Further to an online conversation about the virtues of Barakamon, an interesting point was drawn to my attention about a similarly-themed (in certain ways) comedy animé airing at a similar time; Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. Nozaki is about a girl who ends up forming an eccentric friendship with the artist of her favourite comic, a young man employed writing girls’ romance stories despite his crippling lack of knowledge of the subject (and, as the series suggests, talent outside of certain very limited spheres). It is a comedy about art and artists – as, ultimately, Barakamon is. The humour comes from the clashing of artistic temperaments and thought processes with a less whimsical outside world – in many ways it is even a fish-out-of-water comedy, as Nozaki is ill-suited to the world of girls’ fiction, and Chiyo is unsuited to the artistic, high-stress world of comics-writing.
The comedy of Nozaki-kun is referential in a metatextual, as well as a contextual, way. It parodies a genre’s cliches through references to generic scenes as much as specific ones, and this kind of genre-savviness is refreshing; by setting its core character motivations as related to a generic pastiche of a specific genre of fiction, it sets its sights on that genre, not any specific work within it. To put this in another context, it would be the equivalent of a broad, scattershot mecha animé parody in a series over a very specific joke about Gundam. In this way, without the need to constantly reference a specific work, it can comment on a wide range of topics – the cliches of the genre itself, the mindset of those who create it (and their intentions) and the responses and reasons for reading of the target audience. Chiyo is the archetypal audience for romance comics, and Nozaki is the atypical creator – and the humour comes from how the creator is so unsuited to his role. Nozaki is constantly asking for advice to inspire his work because he is so distant from his audience – advice which the comics-mad Chiyo is happy to give him – but the result is a constant kind of cycle of introspection where comic plots are inspired by the thought processes of the audience. Several times, Nozaki tries to seek real life inspiration with often disastrous consequences – and here the other half of the humour emerges.
Scenes such as Chiyo and Nozaki trying unsuccessfully to share a bicycle in a recreation of a romantic scene from a comic, or a humorous sequence involving a shared umbrella, show the distance between the idealism of romance stories and reality; life is awkward, physical and incompatible in ways that fiction is not. This is what is meant by a kind of metatextual humour; the jokes happen to be about girls’ shoujo romances but are as much about the incompatibility of real life and fiction. As other characters – the charming yet irritating and hopeless Kashima, and the utterly insufferable Seo – are introduced, archetypes are being deflated with real life. Characters who would be unbelievably memorable in fiction – the stylish, suave tomboy who is desired by all her peers and the abrasive comic relief character who pokes fun at everyone – are shown to simply be very annoying to those trying to get anything done of importance and various techniques of romance-story courtship are shown to have little effect – or be completely misconstrued – by the boys being courted. In fact it is this that is perhaps the ultimate metatextual joke about shoujo; all the women of Nozaki-kun are actively pursuing men using the techniques of romance stories that generally have men courting women.
A shoujo heroine almost exists, in a series like Dear Brother, to be courted and try and be desirable; drama comes from transgressive women who stand in the way of heterosexual love or reject it, and who want to see the protagonist not receive the attentions of her object of desire. It is a strange relationship that is presented as romantic and desirable; the woman must demonstrate, in subtle fashion, that she would like to have someone interested in her without explicitly pursuing him in overt romantic terms. It is something of an inversion of the unattainable maiden of medieval romance; those focused on a man admiring from a distance a desirable, yet untouchable woman and turning her into an ideal. The shoujo heroine has a man who is by nature distant (generally through societal reasons) and who she wishes to bring closer. Pursuing an open romance is socially unviable, in most cases, and so she must attract his attention and let him put two and two together to realise she wants him to initiate a relationship. Nozaki-kun has its women actively going out and using the pressurising strategies of romance fiction to try and gain male attention, and the men in question being unable to cope with strong women who would be comic punchlines in their fiction. That they are being inspired by what a hapless man believes is the correct way to depict young womens’ lives is the ultimate punchline; men are, in this series, writing fiction for women that is being taken as something aspirational and desirable, but do not like it when their characters are used as role models.
Thus on a referential level, Nozaki is something beyond a simple pastiche; it is a story not so much solely mocking a genre with something of a reputation for being absurd but instead showing how foolish using fiction as a basis for real life actually is. There is, though, another side to its theming; it is a story about artists’ lives and the process of creating art. Barakamon is a comedy about the artistic temperament; it focuses on a single artist living in isolation to try and restore his creativity and come to terms with his shortcomings on his own terms. The implication is that art is something personal, something that can only be improved by self-discovery, albeit self-discovery through the vehicle of other people offering advice. Handa is given the advice he needs to improve his art, but his process of improvement is a personal change. Nozaki-kun is a story about art being a collaborative process; its field, cartooning, is very different to exhibition calligraphy – being more directly business-focused and commercial, so to speak. Yet it is still an imaginative and creative field, and still shown to be something that its creators care about. What the series does is show how important – in this medium, anyway – everyone being good at something specific is. Nozaki is shown to be an amusingly bad artist in terms of basic drawing, but very good at the work he does with backgrounds and settings. He is part of a team, all of whom are introduced throughout the series, and although he is the protagonist in the comic skits about his search for inspiration, when the series handles his art – and the process of professional cartooning – it is always as a team. This art is not a selfish, solitary pursuit; it is a creative process that needs everyone to do their part, and this is a good message for Nozaki-kun to present.
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is on the surface a very silly slapstick comedy, the perfect light relief to watch filled with larger-than-life characters and comic reaction faces. For a series about how cartoons and comics shape the lives of those who create and read them, its visuals are very cartoonish and exaggerated. Yet considering the implications of its choices of pastiche – of how the focus of its pastiche and parody are on how art imitates life, and how it more frequently does not – it becomes a kind of kind-hearted commentary on what romance fiction means to its readers. Chiyo dearly loves Nozaki’s works – even if her friendship with him deflates all her romantic ideals and beliefs that the fictional world could be like the real one. Nozaki is constantly seeking realistic inspiration for his works and ending up simply being fantastical because from his perspective the idiosyncrasies and irritations of modern life are unrealistic and weirder than the almost formulaic fiction he produces. And, most of all, perhaps, it is a story about three women – all of whom do not conform to any particularly “heroine”-esque traits – pursuing men with a vigour that romance fiction does not offer, and men – men employed in the production of media that girls idolise – not being prepared for this.