The Limited Staying Power of Anime Comedies

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A couple of weeks ago I promised a critique of the new season of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei to balance out the unbroken praise of this unusually fertile currently airing season. The problem is, since I wrote that post, Zan SZS has delivered three particularly good episodes. Now, to that point Zan SZS hadn’t been a bad anime by any stretch of the imagination, and, on the other side of the coin, I wouldn’t say the latest three episodes have produced mark-hitting jokes with the consistency of the brilliant Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (which I’ll hence refer to as ZSZS). But there’s been an improvement which kinda neuters the point I was hoping to make (although it does conform to another point that I like to make frequently, ie, that it’s impossible to make a proper judgement on an incomplete series, since, like in capitalism, it demands speculation which is unreliable). But I guess what I want to point out is an observation of a trend: anime comedies generally lack staying power.

I’ve always thought that the most imperative challenge of an anime comedy is remaining as funny in the final few episodes as it was in the first few and, IMO, this is something that very few of them manage to do. Most anime comedies kinda exist upon a gimmicky premise: boy with solar hands bakes bread; boy saves girl… becomes her butler; cute girl joins club with other cute girls… they do cute things (this last one probably describes half the genre). With the exception of the most creative comedies, a lot of these series have a rather limited scope, and it doesn’t take too long before they’re stretching far for new things to do, new situations to devise, new jokes to crack. A lot of the really mundane anime comedies become very repetitive. The same formulas and gags are beaten to death and become stale long before the series ends. It takes a lot of skill to make the same thing funny after the fifteenth time we’ve seen it… but, perhaps there’s an argument that it takes even more skill to come up with fifteen completely different jokes to fit into the one anime.

The American animated sitcom, such as The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy (the last of which is something of a guilty pleasure of mine; it’s not something I proudly admit I enjoy… South Park, on the other hand, I have immense respect for and I’m not afraid to admit it at all), are a completely different kettle of fish. For various reasons, they have massive staying power. There’s probably not a huge amount of disagreement about the difference in quality between the newer episodes of The Simpsons, and the classic seasons of the mid-to-late nineties, but the fact that the show is still relevant after twenty seasons is a testament to its staying power (and, I guess, the power of being an established franchise on American TV). Other than the ornamental Doraemon, there’s nothing really in anime quite like it. But there are a few similarities between the comic style of these types of series and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, which is what makes it unique among anime comedies.

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The brilliance of South Park comes from its ability to be relevant in a way only exceeded by newspaper editorial cartoons. It takes advantage of the fact that episodes are so quick to make, that a topic could break newspapers just three days before Parker and Stone make an episode about it for airing. South Park is a show that, to a large extent, exists in a meta-realm: references, parodies and social/political commentaries are the order of the day, but what South Park arguably does better than its competitors is weaving these things into a (somewhat) coherent narrative… all while remaining incredibly irreverent. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei probably doesn’t have quite as much respect for the concept of “plot”, but it’s humour has a similar sense of relevance and irreverence. SZS is about taking social phenomena that the Japanese and/or the otaku audience embrace and holding them up like a mirror, saying “ah, actually, don’t you think this is a bit stupid?” And, like most satire, it’s at its most effective when it’s making fun of something which is new.

I don’t mean to imply that SZS is quite as up-to-the-minute as South Park, since it’s simply not, but one of the things that this current season doesn’t seem to be doing as well as previous seasons is making fun of modern phenomena. The first two series took aim at things like Lucky Star, Socrates in Love, Japan’s World Cup performance, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not soon after they were at the forefront of people’s minds. With a few exceptions here and there, this new season doesn’t seem to have had so many specific and relevant targets. Things changed in episode six with a couple of scathing backhands of the new mobile phone novel phenomena and a reference to Clannad‘s brand of moe as a type of “measles”, but, for the most part, this new season has been less about references and more about societal issues that are a little less time dependent. This is all well and good, but there are a few too many jokes that feel like they’re going over old ground. “Confession practice” from ep 8 of Zan isn’t too far from “May exposure” in ep 8 of ZSZS, while the tower for people’s second talents from ep 2 and “Choice-3 City” from ep 3 are just two more examples of the “going to a place where social phenomena conveniently gather” formula that this show has resorted to a bit too often now.

On the other hand, we get moments like Chiri’s “surprise” in ep 7, which come from so far out of left field that they’re brilliant. That we still get moments like these is a bit of a surprise itself, but they’re the types of things that come from a director who’s one step ahead of his audience. The thing is that Shinbo was permanently one step ahead of us in ZSZS, which is why almost all of the jokes were surprising and, therefore, memorable. Too much of Zan feels like it’s conforming to formulas. Arguably, ZSZS and the first season also conformed to formulas, but they weren’t anywhere near as familiar as they are now, so we have a much better read on what Shaft‘s next move is.

Such foresight.

Such foresight.

Material aside, there a number of stylistic choices made in this new season which I haven’t been fond of, because they’ve felt more like gimmicks than actual humour. The stories at the beginning of each episode are pure random, and therefore come off as tedious. I’ve never been one to think that pure random is funny… slight deviations from random which, when looked at from a certain angle turn out to be ordered and thought through can be very funny (that’s pretty much how I’d describe ZSZS), but pure random is the type of thing anyone can write. It’s a bit like throwing darts in every direction around a room while trying to hit a dartboard. Sure, you’ll hit occasionally, but so much expended effort for such a low success rate makes you look foolish. It’s a bit like South Park‘s rebuke of Family Guy‘s “manatee” writers, where elements of a joke are put together with an absence of thought. The brilliance of SZS most of the time is that it looks random but it isn’t. These openers are, though.

Drawing Zetsubou-sensei is passe now. It was funny at first, but has been completely pointless since. Vocalizing the onomatopoeia is a pointless gimmick. Same with Chiri’s onscreen punctuation. Itoshiki and Matoi’s ever reliable exchange of “You were there?”, “Always” has become repetitive. One must take the good and bad now with Zan SZS which we’re probably not used to, since previously there was just the “good”. But I still much prefer this to another series well past its first season which I think is flagging: Hayate no Gotoku!.

Hayate no Gotoku! is another anime that exists largely in the meta-realm, but, unlike SZS, it’s not satirical. It’s more a light-hearted rom-com that resembles School Rumble. These are a dime-a-dozen, but a few of them, such as its first season, the first season of School Rumble, Ouran Host Club and Kannagi stand out. Ouran and Kannagi haven’t (as of yet) bothered to progress beyond a first season, and by doing so have shielded themselves from going stale comedically, even if the cost is leaving us with frustratingly incomplete stories. School Rumble did choose to run multiple seasons, but none of them were as good as the first. The problem with School Rumble is that it had no respect for its hook (or its audience). The comedy, which was pretty good at first, was garnish, but by the end of the first season, most people were watching for the elaborately troublesome romantic relationships. The problem is that the relationships were so (unnecessarily) troublesome that they never developed in any momentous sort of way. Relationship development came in bursts between long bouts of inane humour that had long grown stale and frustrating, since the audience knew they were getting in the way of potential plot advancement. As we know now, plot advancement was never the point of School Rumble.

Isn't this just moe fanservic.... HHNNGGGGG!

Isn't this just moe fanservic.... HHNNGGGGG!

Hayate no Gotoku! has even less claims of being a genuine romance story than School Rumble, which is why I’ve found this new season decidedly lackluster. The first season made things patently clear that the romantic set-ups were in a steadfast equilibrium which was purely subservient to the comedy. It gave the show a reason to poke fun at itself and its characters, which added strength to its ability to function as a self-aware meta-comedy. This new season has put much more emphasis on these relationships, and has tried to create the illusion that these relationships might actually advance. To this point, this hasn’t happened to any extent worth writing about (and with three episodes left, I doubt it will), but it’s difficult to care anyway, because Hayate no Gotoku!‘s characters are, at best, one-dimensional moe constructs. School Rumble‘s characters were at least somewhat dynamic, and could be taken seriously when the situation demanded it. Hayate no Gotoku!‘s cast work great as gag characters, but on the romantic side of things, they’re too depthless to be taken seriously in a weighty context.

Suzumiya Haruhi, also, has waned in its comedic impact in the second season, but with “Endless Eight”, there are considerable circumstances surrounding that. The anime which manages to remain funny up until the end is, in my experience, a rarity. That’s part of the reason why I tend to put anime that have good staying power on a pedestal, and why I value comedies that manage to remain chuckle worthy consistently more than those that are violently hilarious to begin, but painfully dull to end. When I look at the upcoming season charts, there aren’t too many things that make me worry more than new comedy series followed by the words “Season Two”, especially when it’s a comedy series that I enjoyed the first season of. It’s extremely rare that I’ve seen a second season of an anime comedy which lives up to the first… let alone outdoes it. Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei was a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. Zan SZS is just gravity taking over.

12 Responses to “The Limited Staying Power of Anime Comedies”

  1. Your whole premise is laid flat on its back by you considering SZS somehow the pinnacle of anime comedies, when in fact its pretty mediocre, just as much as Haruhu is.

    There are a ton of actually good comedies out there, that dont get boring (unless you binge on them, of course).

  2. […] Continued here: The Limited Staying Power of Anime Comedies » Behind The Nihon Review […]

  3. SZS…well what you said about it’s brand of comedy is very true. It’s so cutting in it’s social commentary and parodies. However I have never seen a comedy get so repetitive so god damn quickly. It took barely 6 episodes of the first season for the jokes to start to feel stale. As you can probably tell, I’ve stopped watching it a long time ago.

    For a comedy anime that doesn’t get stale, I’d say Gintama. Then again, I’ve only seen up to episode 70 and apparently it loses it’s appeal after episode 100, but that’s down to the director change.

    I love anime comedy but the fact that they lack staying power is painfully true. Even my personal favourite, Hare+Guu, started to lose steam when it had reached the third season

  4. Gotta wonder about those super long running comedy slice-of-life shows in Japan like Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan. ‘Relatability’ seems to play a huge part in the ‘comedy half-life’ of these shows, both in the case of American animated sitcoms and Japanese animes.

    In Doraemon’s case, for example, I’m sure a lot of people found themselves relating to Nobita, the ‘quintessentially flawed protagonist’ who gains Doraemon as his friend (with a lot of benefits).

    The more you can relate to something, the more it will become relevant to you and your interests (the more you’ll actually ‘get’ the jokes and laugh at/with it), and the more the show’s ‘comedy power’ will be sustained, even after X years. That’s most likely why the American animated sitcoms you’ve mentioned have remained timeless as they are.

  5. I’ve got to agree with the criticisms of School Rumble and Hayate!!, examples of entertaining first seasons whose sequel seasons went in opposite, yet decidedly wrong directions.

    My thought is that comedies have to be short (12-13 eps) or something else at the same time(e.g. s’life, romcom, parody) to be really enjoyable. That’s the way pure comedy is, quick-fire gags or punchlines to get that outburst of laughter or wry smirk from the audience. Very temporary and live-in-the-moment. Very few jokes, no matter how good, can be repeated endlessly and still get a positive reaction.

    And let’s face it, American comedy writing >>>>> anime comedy writing. The difference in comedy culture is just huge. A random stand-up comedian on Comedy Central is way funnier than anything I’ve ever seen from across the Pacific. Which goes into my stance that anime comedy has to be a niche comedy or be more than just comedy to succeed, because for pure laughs, anime compares poorly to my standards, something I think a lot of westerners will agree on.

  6. Kind of interesting to see some less-than-enthralled opinions on SZS.

    I think a part of being able to enjoy that show comes from appreciating its unconventional approach to aspects of life that we take for granted. Being able to see something from a different angle is where the show manages to delight my sensibilities while hammering down the sarcasm and nailing the hyperbole perfectly.

    Also, to agree with kadian1364’s thoughts, Western comedians are more enjoyable. From the Monty Python tradition (and one that I’m very fond of) to stuff like The Daily Show, what we see is that Western comedians are fairly irreverent and their willingness to tackle stuff that might even be regarded as taboo is what makes it worth watching.

  7. @karry
    Examples? I mean, if you didn’t like SZS and Haruhi, then there’s obviously at least some discrepancy between our taste in comedy (which is fair enough, since it’s a more “subjective” genre than any other in anime). But I’d like to know what these good comedies that don’t get boring are, since they’re a rarity in my experience.

    @Scamp
    I’m not going to force SZS down your throat, but I will mention that you dropped it just before it started picking up. The eps around ep 6 of the first season were a bit of a low point. As for Hare nochi Guu, I enjoyed the first season but, for me, it started to get a bit old by the time the second came round. I haven’t even seen the third.

    @usagijen
    Those are probably in the same basket as Doraemon. Can’t really say much about them, since I don’t have first hand experience with them. It goes without saying that they must be doing something right, since they’re well and truly established in the mainstream Japanese culture more than the types of shows we watch on fansubs, which remain niche.

    As far as relatability goes, it definitely plays a part in staying power, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Take Family Guy, for example (which I’ll admit isn’t a great example), which follows an obnoxious half-wit. This isn’t the sort of guy that’s sympathetic, but a lot of times, we’re laughing more “at” him than “with” him. Again, I wouldn’t say Family Guy is brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have more staying power than most anime, even ones with really relatable characters.

    @kadian1364
    I think anime typically agrees, which is why the lifespan of most anime comedies is one or two cours. I don’t know if it’s the consequence of widely held philosophies or whether this is just seen as a sufficient timespan to advertise your manga and minimize risks. It’s interesting how American comedies are, on average, better than Japanese comedies (I’m not going to dispute that, although it goes without saying that there are some really bad American comedies out there), but how a lot of people say British comedies are better than Japanese comedies. The British also seem to take the view that less is more, and their best sitcoms are notorious for having short runtimes. The American approach seems to be about getting your foot in the door and then controlling the airwaves for as long as possible. The British are more about making something short and memorable and leaving the audience wanting more. But all three nations seem to have subtly different ideas on comedy.

    @zzeroparticle
    I’m not less than enthralled, I just don’t think this season is as good as the previous ones. At this stage, I’d say the best jokes in Zan are about as good as the average ones in Zoku. To put it into context, I’d say the disparity in quality of humour between Zan and the first two series is much smaller than it is between the second season of Hayate and the first.

    I think one of the other differences between Western and Japanese comedies are their approach to slapstick. Western comedy is more about dialogue and observations, but when it goes slapstick, it makes a point to be very crude (which can be a good thing, IMO). Japanese comedy is more about physical humour. There’s almost an odd resemblance between the Japanese sense of humour and The Three Stooges. It’s a bit like they’re stuck in a time slip (and I say that with the utmost respect, since I am a fan). This is why I kinda think that SZS resembles Western comedy more than any other anime. It’s very black. One doesn’t see black humour much in anime, but it’s par for the course in Western comedy.

  8. @Sorrow-kun
    I was referring to some of the people who commented above me. Guess I should have made that clearer.

  9. @Sorrow-kun

    I did actually watch until about halfway through Zoku until repetitivness finally took it’s toll. It’s odd that the part that made me drop the show was your favourite part.

  10. I feel like I’m on a the complete other side of the spectrum right now, because I’ve been loving this season of Zetsubou Sensei. I’ve loved the jokes. I adore the insanity. And even if it is not quite as scathing as the previous seasons, it is still funnier than 99% of anime out there. Yeah, some of the running jokes fall flat, like the “thus so far” at the beginning of every episode. Though the drawing Zetsubou Sensei has been one of my favorite things to look forward to. There is still a multilayer aspect to the comedy that makes it work even after the scene is over. And if I could, I would make Nozomu’s self destruct sound my ring tone.

    On a conceptual level. Yes, there is only so much more Zetsubou Sensei can go before becoming entirely passe. But the fact that it has gotten this far and is still an overall enjoyable series is a testament in of itself. This might be a western view but, now if only more anime could get how to make their humor work.

  11. GO TO DMC! GO TO DMC!

  12. […] fact that I think American comedy writing >>>> Anime comedy writing on the whole, and I know I’m not alone on this. Where I differ from the article and the commenters on said article (although keep in mind, that […]

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