It took three series and countless Super Robot Wars games before I really came to like Full Metal Panic; it was always a series where the core conceit, a sort of high school anime Kindergarten Cop story about a super-genius schoolgirl being protected varyingly competently by a team of commandos never really gelled with me, where the mech combat didn’t quite work and the juxtaposition of humour and serious action was a little disorienting. Yet there was enough there – the all-comedic second series Fumoffu, with its excellent film parodies including The A-Team, Full Metal Jacket and more, fights like the city fight against the invincible yet unstable Behemoth and the climax of series 1, with charismatic and utterly monstrous villain Gauron apparently having won – to make me convinced it was not a bad series, just an uneven one.
A recent discussion online about The Slayers, an anime I quite enjoy, put it in a slightly different context; I had forgotten, as the person I was reading said I most likely had, the amount of dull “demon politics” and worldbuilding that intersperses the great visual humour and fantasy parody. It does have quite a lot of this, and the most memorable parts – the very bizarre and slapstick fantasy jokes – are less common than I remembered.
This story is my effort to try and be what I remembered The Slayers being – a quite silly story of a bad day for a classic fantasy hero escalating out of control. Indeed its villain is a character I find recurs in my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns – a one-note miniboss who began as a shameless ripoff of Lina Inverse and who has become something a little more.
This was a difficult story to begin writing, because I had so many ideas for it and it was so difficult to condense them into a piece of short fiction. Initially there were going to be a whole squadron of pilots and it was going to be a fun caper about some soldiers trying to throw a surprise party for their captain – elements of Full Metal Panic and Patlabor perhaps. The protagonist was going to be a slightly too serious bridge officer called Hitomi, and it was going to be a farce. The problem was I couldn’t write a caper story as funny as Butch Minds the Baby and I couldn’t hit a suitably easygoing tone without it seeming smug.
Then I decided I quite liked some of the supporting cast more, and there was going to be a Super Robot Wars-esque story about the pilots alone, with the brash, Excellen Browning-like character constantly annoying her wingman. That didn’t go anywhere either.
Then I hit on the characters I really liked from the original idea – a well-meaning but slightly intimidating ace pilot, and a very nervous copilot. I downplayed the initial plan for heartwarming cuteness and focused more on a genre parody drawing on Godannar, Gunbuster and similar super-robot stories. The narrative voice ended up more akin to The Stainless Steel Rat, and this was the result. Also included is a picture, drawn by a sadly anonymous artist, of the two main characters of the story – its style, very muscular and pin-up like, somewhat informed the tone.
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.
Fish-out-of-water comedies – the city man in the countryside, the country yokel in the big city and any number of other examples – all focus on someone who has been brought up strongly within one society ending up trying to fit into a very different one. They generally gently mock the displaced person by showing how they do not fit in, and often resent the need to fit in, and simultaneously poke fun at the new society they are disrupting. All generally ends with one party or the other changing their ways to pick up the best of the disruptive influence; the stuck-up city folk will learn some homespun country wisdom, or the stressed-out professional will learn to relax. A good example in recent animé was Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro; its protagonist was a single-minded idiot with a heart of gold who gradually learned to put his violent and blinkered thinking to good use in mentoring an inept trainee sumo-wrestler. He took the consequences of his actions (a pleasant change from some series with violent anti-heroes where their escaping justice is just another quirky facet of their character)
One of the most memorable things in ZZ Gundam is the character of Haman Karn, the series’ ultimate villain and a character who was introduced in its predecessor, Zeta Gundam. As the leader of the enemy forces of Axis, she is the orchestrator of all the conflict that takes place throughout the series, and her character serves as a distinctively threatening “true” villain in a series otherwise filled with minimally threatening comic figures. A key part of her presence on screen is the hugely entertaining energy with which voice actor Yoshiko Sakakibara plays the role – a theatrical, over-the-top performance that suits the often extremely silly action of ZZ as well as being a suitably menacing femme fatale when needed. Yet while Haman is a memorable character, and certainly one of the memories a viewer of ZZ will take away from the series, her role in the series itself is ultimately one of its weaker points.
There are a large number of attempts at light-hearted mecha animé; comedy and the ridiculous, in some form, has generally been a part of the genre from the beginning. Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa’s mecha manga which would in turn be adapted for animé – Mazinger Z and Getter Robo, two foundations of the genre – are frequently absurd, darkly comic and violent, while their animated forms toned some of the extremes down and added less grotesque humour. While such series were not specifically comedy animé or parodies, they nevertheless accepted that the genre – aimed for younger audiences – could be funny. This continued through series like Daitarn 3, which is filled with absurd scenes and strange villains – and if anything was already acknowledged, in a fashion, by Zambot 3 removing the punchlines from the expected comic violence to make it real.
There is much to like about 2014 animé Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro; its first episode is a frenetically-paced, rude comedy about an immature lout leaving a trail of wreckage behind him as he chases his childish goals, which ends, reassuringly, with the authorities catching up to his procession of crimes. There is not specifically a moral to this beyond “don’t commit crimes” – that he is ultimately held accountable for all his mistakes is punchline enough. The opening recap of the second episode makes this very clear – it calls the protagonist a lout, pathetic and criticises him for “doing what he wants, when he wants.” As a comic setup, this works; the humour is in how the rest of the world, people trying to get by in what is implied to be a fairly poor town, deal with a local bumpkin who causes mayhem because he is, apparently, bored.
ZZ Gundam is the third part of the trilogy of Gundam television series that form the core of the Universal Century timeline – each follows chronologically on from the next and, through different pervading dramatic tones used in each entry, the trilogy has a strong sense of character progression among those characters which recur. ZZ is sometimes criticised for being too light-hearted and inconsistent with previous works – it marks a significant departure from the often cynical seriousness of Zeta Gundam and at the same time is a very different kind of light-hearted story to the surreal, resolutely 1970s animé, Mobile Suit Gundam. It is at first far more reliant on simple physical humour – clumsiness, visual jokes and general slapstick scenes – than most Gundam animé, far more visually a cartoon in its use of the animation medium to go from exaggerated visuals to detailed sci-fi stills.
Note: The subsequent article will contain some plot details for Zeta Gundam
From the start, Majestic Prince has established itself as sitting somewhere between homage and parody; it is a comedy aware of the genre it is mocking but not specifically referential, instead relying on the viewer’s familiarity with how it differs from expectations. Throughout its opening episodes this came from its apparent rejection of combat; the protagonists were set out as being inept but eager to improve, and the emphasis has been on their aim to become competent pilots and be the “heroes” they are framed as.