A glance at anime since summer of 2011 reveals a world of colour. A myriad of shows, all distinct by various facets of their creation, whether they be art style, synopsis, or even the people behind it. Given this great variety, it’s only natural that we’ve created systems of classification for them, understood as genres. However, often a show fails to fall under a single genre, instead possessing the signs of several. When you take a look at every show, two genres emerge as the most plentiful: romance and comedy. Something strikes us as odd. While the romantic drama or the sci-fi anime may have a continuous plot, it is exceedingly rare to rind a continuous plot in a comedy. Instead, anime comedies tend to be episodic in nature. Why is this?
Let’s first briefly define and delimit two terms which are central to the understanding of this phenomenon. Firstly, “episodic.” This can be a somewhat misleading term, given that anime itself is episodic. For our purposes, the use will be as in “episodic comedy”, or a series of narratives arranged into separate episodes. Episodes can last over the period of several episodes of anime or several minutes (although this is arguably more scenic than episodic). These episodes are distinguished from arcs – arcs serve a concrete, continuous purpose within the overarching plot, whereas episodes will generally be only tangentially connected, if at all. Secondly, a “plotted comedy.” For lack of a better term, what is meant here is narrative that relies upon its comedic elements for action and advancement through the plot. A plotted comedy contains a single continuous narrative, with a more or less clearly defined goal. Central to the furthering of this understanding is that “episodes” can either be used to denote scenes, multiple airings of a show, or single airing. The majority of episodic comedies in anime are episodic on the scenic level.
Since the summer of 2011 to the present summer of 2012, out of the 24 shows that can justifiably be labelled as comedies (amongst other things), a not unusual observation arises: all of the 24 shows are episodic comedies. A quick survey reveals that there is a great variety in material between each. So what accounts for this nonexistence? Let’s take a look at a currently airing show to and an outlying case to find out.
Perhaps here it becomes necessary to clarify our observation of Binbougami Ga! in particular. It’s noticeable that there are episodic anime with and without plots. Joshiraku is an example of one without: it’s simply the dispersal of comedic moments. Those comedies with plots, however; wouldn’t they qualify as plotted comedies? Beyond the easy way of “well, it’s really just episodic”, we have to dissect idea of genre further to explain. Generally, a show is assigned to the genre with which it places the greatest focus – why Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka is called a comedy rather than a drama, and why Haiyore! Nyaruko-san is called a comedy over a romance. The focus of this exploration however, is of narrative. In all of the 24 shows, what advances the narratives are not elements of the comedy. What advances the overarching plot in Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka is drama, and romance for Nyaruko. In this way, all 24 shows are episodic comedies, although they may be plotted in another genre.
So why Binbougami Ga!? If one were to look at its structure, it becomes apparent that the show is a rare deviation: it is an episodic drama. The comedic elements are very reminiscent of such Western cartoons as Tom & Jerry as well as Wily E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. For Binbougami Ga!, the line between a plotted comedy and an episodic comedy, just like the aforementioned cartoons, is extremely thin. It has the strong potential that if it were to tilt in just the right direction, it could fall into a plotted comedy- the ridiculousness of the whole conflict builds, climaxes, and the denouement begins. Why doesn’t it fall that way?
It is evident that no small part of this is due in some way to the episodic nature of its drama. To put a pin on the matter, the drama-comedy interaction implies a rather problematic situation. Immediately, one recognizes that the drama of each Binbougami Ga! episode feels rather shoehorned, forced into the narrative. The narrative could flow just as well relying solely on its comedic elements; the drama adds nothing to the overarching plot. The problem manifests: how, if character change (which advances the narrative) comes as a result of conflict and increasing pressure, does one incorporate something so serious into a comedy? The show’s (and many other shows’) answer is to force in drama.
What we can extract from Binbougami Ga!’s example is that the creation of a plotted comedy is difficult. On one level, one needs to be capable of building conflict and pressure in situations that are by most likely by their nature ridiculous or simply not inclined to accept comedic elements. There are solutions to this problem, but they require a deft hand at the art to come off plausibly. It wouldn’t be so far off to call the structure of the narrative one huge joke. On another level, and a barrier that the show has yet to reach, is that a comedy isn’t a good comedy unless it makes you laugh. It needs to be funny.
The difficulty of compromising conflict and comedy is not the only reason behind the overwhelming quantity of episodic comedy in anime, as we’ll see with our next examples.
Sengoku Collection 8
Sengoku Collection occupies a special place in my heart. It’s charming beyond my wildest expectations, with the majority of the episodes showing a love and technique for the craft. Amongst all the genre that the show’s episodic format has touched, episode 8 happens to be very relevant to the discussion.
Episode 8 is incredibly complex. The statement goes beyond its various reflections on authorship, existence, meaning, theatre formalism, cross-media integration, and subjectivity. It’s even more than the delightful chemistry between the two starring characters. No, the most complex and perplexing aspect of the episode is the glue that holds all the aforementioned together: its plot. The episode is a comedy, and yet manages all the hallmarks of a classically structured plot. . Yet, despite the difficulty of connecting conflict and comedy mentioned earlier, everything in the episode “just feels right.” The conflict is a ridiculous one, the premise is silly, the character interactions are exaggerated. It all builds up beautifully, and despite the quirkiness, comes off as genuine.
OK now that’s enough of me advertising the show. What’s more important for the discussion are the potential implications behind the structure of the episode. ep8′s status as a whole plotted comedy demonstrates that a plotted comedy is possible, despite its difficulty. It also suggests, in light of some more evidence, that plotted comedies may also be difficult in the format of anime itself: the 13 to 26 episode format. One needs only to observe other cases of episodes of plotted comedy, such as 1-2 and 3-4 in Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita and 16 in Sengoku Collection, to further support this possibility.
Naturally, given that anime itself is episodic, there is an inherent difficulty in making a continuous narrative. This is especially true when you consider that each episode consists of its personal dramatic structure, it’s very own dramatic rising and denouement. Still, while the episodic format lends itself to an episodic comedy and the availability of plotted episodes, it rarely leads to plotted episodes of comedy like the examples above. Rather, episodic comedies continue to use comedy as an extra to fill the gaps left by the narrative. The episodes are assemblages of jokes, not plot.
Best segue ever, right there.
What we’ve identified are two forces acting against the creation of a 13 episode plotted comedy and in favour of the episodic comedy: the incongruent natures of comedy and dramatic structure, and the episodic format of anime airing schedules. If I may add a third, it would be the matter of prestige. Comedy enjoys a lower level of prestige than does drama. This is due to the conception that drama, being the more “serious” matter, requires a greater understanding of human nature and technique to execute. This is not always true, and is a false perception addled by sentimentality. (Especially in the case of melodrama). However, it appears to have taken root in both the audience and creators’ minds. See the immense popularity enjoyed by Neon Genesis Evangelion and Puella Magi Madoka Magica as examples. How many comedies have been lauded as “epic” or “game-changing”? In the anime industry, a largely hit-or-miss market, any artifacts that may draw emotion from the audience, and thus attachment, are likely to act for the benefit of sales. Thus the dependence on drama. The perceived quality of a work is important, and prestige and quality tend to be associated in the mind.
Just some thoughts on the matter, while I get myself back into writing.
Notes on the numbered statements are here.