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‘Darling in the FRANXX’ Check-in: Roller Coaster of Emotions

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Darling in the FRANXX

With Episode 15 of Darling in the FRANXX, we’ve reached the end of Act 2. My original misgivings about the show’s pacing have gone away with every Saturday since it started airing. What other shows try to do over 24 episodes, FRANXX has already accomplished in two-thirds that time. Every scene feels perfectly placed for moving both the plot and characters forward at a pace that’s snappy, yet unhurried.

For the first third, innuendos and fanservice abounded in slice-of-life segments where budding adults experienced an onslaught of hormones. Yet, in the next third’s continuing metaphor of growing up, it’s not all birds and bees.

FRANXX has captured the uglier side of puberty as characters get into fights, re-asses priorities, and truly look at the world around them. With characters and world firmly established, the second act delves deeper into what makes them both tick.

Futoshi yelling at Zorome

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN EPISODE 16 ISN’T RELEASING THIS WEEK?!”

 Roller Coaster of Emotions

What a wild ride this show has been. When it first aired, I wasn’t sure how to feel. Cool designs and fun characters made for an entertaining enough show, but the pacing started off somewhat meandering. However, the slow burn of character and plot development has given viewers ample room to settle into a surprisingly rich narrative.

FRANXX’s first third started off as a raunchy slice-of-life with small bits of world-building and fun action sequences. For a ridiculous premise like FRANXX, it needed this kind of start. Rampant innuendos and fanservice (looking at you, beach episode) made viewers check their expectations at the door.

Fanservice doesn’t necessarily apply to skimpy swimsuits and bathroom shenanigans either. FRANXX has had its fair share of Trigger-brand action where giant-fightin’-robots kick reason to the curb because fuck you it’s cool.

Ultimately, what carries Darling in the FRANXX is its endearing cast of characters. Squad 13 has a nice variety of personalities, each with their own goals, motivations, and flaws. Hiro’s demurely empathetic curiosity, Ichigo’s emotional pettiness, and Zero Two’s dismissive flirtiness have been thoroughly fun to watch.

Even with flashy full-frontal appeal, Trigger and A-1 have succeeded in creating something deeper. Their deliberate pacing has resulted in strong personalities and interesting plot developments that shine because of the innuendos and fanservice, rather than in spite of it.

The show’s more outlandish aspects highlight the dichotomy between Squad 13’s life and dystopian society. Who are the mysterious papal figures behind APE, the governing body behind what remains of humanity? Why are they genetically breeding children? What drives Hiro and the rest of Squad 13 to question the world around them? Act 1 posed these questions; Act 2 has addressed and expanded them further.

Child Zero Two in a flashback

Episode 13 fleshed out massive amounts of character and backstory.

 A Careful Balancing Act

Where many other shows have stumbled through weaving a grand narrative (Attack on Titan comes to mind), FRANXX has the benefit of knowing the constraints of its story. With 24 episodes, it can’t afford to muck about in smoke and mirrors. Every question that’s been raised has either been resolved through its characters or probed further to drip-feed the audience details.

After the happy-go-lucky Act 1, Act 2 examines the darker side of both the characters and the world they live in. Bridging the years-long gap between the current day and Squad 13’s childhood has filled in holes that left audiences wondering what exactly drives the characters. Episode 13 in particular has explained so much about where the male and female leads come from. Zero Two’s desire to become human and Hiro’s need to belong overlap and intertwine, resulting in emotionally-charged friction that pays off in the best of ways.

The rest of Squad 13 gets ample screentime as well. Ichigo comes to terms with her own feelings and moves past them, as do Goro, Mitsuru, Zorome, and all the other kids. For such a large cast, Trigger and A-1 have expertly continued their juggling act.

Even more impressive is how they’ve managed to develop the world in conjunction with the characters. Episode 10, “The City of Eternity”, gives viewers a peek behind the screen at what exactly the kids are protecting. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty. 

One of the kid’s curiosity has him wandering around the city where all of the adults live. Plantation life seemed glamorous from a distance, but Episode 10 gave us a dreary look at how people live their lives. Tones of cyberpunk and dystopia paint a sterile picture of a society that has been engineered for pure utility.

Character-Driven FRANXX

If Act 1 is FRANXX‘s version of A New Hope, then Act 2 fits perfectly as The Empire Strikes Back. With a core cast and unique world firmly established, Act 2 has probed deeper into personal narratives.

This previous Saturday, in lieu of Episode 16, Crunchyroll released a special collection of interviews with the voice actors. Nearly all of the actors spoke on how Act 2 serves as the beginning of a journey for their respective characters. A common theme that popped up was how perceptions of Squad 13 changed as new information arose. These characters have such strong ties to their backstories that it takes a bit of time to properly flesh it out.

While I was initially hesitant, Darling in the FRANXX has only gotten better with each new episode. Episode 15 ties up several character threads and arcs, bringing each personal narrative to a satisfying conclusion. This was an excellent end to Act 2, as it answered many questions while presenting potential answers for others. 

With Trigger and A-1’s track record thus far, I have full confidence that they’ll create interesting plot threads and weave them into a story driven wholly by its characters.

Zero Two's voice actor in the FRANXX special episode

Puberty, ladies and gentlemen.

Darling in the FRANXX is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll.com

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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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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konosuba movie

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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