Why Don't I Find Anime Comedies Funny?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jsphro asks:

I'm a casual anime fan, only watching a small handful of shows a year. One genera I've had always had hard time grasping my enjoyment on is Comedy. Very few anime have ever made me laugh, which I don't know is either the fault on the creators for making something un-funny or the fault of me for not finding it funny or just cultural differences. For instance, I try watching the anime D-Frag and not once did I not laugh. I found most of the jokes unfunny, coming off as something you'd see in a Disney Sitcom, filled with Overly animated Slapstick and Facial reactions, kids calling another an idiot, grotesque use of underage fan service, and just dull. When I think of animated shows that made me really laugh hard, I think of South Park, Rick and Morty, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I would think it's because they deal with more adult situations, as well as featuring cleaver dialog-heavy jokes, unadulterated crude and raunchy humor, and much more. I guess what I'm trying to say is "why can't anime take a note from american animated programs like those you see on adult swim, comedy central, or Fox?"

Humor is a very personal thing. What you find funny is probably quite different from what your parents find funny, and what your friends find funny. Your particular sense of humor just doesn't mesh with most anime. That's fine. It's not that there's something inherently wrong with the anime, or with you. You're just not on the same page.

It happens all the time. For example, if you tried to make me sit through a Rob Schneider comedy, you would have to chain me to a chair, and I would spend the entire movie trying to gnaw off the chained limb. But lots of people find those movies funny. I don't understand why that is, and I've given up trying.

You are far from alone in that most anime comedies don't make you laugh. They don't make me laugh either. Truly rare is the show that can crack me up with any regularity. I know several others who say the same. Plenty of non-Japanese anime fans really love anime comedies, of course. In fact, D-Frag is quite highly rated in our encyclopedia. Shows like Azumanga Daioh and Cromartie High School were big hits 10 years ago. Personally, none of those shows are for me.

While most things in anime, and indeed most Japanese movies and TV shows translate to English and other cultures just fine, humor has always been the hardest to get across. Some of it is just cultural differences. Japanese comedy tends the towards very broad and slapstick, which is no longer fashionable in Western comedy circles. Sometimes it seems like Japanese live action comedy mostly involves slovenly bald guys being konked over the head and very little else.

In terms of actual lingual translation nightmares, the biggest one is puns. Puns make up a generous portion of jokes in Japanese comedies, and might elicit a chuckle or two when viewed in its native language. There is no good way to translate puns.

Here's an example I happen to randomly remember, from Fushigi Yuugi of all things: after two of Miaka's seishi get into a fight, a group journey has devolved into awkward silence. So, she tries to diffuse the tension, by holding up a stick and making a stupid joke. Now, if you were translating this scene, you have a couple of options. First, you can either explain the pun and kill all the humor in the process:

"Look at this stick (sutikku) I found! It's awesome (suteki)!"

...or leave it as incomprehensible raw translation...

"Look at this stick I found! It's awesome!"

...or try and find some equivalent English pun that probably doesn't fit as well.

"How about we STICK together, eh?"

There is no good solution that will both make the viewer laugh AND be an accurate translation. What's worse, if the viewer is watching this show subtitled, having to read the line might throw off the comedic timing in their head, and might make the joke even less funny.

Some jokes translate even worse than puns. There are 4-panel gag manga I've seen translated, that just don't seem to make any sense at all -- you can't tell where the jokes are even supposed to be. There are shows that rely on the viewer recognizing common anime and otaku tropes that, unless you're way more than just a fringe fan, you would have no prayer of recognizing. The potential pitfalls are many.

I remember fondly some of the anime comedies that I laughed at when I was younger, like Dragon Half. Today most of these shows leave me cold. There are comedies that I still truly enjoy, like the dark edgy humor of Welcome to the NHK, but for the most part, anime comedies just aren't for me. It seems like they aren't for you either. Either we both have cold, dead hearts and our souls are sour, shriveled and desiccated shadows of what they should be... or we just don't have the same tastes as many other anime fans.

I know which explanation I prefer.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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