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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.

Declan Biswas-Hughes has led a very nomadic life, which influenced his decision to study European and International Law. He unwinds from writing essays on the minutiae of legalese by writing things like essays on the minutiae of anime, because he really knows how to party. You can find him on Twitter (@fringence), popping up on AniTAY, and occasionally out clubbing when he’s not trying to finish a novel.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Brent Middleton

    January 3, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    This was such a pleasant read. It’s rare that an anime lives up to the hype for me, but Konosuba absolutely did. As you mentioned, I think it’s really the character writing that push it over the edge for me. Whereas Aho-Girl is great slapstick and Kaguya-sama is brilliant situational humor, the absurdly over-the-top personalities in Konosuba are what kept me watching (and caring) consistently. It takes some great risks eschewing traditional harem-esque tropes, too. Really hope we see a third season!

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‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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How Rimuru Tempest Changed the Game for Isekai Protagonists

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime shines within the vast sea of generic isekai thanks in no small part to protagonist Rimuru Tempest.

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that time i got reincarnated as a slime

The core premise of the isekai genre–a character being transported from their everyday life on Earth to a parallel universe–has become wildly popular for a reason: it’s an immensely appealing fantasy. Just as audiences everywhere fell in love with the seminal Spirited Away in the early 2000s, it’s still exciting to fantasize about discovering a new world and going on all manner of crazy adventures. However, the incessant flood of new isekai every season to capitalize on this trend has resulted in some of the most generic, overly-manufactured protagonists in any genre.

Though this sea of formulaic main characters is vast, it makes it all the easier to recognize when one bucks the typical conventions and actually proves that there’s room for unique takes on the genre. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime adheres to a few cliches, but it also manages to set a new bar for what a captivating isekai protagonist can be.

Rimuru in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Breaking the Mold

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as wholesome and optimistic an anime as they come. The tone can be deceptive at first; when Satoru Mikami is suddenly stabbed when trying to protect his junior, his dying wish is for his computer’s hard drive to be destroyed. But after being reincarnated as a slime–and gaining the new name Rimuru Tempest–his true desires become clear: world peace and a simple, comfortable life with friends.

What’s immediately striking about Rimuru as the main character is that he starts off as an average 37-year-old man. He spent his life working hard and appeasing his higher-ups to climb the corporate ladder. Shady hard drive aside, he lived a respectable and long life compared to the vast majority of protagonists in the genre. This significant age difference is evident in nearly every action and major decision Rimuru makes; he looks at situations practically before jumping headfirst into conflict.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

When Rimuru gets a drink poured on him by a noble in a bar, for instance, he quells his anger in consideration of the bar and the friends around him. When someone asks for his aid in an impending battle, he pauses to go over all the available information and reaches a consensus among everyone before agreeing. And when protecting a goblin village from a pack of wolves, he doesn’t just mindlessly slaughter all the wolves; he looks for the way of least resistance (killing the leader of the pack) before ultimately integrating them with the goblins as equals. Though his human form looks young, it’s the wisdom behind his actions that makes those around him respect his leadership.

This is especially impressive considering just how overpowered Rimuru is. His transformation into a slime came with resistances to fire, cold, electric currents, pain, paralysis, and the ability to absorb, analyze, and take the form of anything he wants. In other words, he could go down the path of the typical shounen protagonist and solve his problems with his fists, but he never lets his overwhelming power dictate his decision-making process.

Rimuru meeting with his commanders.

Leading a Nation

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as much about Rimuru’s adventures as it is about the rise of the independent monster nation he helps establish. Instead of running off in search of adventure, the little slime decides to nurture the goblin village he protected at the outset. He helps the goblins and wolves “level up” by naming them, shows them sustainable ways to gather food and build makeshift defenses, and even brings back dwarves to introduce blacksmithing and carpentry.

Through expansion, industrialization, and conflict, Rimuru manages to orchestrate the creation of his country in a way that’s genuinely believable. His ambitions for a peaceful and integrated world play out in his willingness to accept other goblin tribes, ogres, lizardmen, and even friendly humans in his country. Being able to rationally read situations makes forging alliances and negotiating with neighboring nations possible. When a major calamity threatens all life in the forest, Rimuru wastes no time in holding a summit and allying with other forest dwellers over a common interest.

None of this would be possible without the uncanny, Luffy-like ability to inspire a sense of trust and reliability in those he comes across. Just like the members of the Straw Hat Pirates follow Luffy out of respect and loyalty, Rimuru’s commanders follow him because of his sound judgment and dedication to seeing everyone in his nation be happy. It’s satisfying seeing members of Rimuru’s guard take personal offense when others talk poorly of him because it’s clear that he’s earned the respect he’s given.

If isekai is to continue growing in popularity and thriving long-term, room must be made for different types of protagonists. Be they depraved, refreshingly honest characters like Kazuma or upstanding yet easygoing leaders like Rimuru, both demonstrate how valuable it is to shake up the formula and try new approaches to the genre. If the constant barrage of isekai has bittered your tolerance to it as a whole, That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime is well worth giving a shot.

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Anime Ichiban 23: New Decade, Same Questionable Tastes

Hatsune Miku at Coachella? Mangadex getting targeted for legal issues? People defending OreImo? 2020 is off to a crazy start!

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Welcome to 2020, Anime Ichiban listeners!

Lots of things have happened in the past few weeks, not the least of which is Hatsune Miku making her Coachella debut. After catching up on industry news, we take a look back at some of our more questionable choices in anime and how on earth we manage to defend them.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introduction and what we’ve been playing
17:46 – Hatsune Miku to Perform at Coachella
25:29 – Crunchyroll’s “Most Watched Shows of the Decade”
30:03 – Funimation’s Popularity Awards
38:13 – Wages in the Japanese Animation Industry
45:38 – Miki Yoshikawa’s New, Fan-Picked Serialization
47:08 – Legal Trouble Brewing for Mangadex
57:02 – Highest Grossing Domestic Anime Films for Japan in 2019
59:33 – What shows surprised us and which ones do we struggle to defend?

TRACKS

Intro – “Dream X Scramble!” by Airi (Keijo!!!!!!!! OP)
Outro – “Lucky☆Orb feat. Hatsune Miku” by emon(Tes.)

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