Comedy is hard. To date, I haven’t talked much about anime comedies, for a couple of reasons. First, and most important, in my experience they are much more of a subjective experience in terms of quality. There are shows that inexplicably “click” with me, comedy-wise, that leave others baffled, and vice versa. That makes recommendations, or preparing a best-of list, a tricky business.
Second, a lot of comedies — at least the sort that I like — depend fairly heavily on Japanese cultural and language knowledge. Shows like Lucky Star, for example, are only funny if you understand where the jokes and parodies are coming from, and thus are not particularly suited for a non-otaku audience.
Other brands of comedy, though, cross through cultural boundaries more easily. Here are a couple that I think are worth a look, even if you’re not steeped in anime fandom.
The English title for this one is just “Hare+Guu”, without even attempting a translation. This is probably for the best, since the title is a pun. It means something like “The jungle was always sunny (haré) before Guu”, where Hare (ha-reh, not hair) and Guu are the names of the main characters.
The plot, so to speak, goes something like this. Hare lives in “the jungle”, which is a place full of trees and grass huts where everyone nevertheless has electricity, video games, and so on, and goes to an ordinary Japanese-style school. (Although they live alongside bizarre, apparently sentient long-eared creatures that they eats as snacks.) Into this utopia comes a girl named Guu, who moves in Hare and his mother.
Guu turns out to be sort of a cross between a laconic, dead-eyed schoolgirl and a Lovecraftian Elder God. She has various inexplicable powers, including the ability to swallow people whole, which sends them to a trippy alternate dimension that she apparently contains. Most of the time, Hare is the only one who notices anything off about this, so the humor of the show revolves around him trying to protect his oblivious school friends, his mother, and other villagers from the bizarre whims of the strange creature.
It’s a pretty bizarre premise, for what turns out to be a pretty bizarre show. Hare’s increasingly frantic attempts to a) get other people notice that something is wrong with Guu and b) get Guu to spit out whoever she has recently swallowed combine with the general weirdness of the setting to good comic effect. The secondary characters add to the strangeness, too. (I like the village chief, who wears a giant tuft of prosthetic chest chair.)The first season’s worth is solidly funny, though for me they start to strain for gags in the second season. Overall, if patently absurd comedy appeals to you, it’s worth a look!
Nichijou means “everyday”, as in “everyday life” or “everyday situations”. In keeping with that, the anime has no ongoing plot whatsoever, even inside a single episode. Instead, it’s a series of strange situations or conversations that get stranger as they go along, strung together by odd running gags.
I’m actually have trouble explaining Nichijou, because when I boil it down there’s not all that much to it. On one hand, we have three girls in high school, and we deal with the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. On the other hand, we have a robot named Nano, who seems perfectly human except for a winding key sticking out of her back, who lives with her inventor, and eight-year-old genius named Hakase (“professor”) and a talking cat. Hakase makes Nano’s life difficult by building various robotic features into her that she doesn’t actually want, like rocket-propelled punches and integral Nerf weaponry.
Unlike in Hare+Guu, though, the majority of the humor in Nichijou doesn’t derive from intrinsically absurd situations, although there is a fair bit of that as well. At its best, it plays with animation conventions and styles, often dressing up the everyday in hyper-melodramatic, exaggerated animation. (One awesome sequence, for example, is a couple of characters fumbling in dramatic slow motion to catch a weiner before it hits the ground.) There are long shaggy dog stories, giant explosions for no reason, and a girl who gets flustered in front of her beloved and blasts him to pieces (in each episode) with increasingly high-powered weaponry. If you’ve ever had the idle fantasy that normal life could turn into an awesome action montage or DBZ-style staredown at the drop of a hat, this is a show you might like.
It requires less cultural knowledge than you might think, but some familiarity with the basic tropes of anime is probably helpful here. You don’t have to be an expert by any means, but if you don’t knows the essential conventions of shounen action shows, shoujo dramas, etc, you might miss some of the humor.
This excellent music video may give you some idea of what to expect.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.