Perhaps “Explaining the Joke” in Anime Isn’t Really Explaining the Joke

I sometimes see people ask why so often characters in a comedy anime will explain a joke after it’s happened, as the idea of doing so is, at least in English, considered a sure-fire way to kill any and all humor (I call it the Jay Leno Effect). I’ve been doing a bit of reading about Japanese humor recently though, and based on it I think I have a better understanding of why this happens.

Japanese social interactions are loosely governed by two concepts: “honne,” or one’s true feelings, and “tatemae,” what one displays outwards to the public. While I think it’s a mistake to put too much stock into this distinction (believing Japanese people cannot express themselves is sort of ridiculous), the explanation I’ve read is that honne and tatemae are central to certain types of Japanese humor, particularly manzai comedy. In manzai, the idea of having the boke (fool) and the tsukkomi (straight-man) is that the boke does something or says something ridiculous, and the tsukkomi responds with a sharp retort and/or a wack in order to correct the boke.

When it comes to anime, I think that actually when another character “explains the joke,” it’s not to tell the audience in case they didn’t understand. The idea is that something so unbelievable just happened that, rather than letting it slide and preserving the situation (tatemae), the person feels compelled to express his or her true feelings about it (honne). Essentially, the act of explaining the joke is part of the humor itself, as it essentially shows how the event was so jarring or absurd that the character had no choice but to tell it like it is. Sometimes you see characters in anime do this silently, taking advantage of the fact that the format allows us to be privy to their inner thoughts.

Of course, not all jokes can be explained by this, and in fact I’ve also read that some Japanese humor is about being able to create laughter on the inside without it spilling outside, which might explain certain slice of life humor like Hidamari Sketch and Yotsuba&! and the like. That said, I find myself laughing out loud at both of those titles pretty often, so who knows.

Love Live! is Like a Golden Age Sitcom

It’s kind of a curious experience watching Love Live! School Idol Project because the more I see, the less the “idol” aspect matters to me. Sure, the songs are catchy and the dance sequences can be quite fun, but I find that it’s actually the show’s sense of humor that really stands out for me.

There are many different ways in which anime does comedy. There’s the slice-of-lifey approach of K-On! or Hidamari Sketch, where the idle moments provide grounds for chuckles. There’s the wild and wacky form of something like gdgd Fairies or Sakigake!! Cromartie High School, featuring one absurdity after the other. In many cases, the characters themselves are not only important to the jokes, but the jokes are subordinate to showing off the characters and how crazy/cute/sexy/rad they are. Love Live!, especially its second season, often feels closer to a classic sitcom than a typical gag anime.

Episode 7 of Season 2 is probably the best example of this so far. When Hanayo is happily chowing down on her over-sized onigiri as Honoka complains about her diet, there’s both the humor of Hanayo inadvertently rubbing it in and the humor of Hanayo’s increasing hubris leading to her inevitable downfall (carbs, man). Later in the episode (10 minutes, 30 seconds), Honoka and Hanayo are jogging when they come across a restaurant. The sight gags and the way they communicate with only excited grunts reminds me of an I Love Lucy skit like the chocolate factory, or maybe something from The Honeymooners. There’s even sort of a similarity between Yazawa Nico and Ralph Cramden.

That’s not to say that the characters are not a focus of the anime, as it is in the end a show about idols designed to have you become a fan and buy all of their merchandise. Despite their looks, however, I often find that the humor isn’t simply about “moe” even when it comes to highlighting their personalities, or if starts out that way then it becomes something else over time. Hanayo, who I describe as “a G Gundam character with the volume turned down to 10%,” essentially has a soft scream that sets up or supports a lot of the jokes in the show. Perhaps the most prominent example of the show doing more with its characters is Sonoda Umi, who in Season 1 is sort of an Akiyama Mio from K-On! type—a cool-looking and responsible girl who is easily embarrassed and writes cute lyrics. However, while she retains those elements to a degree in Season 2, she also begins to show a kind of hilarious intensity that is best summed up by the gif below.

umi-angryface

Another aspect that works in the show’s favor is that it will sometimes take episodes to set up a joke and reward those who’ve been paying attention. In Season 1, it’s when they get a club room (or something, my memory’s still a little shaky), and you can see Hanayo just casually using a rice cooker in there. It’s not the focus of the scene, and no one really makes mention of it, but then when they have their training camp, you see the fact that Hanayo has this gigantic bowl of rice piled so high that it looks like a snowy mountain. When someone finally asks about it, Hanayo’s rsponse (“Don’t let it bother you”) comes and goes so quickly in part due to her soft, high-pitched voice that somehow it just gets funnier.

In Season 2, episode 1 shows Honoka yelling at the sky to stop raining. When rays of sunshine start peaking through the clouds, we’re supposed to think of it as Honoka showing that people can do anything if they set their hearts on it, an inspirational moment for the characters. However, a few episodes later Honoka, Umi, and Kotori get trapped in Okinawa because of a typhoon, and as the weather gets increasingly bleak, we can see Honoka trying to stop the weather again, only this time to no avail. I actually think that little moment in the first episode was partly done to pave the way for this punchline a little down the road.

I find that humorous anime tend to attract a particular audience because it isn’t quite the same as what you’d find on television, and the fact that Love Live! often veers towards the latter may either be a welcome aspect or the very thing that they ran away from when they discovered anime in the first place. The “idol” aspect may also be a turn-off for some, as the concept implies a certain desired level of maniacal devotion, even more than other anime that rely on the charm of its female cast. With Love Live!, however, there’s some real meat to the comedy, utilizing the characters’ personalities but not being solely in service to them.

By the way, my Love Live! top 3 are Hanayo > Nico > Nozomi. 4th is actually A-Rise lead Kira Tsubasa.

Dairy Influences: A Personal Look At “The Far Side”

In his latest comic, the author of Gunshow Comic pays tribute to cartoonist Gary Larson (while also making a reference to his own series, The Anime Club, which I talked about previously). The Larson style was instantly recognizable to me, as I am actually a long-time fan of his classic one-panel newspaper comic The Far Side. Seeing this parody of the man’s work, it makes me want to reflect on the influence that his surreal humor had on me and my development in art and life.

Long before I could even really call myself an “anime fan,” I was a fan of The Far Side, calling it “my favorite comic” for years, and to this day I consider it to be the very best one-panel-style strip in history. For those unfamiliar with it, The Far Side was typically a single-panel (though it would sometimes split itself into two or more), and would be a mix of suburban stereotypes and off-kilter humor that took normal situations and twisted them just enough so that the mild absurdity would be magnified ten-fold. The comic also often featured humor based on biology, a direct consequence of Gary Larson himself being a biologist as well as a cartoonist, and while it had no real recurring “characters,” it did have a number of iconic designs and stylistic flairs. Bespectacled pudgy boys and their bee’s nest hairstyle mothers, animals standing and talking like people (particularly cows), and a tendency to have bulging eyes be an attention grabber were all common sights The Far Side. In a way, it was like a precursor to the Perry Bible Fellowship.

I would provide an example image, but Gary Larson has personally wrote letters asking everyone to not post his comics online, and while not 100% perfect it has worked surprisingly well. And so, even though I know that explaining a joke inevitably ruins it (as author Stephen King demonstrated in his foreword to The Far Side Gallery 2), I’m going to try so that you can understand Gary Larson’s style of humor.

The comic is situated in the backseat of a car, behind the driver. The driver is staring into his side-view mirror, and as is the case with all side-view mirrors, there is text to inform the driver that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The object in the mirror, meanwhile, is an eyeball taking up the entire surface of the mirror. In other words, the object reflected is your eye staring into the comic’s panel (Again I apologize for my humor assassination).

So what did The Far Side do to me? When I first discovered it either fourth or fifth grade, I already loved to draw, but Gary Larson’s comic made me love art even more. It gave me a role model in art to look up to, and it gave me a direction to take in my drawing. I started actively trying to make things that would be seen as “crazy.” I created my own Far Side-style comic, called My Biz and also Crash and Bash Land, about horrible rides in an imaginary amusement park whose themes were violence and abuse of its customers. Both were as good as you’d expect a 10 year old’s attempts at Far Side knockoffs would be. Even after I discovered anime and became a “fan,” I held in my heart two dreams, to draw a full-fledged story comic like my favorite manga, and to create a humor comic that would appear in newspapers.

Today, though I no longer aspire to draw my own absurdist newspaper strip, I can see that Gary Larson had an enormous influence on my sense of humor, and for that I am ever so grateful, though my peers who have seen my brand of comedy in action may be inclined to disagree. You can even see The Far Side‘s effects on at least some of the drawings I have posted to Ogiue Maniax. And though I can’t tell you for certain, I think The Far Side probably even influenced my writing style through its combination of simplicity and eccentricity where even those who weren’t enthusiasts of biology could find a laugh or two.