Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens is your basic boy-meets-goddess story with an emphasis on gentle humor rather than slapstick and innuendo—at least in this first volume. The manga is the basis for a 14-episode anime, but it has also been the subject of a bit of controversy in Japan, and the series is on hiatus after six volumes.
The story begins on a rather sweet note: A boy finds a huge spider in the woods. A woman silently appears behind him, her hands on his shoulders, appearing to protect him. She smiles. The spider disappears.
A couple of years later, the boy, Jin, is a high school student and struggling artist. He pulls an all-nighter, carving an image of the goddess out of wood—but his carving is destroyed when the statue comes to life. It turns out that the wood came from a shinboku, a sacred tree that was the home of Nagi, the local guardian goddess, and his carving has caused the goddess to manifest herself.
Nagi makes herself right at home in Jin's apartment, and here the complications begin. Jin lives alone, a fact that is remarked upon several times but never really explained (he seems not to get along with his father), so there's not much he can say when Nagi announces she wants to stay near him. The loss of her tree has caused Nagi to lose some of her power, and "defilement," in the form of various bugs, has begun to show up. While most humans cannot see or touch these malevolent creatures, Jin is able to both see and remove them. He seems to be sort of special, although his specialness is never clearly defined, and in her weakened state, Nagi decides she needs to stay near him.
Being a goddess, Nagi has an imperfect understanding of the modern world, although she catches on pretty quickly. After seeing a magical-girl anime on TV, she is inspired to use a child's wand to channel her power, much to Jin's embarrassment. A super-ball also throws her.
A more significant complication is Tsugumi, Jin's childhood friend; she has a crush on him, and the attraction seems to be mutual, so having a beautiful woman suddenly move in with him throws a monkey wrench into Jin's romantic life. Fortunately this can be easily explained away, and soon Tsugumi and Nagi are pals. (Is this ever a good situation for a guy? Not in manga, that's for sure.) And inevitably, Nagi shows up at Jin's school, although she doesn't seem to have caused him too many problems there—yet.
The central pair in this manga are easy to like. Jin is your basic easygoing guy of manga and anime; he works hard at his studies, although art doesn't come naturally to him, and he tries to do the right thing. Nagi confuses him, because the right thing isn't always obvious with her. She often acts rather aloof and treats him in an imperious manner, but she also realizes she is partly dependent on him. She claims to have a split personality, with a more aggressive persona that takes over at times. It's not clear that she is telling the truth about that, at least in this first volume, but she does shift easily from domineering to charming and polite, and her episodes of goddess-like behavior seem to drain her energy.
Jin's friends are a mixed crowd. His fellow art students fall neatly into the manga stereotypes—two bossy girls, a brash but talented young man, and an otaku—but the writing is witty and they come off as interesting, not cardboard cutouts. Tsugumi, on the other hand, is one of those awful self-effacing manga girls who stutters and backs off all the time, although it's clear she will win Jin's heart in the end.
Two interesting twists get thrown into the story at the end of the first volume. One is that Nagi decides that the only way she can keep her powers is to become a pop-music idol; the other is that Nagi's little sister, Zange-chan, pops up. Zange dresses as a nun and hears people's confessions; that is her way of keeping her powers, and the friction between the two sisters quickly becomes apparent. While the first volume was a gradual introduction to the story and the characters, it looks like things are about to heat up in volume two.
Takenashi's art is charming, and although Nagi whacks Jin on the head from time to time and exorcises the defilements, the overall feel is clean and almost serene. The battles aren't complicated, and Takenashi uses a minimum of screentone, leading to a light, simple look. Her design of Nagi is particularly lovely.
The original Japanese manga had a number of puns, which translator William Flanagan does his best to render in English; unfortunately, they don't translate all that well. The translator's notes at the end are helpful for both the explanations of the wordplay and the guide to the Shinto religion, on which Nagi is based.
The manga is up to volume 6 in Japan, but Takenashi put it on hiatus at the end of 2008 because of health problems. The hiatus came just after a controversy arose on the bulletin board 2chan over a new character who appeared in the manga and said he was Nagi's former boyfriend; irate fans threatened to drop the series, indignant at the possibility that the heroine was not a virgin. Takenashi and her editors claim that her health problems are unrelated to the controversy, and they announced that the manga would resume last October, but so far no new chapters are forthcoming.
Whether the manga is ever completed or not, the first volume is certainly worth a look. With sympathetic characters and a story that doesn't strain the brain too much, it is a good choice for lazy summer reading.