Recently, I was asked what I think the best ‘written’ anime of the year is, as they were looking for potential nominations for their Best of 2019 post. Personally, I’m not sure I would use such a vague descriptor as ‘written’, but that’s irrelevant: my mind instantly jumped to Boogiepop wa Warawanai. It clicked me for instantly. I began typing out a response, mentioning the show’s cryptic but powerful emotional beats. No, I did not describe it as the best anime of the year (giving it a reasonable, though in context, disappointing 8/10), but I was in awe of what I considered to be its ‘written’ portion. I assumed that to be something to do with narrative construction or relatability or philosophic musings. But that mindset is harmful; it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the comedy genre, preventing almost all of its entries, irregardless of how much they resonate with audiences, from being eligible for awards and the highest praise.
As I began to dig deeper in what I felt was the show with the best dialogue, thankfully, I was saved from my own hypocrisy as I came to suggest Tejina-senpai, whose sharp, witty or silly retorts had me consistently giggling. But I confess, I am no stranger to this mindset, as I have filled most of the favourite’s top slots with dramas and epics and other classically ‘good’ genres. Perhaps this is because the comedy genre was forever changed for me since I saw the (live action) 1980 movie, Airplane, whose jokes spread the spectrum from shockingly random to eyebrow raising wit, and contributed to sore ribs from over-laughter, or a similar effect felt by (live action) The Fast Show and its sheer rapidity of skits. Perhaps it’s also because of this unconscious bias to select against comedies, a mindset that permeates throughout every fictional or non-fictional critical atmosphere – from the amateur online discussions, right to the top.
But, let’s take it back to the source: what ideas contribute to this idea that comedies are somehow worth less than other genres? Why is the critical landscape so toxic towards comedies? I am by no means an expert, but I have pondered this idea for a long time.
‘Comedy is subjective’
This is a common excuse I hear. ‘Comedy is subjective’, they say, tongue-tying themselves with invisible binds; everything is subjective in criticism, save for a few technical angles. As much as I want to ridicule the mindset, I do understand where it’s coming from. Sort-of.
Comedy has so many different variants. What makes one person laugh could be seen as cruel by another, and there can be juvenile jokes, loud jokes, slapstick, wordplay or puns, wit, sarcasm, parody, mocking, satire… there are hundreds upon thousands of different types of gags, and I do understand that one is unlikely to be privy to all.
But, then again, is the same not true for other genres? My mother will flat-out refuse to watch anything with a torture scene, whilst my father needs to be bribed to see a family movie. In a truly unbiased world, this wouldn’t be an issue, and it usually isn’t in the critical field, as most professionals are willing to engage with a show fairly before saying that classic phrase that ruins credibility in the field: ‘it’s not for me’. It’s our job, as critics, to give everything the fairest chance, irregardless of subjective favouring. The paradigm of criticism is to be impartial whilst crafting an opinion. Comedy should be no different.
‘It’s only a comedy; it only makes you laugh’
This is yet another phrase I see. There’s several ideas to unpick here, so let’s number the implications and tackle them in order.
1. It’s easier to elicit a laugh than other emotions
I must admit, I’ll laugh at anything. Recent meme culture has been so bad for my diaphragm, as a simple scroll through the usual sites will crease me up. Hands held high, that’s me; it doesn’t take much to make me laugh. However, let’s go back and analyse just how much can potentially go into a joke.
Timing. Timing is one of the most important aspects of a joke. Get it right, and even the most unfunny, offensive joke can turn a scene around. I always like to reference (another live action movie) The Handmaiden, which features one of the leads attempting to hang herself, only for the other lead to catch her, which sets up a nearly 5 minute, heart-breaking soul-search; the outcome of which has so much gusto spread around, and the woman holding the other up runs off to begin enacting the plan whilst the other begins choking. It’s fast, it’s brief, it’s bleak, and it hits you at the height of an emotion to set the next scene in motion, and because of the timing, it’s one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever come across. If this scene wasn’t so calculated, the whole movie could have faltered into a jarring mess, with the touching heart-to-heart undermined or the following scene unable to pull back from the blunder. But it actually functions as a key reminder that these women are human, first and foremost. Admittedly, that movie isn’t a comedy, but the argument still stands.
Of course, that feeds into a developmental issue, which I’ve discussed before in the space of comedy. Some gags aren’t needed, no, and some can shift the perception of a character, for example, from nice and relatable to cruel and mean. This has happened in many anime I’ve seen, such as Sasameki Koto or Mahoutsukai no Yome, where brief light-hearted sequences can add a factor to a character that the rest of the narrative has never once upheld, never will do again, and only causes dissonance.
What I’m saying is that making people laugh is not easy, let alone doing it consistently as in the comedy genre, and the suggestion that comedy is somehow easier than other genres is usually more of a self-reflection. A lot can go into writing and audiovisually producing jokes, and whilst it sometimes seems like only a small amount of effort produced a huge outcome, it is likely the work of the overall tone, the overall pace, the overall placement and many other invisible factors that haven’t been considered.
And, even beyond that, the worth of a joke is in its sticking power. A joke might not make you laugh as hard, but you may just find yourself remembering its wit or its importance more than a joke that produces more of a effect. This leads into my second point –
2. A few laughs are worth less than other emotions
The usual go-to physical reaction that amateur critics love to discuss is crying. ‘This anime made me cry, man!’ I say man very purposefully in this instance, because I sometimes wonder how much the mindset overlaps with elements of ‘toxic masculinity’, where traditional critical audiences, who have classically been men, would desperately try and hold in the tears, unconsciously or not, lest their manhood be denounced for ‘men don’t cry’. Of course, that’s just a hypothesis, and this is far away from comic tones yet, but I’ve always put a lot of stock in the argument.
Yes, crying is an outburst that you may not forget, particularly if you cry infrequently. However, I don’t mean to undersell the physical reaction or any emotions you might have tied to it, but I don’t consider a show forcing crying to be any less independent of the show’s overall craft than laughter.
Get your cello player in rubato time, and let them descend from the dominant ever so painfully, and you might just have your audience tearing up. If that’s not enough, dim the lights and hold a single flame, preferably with the gentle crackling underlying the score. Still not enough? Do that when you’ve just killed off a cute character – and it has to be cute! – with some characters ugly crying.
Just like laugh tracks or yawns have a psychological push, getting you to join in, crying has many other ‘cues’ that can be utilised. That doesn’t change the fact that a lot of craft must go into it, and you’ve still got to consider the effect of timing and all the other jazz in wondering how impactful a physiological reaction is.
I’ve cried at shows or movies I’ve rated pretty lowly. My earlier hypothesis is interesting to bring up, because female-demographic YA, sometimes dubbed as ‘chick lit trash’, can often be the tearjerker type, and its perceived quality is often irrespective whether it is successful as tearjerking. Certainly makes you think.
3. Comedy is a one-dimensional genre focused only on laughs
It’s finally time to bring up why all the images I’ve posted thus far have been from Shirobako. No, it’s not just because it’s amongst my favourite all-time anime, a feat that will likely only be accentuated when I rewatch it and see the movie and actually learn more than a handful of the cast’s names. It’s actually because much of what I’m saying here is mirrored in Shirobako’s perception and construction.
Shirobako is rarely called a ‘comedy’ by its fans, more often being labelled with terms like ‘drama’ and being more renowned for its workplace atmosphere. I want to say that I don’t know why, because it’s cracking jokes for the sheer majority of its runtime with hard-hitting force. But the sad thing is that I do know why: what stuck with audiences most is the small dramatic portion, which was only a subplot in the larger scheme of things, but made us bawl all the same.
I suppose, then, that Shirobako is evidence that the genre is not only focused on laughs. However, it is also evidence – perhaps because of priorly discussed undervaluing of comic material – that the undervaluing of the comedy genre is a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby fans label genre by what they remember moreso than by what the lion’s share of duration likely dictates. There are many more examples of series or movies that focus largely on laughs, but will feature a more serious tone in their climax and thus have ‘comedy’ as their primary genre scrubbed out.
It doesn’t have to be serious, mind you. Some comedies will keep hitting the laughs from start-to-finish whilst employing an increasingly biting level of satire, for example. Genres have lines between them and that’s fine, but it’s important to remind ourselves that comedy is still a genre that can do impressive things, even outside of just laughter. And even if it doesn’t, is that so bad?
It’s coming up to that part of the year where we start thinking about the best anime of the year. I can’t think of a better time to throw that reminder out there – comedy is good, too. It’s important that we don’t get bogged down with the relatively extraneous things that a comedy does when praising it as one of the better shows of the year, and instead simply admit that it’s good on the behest of its humour.
Of course, there might not be any strong comedies. But is that related to the genre? Are we not in a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby strong comedies are less likely to exist only because they’re less likely to be praised?