Everything you need to know about the Photo Kano anime series is in the image above. You might not think so, but what if I said the source material was a dating sim? Seven girls (“routes”), sure, but take note of the legwear sported by each of them. This is a series that is predicated not only on choosing a girl, but on that girl’s personality being defined by their tights, stockings or socks. Guess which of the girls in the picture is the childish gymnast? Sporty tomboy? Bit more difficult: childhood friend?
No ideas? What if all the girls were instead represented by potted plants?
Yeah I’m not really sure why either. Language of flowers anyone?
I genuinely can’t remember what possessed me to watch Photo Kano (Photo Girlfriend). When I started I knew nothing about it and for the first four episodes I was underwhelmed but otherwise indifferent to it. By then of course I was committed, a directory had been created and everything.
The setup is about as nuts and bolts as it comes: Kazuya, an older and seedier Shinji Ikari, inherits a digital SLR camera from his father and decides to take up photography as a hobby. He of course knows several (seven, see above) young ladies at school who are amenable to this activity and not at all mortally adverse to having their photo taken. Ready? Set? Commence mediocrity!
As that fourth episode concluded, I wondered where the paper thin story was going; a lot of obvious romantic openings had been initiated (“flags”) but apart from some sleazy behaviour from his photography club brethren, it was mostly easy to watch fluff.
At this point it’s perhaps worth nothing that I don’t play dating sims, so despite being familiar with the parlance, I couldn’t with any certainty say whether the original game is a good or bad example of them. I don’t maintain any specific criticisms of the medium, but suffice to say the only time I have played one I managed to make it through without triggering any of the romantic options, likely saying more about me than anything else…
Anyway, core to the experience of dating sims is the choice of partner you pursue. You make decisions within the ruleset of the game and digital romance blossoms. Playing for completion means you systematically make different choices and different romances takes place. Photo Kano the anime series takes this idea very literally and instead of giving you one girl, it gives you every girl in what is commonly termed an “omnibus” format. So come episode six, spade-faced Kazuya ends up smooching his childhood friend and, not being familiar with the format, I’m left slightly confused as to where the rest of the series can progress to. Graduation? College? Kazuya becoming a world renowned photographer?
Nope. New episode, new girl.
“A moment in which a distinct reality was singled out from countless possible intertwined truths”
That’s how the series puts it at least. This is not its most critical failing (that’s the final episode, more on that later) but it is the most pronounced because it packages up several individually significant issues.
The first being that dating sims are driven by choice, however small, as to which partner to pursue or route to take. Whether roleplaying or metagaming, the end result has an intrinsic sense of causality to it. That doesn’t work in a linear medium like anime because fundamentally the audience is not making a choice, that’s the decision of the production staff. It’s contentious and no doubt leads to grand “best girl” exhortations but as long as the story is solid then it becomes an argument of “well, play the game if you want a different girl”. Or what happens in many cases is making the male lead ferociously indecisive resulting in him never making a choice.
More specifically in Photo Kano’s case is that with each individual character arc we are led to believe that the love shared by Kazuya and the girl du jour is pure and transcendental, effectively “the one”. Meaning that while Kazuya is pursuing that love, decided by a single moment, all of the other “routes” are off the table. The series’ view of true love then is based upon an unexpected and arbitrary roll of a die which determines your future partner. It’s somewhat of a heavy philosophical message and completely overestimating a series which is more interested in putting its female cast in swimsuits than debating the nature of romance.
The second issue manifests as a lack of drama. The first coupling between Kazuya and Niimi is the best part of the series because it introduces turmoil in an, until then, placid narrative. But as soon as the trick becomes apparent, you may as well just watch the next episode preview because the end result is the same: Kazuya’s going to be smooching the lady by the final scene.
Which leads to that final episode. The previous seven saw Kazuya woo the childhood friend, the sporty tomboy, the childish gymnast, the snooty student council president, the quiet loner, and the buxom motherly figure; where to go to from there? His sister. The protagonist’s little sister.
Oh but they’re not blood related, because that obviously improves matters. I’m reminded of the wisdom of Genshiken when it’s explained that if you have a sister, the “sister complex” trope used in anime is… less appealing. It’s absolutely true. What’s also true is that it’s your fucking sister you massive prat. Watching that episode reminded me of how I felt when I read a summary of Usagi Drop’s story after the anime series. It does a similar thing of blending/confusing familial love with romantic love, effectively creating an emotional DMZ. Literally anybody else in the series would have made a better pairing. The ditsy teacher? Sure. The cosplay superstar who totally isn’t Yuko? Yes. Hell, even Hiromuchi, the male president of the photography club, would have made a better finale.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that the final episode ruined it, but it puts a ribbon on what was already a pungent series. Pungent because in between all of the “arty” scene transitions and the constant squickiness felt whenever the photography club members are present or the underlying message that photography gets you girls, the female messages are lamentable at best. Kazuya has no issue with blackmailing one of the girls to get raunchy photos of her, just as some of the love interests have no qualms uttering the phrase “are you sure I’m good enough for you?” or wanting to become “more feminine” for Kazuya’s delectation. You could argue that given the high-school scenario, a lack of self confidence is contextually appropriate but this ignores the ability for fiction to be better and more affirming than reality.
With the original game coming from Enterbrain, the same company who produced Amagami (pretend I didn’t just reflexively wince there), and at the risk of raising the same kind of ire when I cast aspersions towards that: Photo Kano isn’t my kind of series. Despite not playing them, I can see the appeal of dating sims, but essentially the Photo Kano anime was bereft of drama and a strong cast - surely the aspect that’s of paramount importance in this genre - enough to convince me that even if it was my kind of series, I wouldn’t appreciate it.
Perhaps rather than being viewed as a worthwhile series then Photo Kano could be just a lacklustre and protracted guide to the original game, a barely animated set of tips to follow to woo the lady of your dreams. Or your sister.