Comparing Comedies: Konosuba vs. Dagashi Kashiby Nick Creamer,
What is it that makes you laugh? Is it watching a character who's earned their fall hit the banana peel, or watching someone you've come to love be their ridiculous self? What do you want from your comedies, and what would it take for you to say a comedy “works?” Comedy is a weird and personal thing, one of the most subjective art forms out there, but all that only makes it more interesting to discuss. Let's take a moment then and get right into it, giving The Idea Of Comedy a moment to shine.
There've been a number of solid comedies coming our way lately, with this season in particular having two interesting and very different ones. There's Dagashi Kashi, the show about a girl who likes candy maybe a bit too much, and who spends her days poking her new friends into playing all sorts of dagashi-focused games. And there's KONOSUBA, the anti-Sword Art Online, where a group of useless fantasy characters spend more time blowing stuff up and backstabbing each other than they do actually challenging evil. Both of these shows are a pretty fun time, but you can't really compare the two - even though they're both technically comedies, they have basically nothing in common. And so, because I apparently like asking and hopefully answering stupid questions, I'm going to do just that; dive into what makes each of these shows tick, and maybe sort out why comparing the two is a silly question.
Granted, comparing these shows is really just an excuse to get at the real question I'm going for here. With these two shows in mind, it's certainly not “what makes a show funny” - frankly, Dagashi Kashi often isn't very funny, and KONOSUBA has just as many comic misses as it does hits. Neither show is continuously hilarious, but I still enjoy my time with them. So the real question here, and the one that digs into what sets these two apart, is “what makes a comedy enjoyable?” For KONOSUBA and Dagashi Kashi, the answers to each of these questions are very different, and the divergence in the second answer establishes each of them as pillars of very specific and independent schools of comic media.
KONOSUBA opens with its “hero” Kazuma dying a stupid, pointless death in the real world, after which he's summoned to a kind of purgatory and laughed at by the goddess Aqua. Aqua gleefully explains how even his family couldn't help laughing about his stupid death, and so to get back at her, when Aqua offers Kazuma the chance to live again in a fantasy world, he drags Aqua along with him. That pretty much sets up the template for the show to come - Kazuma and Aqua are eventually joined by explosion-obsessed mage Megumin and masochist paladin Darkness, but the general operating plan of the show is “some member of the party concocts a stupid or selfish plan, the plan blows up in their face, the rest of the party laughs at them.” There's little love lost between KONOSUBA's useless misfits; they're all kind of scheming and selfish people, and though they do share a real camaraderie, they're also never above laughing at each other's troubles.
In contrast, the most mockery you'll get out of Dagashi Kashi's characters is maybe a slight jab between siblings, or the male lead Kokonotsu tilting his head in befuddlement at his new friend Hotaru's actions. Kokonotsu works in his father's rural dagashi shop, where he sells candy and trinkets to local kids. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Hotaru, the daughter of a dagashi magnate who wants Kokonotsu to take over his father's work, and who is incidentally also totally obsessed with dagashi. These two, along with Kokonotsu's friends Saya and To, end up spending their summer days being carried along on Hotaru's dagashi-related fantasies, or simply hanging out at the dagashi shop or Saya's family cafe. The jokes here are light, if they're even jokes at all; some slight manzai comedy, some silly reaction faces, and maybe a misunderstanding punchline. More important is the general rapport shared by the characters, and the warm atmosphere of the world they inhabit. These characters are friends who like each other's company, and Dagashi Kashi invites you to share that company for a while.
I assume you can see the contrast I'm establishing here. While KONOSUBA is largely a comedy of violence between clowns who are always up for a betrayal, Dagashi Kashi is a comedy of warmth between characters who always give each other the benefit of the doubt. KONOSUBA's characters can occasionally support each other, and Dagashi Kashi's will occasionally poke each other, but it's clear the two exist near distant ends of some kind of spectrum. And they're not unique in this divergence - in fact, the distinction between “nice people behaving endearingly” and “terrible people behaving badly” comedy is easy to point out across anime and narrative media altogether. You could see it as “K-ON! versus Prison School” if sticking to anime; or if we want to include western comedies, you might shift to Friends versus Seinfeld, or Community versus It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Some comedies put you right there with their characters, so their joy and victory are your happiness as well; others stick you right above them, so that any time they get ahead, you're only waiting for them to trip and fall.
It's a fairly simple distinction, but it has a variety of consequences in terms of how we engage with these shows. For one thing, it means the terms of success in each show is very different. For Dagashi Kashi, the point isn't necessarily to have the audience laughing uproariously from first moment to last. The characters aren't clowns; the show is a comedy of atmosphere and emotional attachment, and so the cast must almost necessarily be composed of people the audience can actually come to like and relate to. Thus “establishing a strong sense of consistent, inviting atmosphere” becomes a core goal of the show, and Dagashi Kashi understands that - it's full of sequences that focus more on the general experience of lazy days over a long summer break than any ambitious jokes. Additionally, many of the show's longer comic bits also do important work in establishing the personalities and rapports of the show's characters; you may not be consistently laughing, but you're learning who these people are and why they like each other, and that plays even more directly into what the show is trying to do.
In contrast, KONOSUBA's world only feels like a real place in that it occasionally mirrors the real world in various cynical ways (the struggle to find a satisfying job, the feeling of only working to facilitate a lifestyle of only working, etcetera). KONOSUBA is a farce, and its characters are farcical, and the thing about farces is they better be funny, because funny tends to be all they are. KONOSUBA has to “work harder” to be funny in comparison to Dagashi Kashi, because it doesn't have a foundation mood of warmth and relaxation to lean back on. People don't go to KONOSUBA just to relax - they want to be actively entertained, and they want to the show's wacky characters to keep coming up with new comic tricks. KONOSUBA's mean-spirited comedy and less textured characters work against the kind of emotional investment Dagashi Kashi relies on, and so it must use those hard-edged characters and jokes like flint and tinder, striking them against each other to spark consistent comic fires.
This fundamental difference changes both the viewer's relationship with these shows and also how they must be critiqued. Dagashi Kashi doesn't always have to be hilarious to be successful, and KONOSUBA's characters don't have to be likable to be effective. Judging one show on the metrics of the other isn't particularly useful - approaching a show like K-ON! and decrying its jokes for not being sharp enough isn't really engaging with the show it's trying to be. Dagashi Kashi can get away with simple or gentle jokes because the show has a stronger human element - it's drawing on a built-in rapport and often furthering our understanding and investment in the characters as people. In contrast, shows like KONOSUBA exist on more of a comic tightrope - when a show without likable characters falls back on stale genre gags, it just comes off as boring, “how about that airline food”-tier material. If we don't care about the characters, we better care about the jokes.
Of course, these are not hard genre rules. These styles of comic appeal can be combined, and each one can either make use of or reflect off the other in a variety of interesting ways. KONOSUBA's characters aren't utterly unlikable people - in fact, sometimes their failings can be what make them likable. In one of the show's strongest sequences so far, Aqua's arrogance and lack of foresight led to her being traumatized for the sake of a crappy paycheck, a style of suffering that I'm sure many people can relate to. Sharpness in humor doesn't have to be a distancing factor - when the world bullies these characters, they can become more human to us almost purely through our ability to relate to their pain. And when you're watching lovable idiots trip over rakes to relax, the characters being one-dimensional can actually be part of the point. Like with useless teens in some B-rate slasher movie, the audience doesn't have to be on the side of the protagonists, it can also be on the side of the suffering.
Additionally, single characters can inject an element of either of these poles into more complex productions. When a show with generally complex and relatable characters adds a gag character, we call it comic relief - when a show about awful people being awful to each other has a character everyone tries to protect, we call it the show's heart. There are no hard rules in defining a show's comic identity - ultimately, all these choices reflect the vast diversity of ways we engage with our media. What does any specific individual want out of the shows they love, and what do they go to comedy for? The answer will be different for everyone; Dagashi Kashi and KONOSUBA each represent a confident potential answer to that question, and each are compelling for it.
So what do you think of either of these shows, and what do you look for in the comedies you love? I actually find myself relating to Aqua more often than I'd expect, perhaps because the show is so consistently mean to her. Comedy is a weird thing, and we'll all have our own experience of it, so let me know in the forums where you find your own laughter!
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