Is The Lost Village Actually A Comedy?

by Nick Creamer,

At last, The Lost Village has rambled to an end. Ostensibly a psychological horror piece about getting in touch with past trauma, the show ended up being a lot more and a lot less than that - more in that it was consistently hilarious, less in that if you were actually looking for psychological horror, you were probably disappointed by the shambling monster we got instead. The show has sparked some controversy in the community, mainly over whether it was “intentionally bad” or not, and what it actually means for a show to be intentionally bad. Does the fact that the show's characters are ridiculous count as a mark against it, or in its favor? Are the remarkably flat direction and constant non-sequiturs actually an expression of its success?

As a conventional psychological horror show, The Lost Village technically “works” (i.e. the story eventually comes to a coherent ending), but is consistently unsatisfying. But as a weird, self-reflective love letter to B horror nonsense, I personally think it shines. The Lost Village embodies a kind of comedy we rarely get in anime, something more structural and unspoken than most standard jokes. I'd like to dig into that comedy, and hopefully express why this show was so charming for me. But to do that, I will first need to invent humor.

One of the fundamental building blocks of humor is the management of expectations - jokes twist your expectations to make you laugh, and confirm your expectations to make you smile. Either way, jokes are banking on an existing set of expectations to strike their tinder against your internal flint. Meaning that in a larger sense, nearly every joke is at least some form of an “inside” joke.

Inside jokes are traditionally thought of as jokes confined to a specific set of friends - jokes that work because everyone in a group understands the context that makes them funny. “Joe made a loud fart that one time, and so now whenever you hear a fart, you look at Joe.” A joke like that isn't particularly clever, but it banks on an insular set of expectations to basically confirm a friendship, making for an easy laugh of warmth without the need for any real bite. I know that thing, you know that thing, here's an easy reflection of our mutual understanding of that thing, let's do lunch.

But in reality, nearly every joke is an “inside joke” for a certain definition of “inside” - namely, a specific set of cultural assumptions. Jokes about the American political process are “inside” relative to people who are familiar with that process. Jokes about forms of etiquette are “inside” relative to people who adhere to those forms. Jokes about language require familiarity with that language, and jokes about culture require familiarity with that culture. Even jokes about human behavior in a general sense rely on a vast set of underlying assumptions. Humor is almost always inherently constrained to a specific set of assumptions, assumptions necessary in order to set up and betray expectations in both a referential (the topics of your humor) and structural (the format of your joke) sense.

It's pretty easy to see this reliance on cultural assumptions in practice. One of the simplest forms of jokes aren't aren't really jokes at all - they're just references to other things the audience knows about. Even if there isn't any actual wit or creativity involved in referencing some other known object, jokes like this can still provide a gratifying spark of “hey, I'm in on this reference.” In western media, you see stuff like this all the time in Family Guy, or in the endless parade of “Scary Movie”-style parody films. In anime, it often takes the form of lines like “don't be such a tsundere” or “this is just like in a visual novel” - references that validate a specific set of insider knowledge and assumptions, creating an inherently good feeling in an insider audience.

One level up from straight references to other “inside” properties are jokes that establish an expectation and then betray it in a simple, direct way. As I said before, betraying established expectations is one of the cornerstones of humor, and a major reason why people say humor and horror are similar: they both rely on the element of surprise.

“I just flew in from Dallas and boy are my arms tired” is a classic version of this, one that relies on a common language assumption and simple wordplay to set up a betrayal of expectations that banks on a funny piece of mental imagery. This joke does not work outside of the assumption of what “flying in” usually means (meaning we're already assuming a specific culture that has made air travel mundane and refers to it as “flying”), its unconsidered second possible meaning, and the final visual punchline. On top of that, the choice of “Dallas” or “Boston” or whatnot needs to be considered as well, as a more inherently humorous and attention-stealing word like “Milwaukee” actually hurts the rhythm and lessens the impact of the punchline. Even the simplest jokes build on a lot of craft and expectations!

“Why did the chicken cross the road” is one level up from these jokes (and I should emphasize, this is ‘level up’ in complexity/expectations, not necessarily in quality - even the simplest joke can be sold well with great specific details or delivery), though it's similar. In this case, the audience expects a funny answer, because the setup implies a silly conclusion - and in that specific manufactured context, “to get to the other side” is a punchline, betraying our constructed expectations and making for a small piece of deadpan humor. “Humor in anticlimax” is one of the most consistent ways to betray expectations and thus generate comedy.

The fact that I've taken full paragraphs to unpack two of the simplest and stalest jokes out there should hopefully impress upon you that humor is really, really complicated, and beyond that, that this is a deeply contextual art form that, outside of universalities such as silly expressions and physical punchlines (which play on more universal expectations of human behavior), often requires an established relationship with a culture, a set of subcultural touchstones, or even a specific creator. Because of this, great jokes often have to abandon universality, and accept they are only going to work for a certain audience with a certain set of expectations. If you want to make jokes about complex ideas, you simply can't make jokes for everyone - there will always be an assumption of “insider knowledge” when you're moving into anything more specific than funny faces. And it is the way great jokes play off the multi-tiered expectations and emotional resonances of a specific assumed audience that makes them so powerfully effective and funny.

And with that, we come to The Lost Village

The Lost Village is fairly unique among anime comedies. Many anime comedies rely on a specific set of referential touchstones, but they are an internal set, one specific to the medium or their specific subgenre. “If you've seen a few light novel shows, you'll get these references to tsunderes or harems or power levels.” “If you know how romcoms work, these gags will make sense to you, even if they aren't particularly witty.” The combination of that (which can include legitimately clever and even culturally incisive shows, like Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun), somewhat more universal observational humor (to pick an infamous example, Lucky Star's “what's the right way to eat a chocolate cornet,” an almost Seinfeldian intro to character banter), visual/physical gags, and charming expectation-fulfilling gags based on your existing fondness for a set of characters (K-On! loves these) covers the vast majority of anime humor

The Lost Village does not do this, or at least, these categories do not account for the bulk of its “jokes.” The Lost Village instead plays almost entirely on structural expectations - expectations of what genres will do, and more generally, expectations of what stories are like. Its jokes aren't always in the text - more often than not, it is the text itself that is the joke.

The Lost Village opens by introducing way, way, way too many characters - around thirty in all, an entire busload of characters traveling off to a spooky remote village. These introductions already deviate from storytelling expectations in important ways - for example, it's conventional wisdom that story introductions should generally be graceful, getting the audience into the action and then introducing characters as they become relevant. A show more interested in both hooking the audience and making its entire cast meaningful would likely not start with these introductions, but instead throw us into the action first, and then perhaps pull back to add more context.

But more importantly, The Lost Village's pile of introductions also creates a specific expectation - the expectation that many people will die in this story. The Lost Village hits every tonal bell for “shlocky exploitation horror,” and the fact that the cast is so overstuffed makes it easy to assume they'll start getting knocked out within the first few episodes.

But The Lost Village doesn't do that. It introduces thirty characters, has them mill around for a while, a bunch of them take a nap, and then most of them go home.

That's the joke.

There are a variety of things that make wasting an entire horror movie cast funny, but perhaps most important for The Lost Village is that it breaks our expectations of how stories express what they value. Normally, if a character is introduced with an on-screen name and life story, you'd expect they would be a meaningful character. Focused stories only include the elements they need, after all. But The Lost Village turns this expectation into an immediate joke with its absurd onslaught of characters, and a larger joke with its refusal to do what shows are “supposed” to do with a cast like this. The final joke isn't just “these characters are silly” or even “there are too many characters” - it's “you thought you knew where I was going with this, but it turns out not even I know where this train is going.”

The Lost Village constantly subverts the expectation that characters and even major narrative events are actually meaningful. As monsters roar in the distance and their bus driver raves about seeing a ghost, The Lost Village's cast only seem interested in bickering about who's cute in the group, or what a presumed dead companion's nickname was. A character like Lovepon gets away with constantly recommending public executions without a hint of distrust from her companions, while other characters are almost burned at the stake for the crime of being a little spooky maybe. The Lost Village's narrative moves through a foggy wonderland of expectation-based incoherence and internal logic, building its own set of rules along the way.

Horror movie expectations are constantly set up only to be deflated in the weirdest ways possible. The monsters that appear turn out to be absurd, and the backstories justifying them more absurd still. Characters get riled up about big narrative events and then promptly lose interest, betraying through their actions the very basic assumption that a show's narrative beats are meaningful at all. People fly into and out of the haunted village willy-nilly, their actions implying the focus here is not escape, but simply validating their own weird character roles.

At times, it feels like The Lost Village is directly riffing on more specific storytelling assumptions, like the way an amateur filmmaker or writer would approach a horror story. A strong example of this comes early on, where the characters are wandering in the woods, one of them shouts “look, bear tracks!”, and then the camera actually jumps to prove to us that yes, there are indeed bear tracks there. In a competent horror movie, this information would not be conveyed this way - to go with the most obvious choice, the camera would possibly rise up over the bear tracks as the audience passes by unaware of the threat, thus creating a sense of suspense. But scenes like that and the long, rambling conversations between the whole cast are clearly designed to feel like amateur filmmaking. The joke is a fundamental misconception common to amateurs - that the camera's gaze and the dialogue are supposed to convey “information” (how can I show all the things I want to show), as opposed to conveying drama (how can I evoke the feeling I am intending the audience to feel).

At other times, it seems like the joke really is just "what if the camera just did its darnedest to make sure this climactic scene has no tension whatsoever." Likely my favorite moment of this in the series is when ostensible protagonist Mitsumune is making a passionate speech towards his former friend while on the verge of being eaten by a giant evil grandmother. In spite of this whole sequence being absurd on its face, it could technically still work as drama - if not for the fact that the director decided to make sure Mitsumune's own karma demon, a dorky penguin with permanently flapping arms, wasn't also visible in the shot. That penguin shifts the scene from serious to absurd, and is reflective of a general tendency to mess with shot composition in unexpected but obviously farcical ways. This scene's focus character is making a dramatic declaration? Alright, let's stick a pole right in front of him.

If The Lost Village is a satire, it is satirizing our assumptions about stories in general. The basic plot beats of the show actually work - if you put it in a bulleted list, the investigation of the village, attacks by monsters, and ultimate discovery of the monster's secret would all conform to a typical horror movie outline. But by filling in all the proper nouns between those major beats with utter nonsense, The Lost Village ultimately proves that stories can be made of basically anything. Even if your big beats are obvious, you don't have to conform to a single one of your audience's smaller expectations.

All of these weird bits of structural humor make The Lost Village pretty unique in anime, and it is further set apart by the fact that it almost never points its own jokes out. Much of anime humor is indebted to manzai routines, which include a tsukkomi or "straight man" who points out the silliness of the other characters' actions. The Lost Village regularly includes characters who get angry at the others for acting in such ridiculous ways, but there is no one who exists outside of the joke, no one like Kyon from Haruhi Suzumiya or Kazuma from Konosuba, who isn't personally assuming this world is worth investing in. None of its characters are in on the overarching joke, which makes its continuous run a kind of steady deadpan. It relies on the audience's understanding of the absurdity of its situations, always letting the humor speak for itself.

The show not giving its own joke away is important to the ultimate effect. On a basic level, it just improves the quality of the humor, both because the timing is sharper and because the assumption of audience understanding makes for a more rewarding sense of “insidership.” But in a more general sense, The Lost Village's continuous straight face allows it to play almost as something like The Room or other “so bad it's good” films. It's generally assumed that “so bad it's good” movies only work because they're unintentional, but that's really only a part of their appeal - great “so bad it's good” works have a strong internal logic, running threads of humor, and snappy (albeit unintentional) comedic timing. They work not specifically because they're made by a creator who's trying to make something good, but because they're made by a creator who is absolutely confident in the world they are creating. The Lost Village may be self-aware, but it is also nothing if not confident, and the fact that it never points out its own joke is necessary to ensure its internal world really feels like a strange but somehow internally consistent place.

The Lost Village is not unique in this kind of structural, self-effacing humor - just look at twitter comedians. Browse back through a few tweets of da share z0ne and you'll probably get the gist of the “joke.” Skull and bones/all-caps affectation of a sullen teenager contrasted against either hugely self-deprecating or socially aware but deeply campy motivational slogans. Da share z0ne isn't selling an obvious punchline - he's creating an inherently comedic worldview with its own internal logic. Nobody points out the joke, and no twisty reversal is waiting at the end - it's consistent structural humor, inherently playing on the expectations implied by one “shell” (angry skull-faced teenager affectation) by filling it with deliberately incongruous and (very importantly) charming substance.

But precedent aside, The Lost Village's choices do add up to make it an understandably divisive show. For one thing, this style of deadpan, structural humor does not have a universal appeal. It's very nearly a kind of absurdism, a routine like Andy Kaufman eating the ice cream extended across an entire season. It's niche humor, and our preferences for comedy are all very different. On top of that, looking at shows as weird genre exercises is often not the way people want to engage with shows. They want to see the world of the show as a real world, and invest in finding out what happens next. The Lost Village gives you almost nothing to hold on to on that front - it laughs at the idea of coherence, cares very little for its own core narrative, and is held together only by its consistent returning to semi-familiar genre beats, touchstones on an extremely wobbly road. It lives to betray the expectations that bring many people to stories in the first place.

But for all that, I've had more fun with The Lost Village than almost any other anime comedy. I love looking at stuff on that structural level, and very often feel that devices like straight men greatly weaken the impact of humor. I want my humor to be weird and unique and incidental, and want my comedies to trip me up with all that they are willing to do. I certainly wouldn't want every show to be like The Lost Village, because I most love having ideas and characters I can legitimately invest in - but as far as kooky, unexpected experiments go, I think the Lost Village is a pretty great one.

And though my words here may seem to imply The Lost Village is something almost cynical, I don't really think that's true, either. Riffing on the expectations of B horror movies doesn't imply a dislike for those sorts of things - that's just another way to celebrate them. The Lost Village doesn't just want to be ridiculous - it wants to be charming and well-liked, as well. In the end, I actually kind of did care about The Lost Village's characters; there were legitimately endearing moments, and real resolutions to a variety of arcs. The show may have had a ridiculous story, but it respected the assumptions of its own ridiculousness; its characters might have been silly, but their arcs were given respect in keeping with the style of the whole. The Lost Village isn't necessarily saying that stories are dumb, or that these genres are silly - it's saying it's okay to be a little silly, and that we should maybe take another look at the assumptions we always bring to art. I think that's a fine lesson to take to heart.

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