they don’t always express it well. There’s genuine affection here, which allows them to harass each other in a way that’s humorous instead of off-putting. But Kohina wants Inugami to go away, and this more than any specific issue with his character (and there are loads – hell, I haven’t even mentioned the whole trans* angle) is at the heart of why he fails utterly as a character, even an antagonistic one.
It would have been so easy for Kokkuri-san to portray Inugami as a poorly trained dog who’s possessive of his owner (and the few moments where he behaves in this way are the only times he’s even remotely tolerable), but the moment they made his motivations about sex and torment (he not only wants to “be with” Kohina, he wants to make her suffer), he shifted out of the realm of comedic antagonist and into the realm of actual antagonist. Except, of course, that the show still wants to play him for laughs. And there is something really disturbing about that.
I still adore the relationship at the heart of this series. I still love every scene with Kokkuri and Kohina together. I still giggle at Kohina’s failed attempts at “being human” (my goodness, those smiles), her love of cup noodles, and her sudden bursts of philosophy. I’m still fascinated by the way the show is using spirits and “dolls” to portray different kinds of isolation and loneliness. But Inugami is a constant, awful presence – if he were in five minutes an episode I could deal with him, but he is all over this show from the moment he appears halfway through the second episode. I’ve honestly never seen a single character destroy a good series the way he has.
I so badly want this to be the show I saw in the premiere, but I don’t know, you guys, it’s just not turning out that way. I may give it one more episode to see if the new character shoves Inugami to the sidelines and gets us back on track, but there’s a very good chance I’m gonna be calling it quits here. Such a shame, too – it really was my favorite premiere of the season.