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Fantasia 2019: ‘Ride Your Wave’ Explores Mourning and Loss

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Writer/director Masaaki Yuasa continues to be one of the most distinctive voices in anime today, with a clear and unique style that has garnered him something of a fan following with both light family fare like Lu Over the Wall and the very, very not-family-friendly Devilman Crybaby. Yuasa’s films and series have a distinct and inimitable rhythm, a mile-a-minute pace that comes with a love of the surreal and the absurd that makes for delirious, breathless works. But rather than be boxed in with distinctive style, Yuasa often branches out to pursue different moods and atmospheres, which leads us to his latest work, Ride Your Wave.

It’s a more sedate film than some might be hoping for, a lovely tale of loss and family that still has many of Yuasa’s earmarks, but is a bit more measured and restrained than something like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. This could easily leave Yuasa’s fans a bit lukewarm on the film if they expect too much, but there’s still a lot to love here, and comparisons between this and Yuasa’s other, more lively works might lead some to not give the film its fair due.

Ride Your Wave

The action primarily follows Hinako, a scatterbrained young woman with a love of surfing. She moves to a seaside town and meets handsome firefighter Minato, who sweeps her off her feet and into a picturesque romance. A decent portion of the first act is devoted to their blossoming love, a relationship so chock full of romance and bliss that one can almost see the other shoe looming overhead, menacing passing airplanes. Sure enough, Minato tragically dies while rescuing a drowning swimmer, leaving Hinako devastated by grief. But Minato reappears as a kind of water ghost, appearing inside bodies of water whenever Hinako sings a certain tune. At first it appears as though this is their second chance, but dating a ghost made out of water turns out much harder than you’d expect.

As previously mentioned, Ride Your Wave doesn’t quite share the rhythm and tone of some of Yuasa’s other works, and it could be said that the director’s oeuvre is this film’s worst enemy. Comparing this work to previous ones like Mindgame or Tatami Galaxy will in the end only lead to disappointment, but taken entirely on its own merits, Ride Your Wave is a beautiful work of animation bolstered by a strong cast of characters. While Minato and Hisako’s romance is certainly idyllic and saccharine, it also feels very real and sincere. You can see what draws the characters to each other, as well as how they work as a couple, with their respective strengths and failings working in tandem. The relationship could have been the make or break of the film, with a shallowly developed central romance being fairly key in works like this one. Thankfully, the film sets aside enough time to help invest you in the pair, which generates enough emotional investment to help carry the rest of the work.

Ride Your Wave

On the animation front, Ride Your Wave is quite often breathtaking, combining Yuasa’s signature look of very flat, stylized character models with luscious, vibrant backgrounds to stunning effect. Some CGI effects are mixed in, but these are only rarely out of place or distracting. Again, there’s a divergence from Yuasa’s style, as seen in works like Devilman or Tatami Galaxy, but a divergence from the norm need not be a bad thing.

The harshest critics of Ride Your Wave will be those audience members expecting it to be something it isn’t — a stylistic continuation of works like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl or others of Yuasa’s more stylistically driven movies and series. But it’s important to weigh works like this on their own rather than comparing them to what came before, and when given its full due and recognized for its own merits rather than being unfairly compared to its fellows within Masaaki Yuasa’s body of work, the director’s latest can be seen as the fun, emotionally driven film it was intended to be.

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

 

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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Anime Ichiban 22: Those That Make History

Some shows just “have it”.

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anime of the decade

It’s the last Anime Ichiban episode of the decade which means it’s time for a little something special! Join the crew as they take a trip down memory lane and pick apart what made some of the most influential anime of the decade so impactful.

TIMESTAMPS
17:21 – Update on 2020 Olympic Gundam space launch
22:44 – Yoshiyuki Tomimo and Rumiko Takahashi recognized with government Cultural Honor award
25:48 – Global anime market growth
32:08 – New Retro Crush streaming service
36:26 – SHITSUMON! What are some of the most influential anime of the decade and why were they so?

TRACKS
Intro – “crossing field” by LiSA (Sword Art Online opening theme)
Outro – “Holy night’s Dong” by Tai no Kobone

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The Historical Comedic Mechanics that Make ‘KonoSuba’ a Great Fantasy Comedy

A deep dive into Japanese and Western comedic heritage and humor.

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The Konosuba: Legend of Crimson movie made its North American premiere on November 12th. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at why Konosuba is such a great comedy series on a character-writing level in the context of Japanese and Western comedic history.

Anime is a wondrous and varied medium, but the plague of generic European fantasy world “isekai” every season would make an onlooker think otherwise. Isekai stories revolve around characters entering another world from their own. Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Fionavar Tapestry could all be considered isekai. The glut of anime isekai in recent years—where protagonists invariably travel from the modern day to some Tolkienesque or Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fantasy world—has spawned its own permanent subgenre of self-aware parody and satires, of which Konosuba: God’s Blessing on This World is a part. Yet Konosuba is notable because it is also an exceptional anime comedy.

Dying from the stress of trying to save a schoolgirl he mistakenly thought needed rescuing, teenage hermit Kazuma Satou arrives in purgatory having done nothing with his life. The goddess Aqua gives him the choice to start life over in another world as long as he defeats the great evil sweeping the land. She offers him a gift to help him of which Kazuma chooses to take Aqua along.

Unfortunately for Kazuma, Aqua is both spoilt and a moron. He spends most of his time rescuing her from the mouths of giant, man-eating toads and other mishaps. His other companions aren’t useful either: the sorceress Megumin has specialized only in explosion magic, while Darkness is a highly skilled swordswoman but prefers to be hit by the enemy out of masochistic tendencies. They are a truly terrible company of heroes, and hilarious to watch.

To explain why Konosuba is brilliant beyond its amusing premise, passionate performances, or clever dialogue, however, we must ironically get serious about the mechanics of comedy.

Konosuba Aqua and frog

Comedic Conflicts

Comedy is extremely subjective. The cultural nuances, sensibilities, and idiomatic expressions mean that not all comedy is universal—“American joke” is a derisive term amongst Japanese people for a failed and incomprehensible joke, for example—but certainly some elements do translate enough to make some general commentary on it.

Comedy is born of conflict, flaws, and suffering. Prominent Western comedies such as Blackadder, Frasier, and Parks and Recreation all share a few things in common. Firstly, the opposing personalities produce a strong and constant source of fundamental interpersonal conflict between them that can be mined continuously. This is absolutely the case for Konosuba; Aqua’s gullible and stupid nature contrasts Kazuma’s tactical deviousness, and their dynamic produces scenes such as him using her as bait to lure in crocodiles while she wails. It is a rich well of comedy.

Secondly, a character’s personality flaws are what bring about their downfall in a scenario. All four of the main characters manage, in their own ways, to make any given problem worse, and they invariably descend into further debt.

Finally, the overall situation they are in is an obstacle to the fulfillment of their desires. Kazuma desires peace and to laze about at home, but he keeps being sent on kingdom-saving missions. Within those missions, his personality directs his actions and were Kazuma able to lounge about uninterrupted forever, there would be no series.

These three elements roughly make up the basis of all so-called “character-based humor”. The versatility that it provides can be traced back through Eurocentric Western comedy for centuries if not millennia. Plautus’ comedies performed between 205 and 184 B.C. frequently revolved around class obligations. All of Shakespeare’s and Molière’s comedies endure because they concern both character dilemmas forced upon them by society and pettier conflicts with and manipulations of one another (allowing for salient observations of humanity). Even early silent slapstick films of the 1920s and 30s physically built up characters and their dynamics in order to motivate the pratfalls and slip-ups.

Konosuba Kazuma is shocked.

Japanese comedy independently arrived at these principles of character-based humor as well, but has tended towards reducing these concepts down to smaller scales and acting within distinct roles in live performance. In this way, the flawed characters are more boxed in by the parameters set by their role. This is where anime comedies like Konosuba differ in their sensibilities, owing to the long history of Japanese comedy being performed in this way.

Manzai” might be the most enduring; it originated in the Kansai region during the Heian period (794 – 1185). The style features a double act with one person in the “boke” idiot role, while the intelligent “tsukkomi” comments and challenges them as a comedic “straight man”. Think Abbott and Costello. With the advent of television, the broader array of “owarai” (meaning “laugh”) comedy has given rise to “reaction” comedy, where, as the name suggests, the physical and verbal reaction to a situation is the focus and joke, frequently conveyed through exaggerated facial expressions and noises.

This is not to say that Konosuba, or any comedic anime, is a direct synthesis of traditional Japanese comedic art-forms, but that heritage has clearly filtered through to the sensibilities of anime comedies. The most common joke across anime is a sharp cutaway to the straight man protagonist’s exasperation and bewilderment at the bizarre actions of his compatriots. This copies manzai and “reaction” comedy. Konosuba is rife with these types of jokes and the limited and deformed animation by Studio Deen accentuates their impact. Konosuba’s real cleverness, however, is the way it uses role-based humor as part of its comedic repertoire and avoids the pitfalls often associated with it.

Comedy Roles in Anime

As said earlier, Japanese comedy heavily favors role-based characters as the source of character humor for many centuries. This is frequently evident in anime comedies and sometimes this works to hilarious results. D-Frag, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Nichijou, and Tanaka-kun is Always Listless have characters with very defined roles they occupy in jokes on the basis of their personalities (that long list is there as suggestions for viewing). What they can, therefore, do comedically is limited by the role they play, becoming a subset of specialized characters with flaws.

Where this practically differs from simply being a character with comedic flaws is the limits the role sets with the type of joke being able to be told with that character. While a purely “flaw-based” character means that the output and outcome of a conflict will be foreseeable for a particular character as a result of their flaws in a certain scenario, role-based humor additionally limits the possible input and stimulus for the joke in the first place. Practically, characters evolving from role-based humor will only be used for certain kinds of jokes and will only ever take certain kinds of actions. Their responses are not tailored to the situation. The situation has to be more tailored to them.

Nozakii-kun Seo inflicts pain on everyone around her.

In something like the anime series Grand Blue Dreaming and Kaguya-sama: Love is War, or say, the sitcom Friends, the audience knows how the characters will respond to and behave in a situation, but you could give them a simple dilemma and each would be able to carry on on the basis of their flaws and be funny.

A more role-based character would need a particular problem and sparring partner to find that same comedic value. For example, Seo from Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun will always be completely oblivious and unintentionally confrontational in response to a situation, so she is only ever used for those sorts of jokes, like angering somebody with something she says, or placed in a situation to be boisterous with her opposite, the jittery Wakamatsu. There is absolutely crossover between these two forms of character creation, and a well-written “role-based” character is nearly indistinguishable from a “flaws-based character”, but they are still slightly different in execution.

Where a lot of anime comedy falls flat then, at least to foreign audiences, is that the characters are identified less by their personalities, but rather exclusively by the role they play. At its worst, they become one-note and one-joke characters, repeated over and over to diminishing returns, as there is a lack of tension because the scenarios always have the exact same result. Certainly, all characters in all comedy, or even all fiction, have roles in the stories and conflicts, but there is a difference between characters having personality traits and being defined by their archetypal role. When there is a problem with a role-based character, and the series hinges on them and role-based humor, there is little way of alleviating the problem without changing the character entirely.

Konosuba avoids this issue with character roles because all the characters’ personalities contrast the expected demeanors of the fantasy class roles they occupy. Aqua is an all-powerful god and yet she is a needy moron. Megumin is an “Arch Wizard” mage and should reasonably be proficient across various types of magic, but instead she is so hyper-specialized that she’s rendered nearly useless after a single, uncontrolled spell. Darkness is outwardly a refined and noble crusader as one would expect from a powerful knight, but her penchant for flagellation and depraved fantasies always threatens to expose itself.

Konosuba Aqua questions Kazuma's plans.

The juxtaposition of character role and flawed personality helps set the absurdist tone and is the foundation for reaction comedy when paired with the cynical and conniving comedic straight man in Kazuma. However, that gap between the ideal and reality also leads to personal amelioration for the characters. Darkness feels obligated to uphold her family’s honor and embracing her fetishes becomes a mode for self-acceptance. Megumin’s delight in explosions makes her a social pariah, and so it is a touching moment when Kazuma recognizes it as important self-expression, endearing him to her. In this way, Konosuba neatly eschews the problem of equating comedic role to personality, and that helps set it apart from many other anime comedies. It is a genuine character-based fantasy comedy.

On top of this, Konosuba can lampoon the trend of incorporating game elements into fantasy anime series, such as defined fighting class roles and skill trees, because it already is utilizing those same roles for its comedy. Thus it is able to hang its parodying of isekai and game tropes off this firm central character basis. The parody is not the source of the jokes, merely an added quality as a result of the sincere treatment of its characters, moving it from hollow parody to genuine satire.

Konosuba is a superlative comedy because it is a complementary blend of Japanese character-based humour and fantasy isekai, and is able to use video game structure towards fulfilling comedic intent. It can both adhere to and mock modern fantasy isekai adeptly because its comedic foundations are built on character conflicts.

Character conflicts are everything in comedy, and the extra layer of restrictions via character roles that have evolved in the course of Japanese comedic history can make the styles confusing or simply not funny to foreigners. Konosuba is exceptional and acclaimed as a comedy because it manages to integrate both character roles and character-based humor in a tautly written and witty package. The fact that it is a fantasy isekai is ultimately incidental to it being a great comedy, but Konosuba is a beacon for what more comedy and fantasy anime could aspire to.

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Anime Ichiban 21: Explosions are so Kakkoii!

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The Konosuba movie delivers on almost all fronts while this anime season delivers more shows of varying quality.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introductions
10:03 – Konosuba movie impressions and revenue news
22:23 – DEEMO movie announcement
26:29 – A cruise for anime fans
30:22 – Clip Paint Studio manga software donated to Texan schools
34:05 – The decline of Japanese arcades
38:53 – Yuki Kaji monetizes his voice even more
42:17 – This week in stage play adaptations
49:47 – Tokyo anime studio exhibition
51:08 – SHITSUMON! The yabai, the ma ma, and the kakkoii of this season
1:20:38 – Closing remarks

TRACKS

Intro – “Papapa” by Shuka Saito (ORESUKI opening theme)
Outro –  “Chisana Boukensha” by Sora Amamiya, Rie Takahashi, and Ai Kayano (Konosuba first season ending theme)

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