The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
KonoSuba – God’s blessing on this wonderful world!! ?
What is this?
Misanthropic NEET Kazuma Sato's day went from bad to worse when he left the safety of his messy apartment to purchase a limited edition copy of a new game and got (almost) hit by a tractor. The slow-moving wheels of the machine didn't kill him, but the shock of the whole experience did, and now he's getting laughed at by Aqua, one of the goddesses in charge of the afterlife. When she offers him a fresh start in a brutal fantasy world similar to the RPGs he spent so much time playing, Kazuma decides he's going to take the divine harpy along with him, so they both end up getting reincarnated as low-level adventurers. It's time to start grinding for experience (and learning to get along) in this wonderful new world! KONOSUBA is based on a series of light novels and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 1:35 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
Wow. You ever see an anime that's bad on so many different levels that several aspects of it, aspects bad enough to ruin a decent show, become completely negligible compared to the even worse stuff that consumes the rest of the experience? Because I just did!
KONOSUBA's story is not good. We've seen variations on the "transported to a game world" premise a million times before already. But part of that concept's appeal is the escapism, right? At least, it was to me! But Kazuma and Aqua are intentionally played up to be the worst possible versions of themselves for "comedy" that somehow still feels the laziest thing in the world. Kazuma is an insecure, whiny, woman-hating creepazoid who gets off on trying to humiliate Aqua. Aqua is told (multiple times) that she's a stupid, petty bitch as the camera takes multiple opportunities to scan over her skirt. I want to make absolutely clear that this anime's tone is completely unlike any other "trapped in a game world" show I've ever seen. It seems to actively resent the viewer for watching it in some sort of painfully lame attempt to be funny.
The tone of this whole awkward knockoff goes way beyond crass otaku wish fulfillment or harmless fanservice-for-laughs. Sword Art Online was gross sometimes, but it was never mean-spirited. Overlord was sadistic most of the time, but it still wasn't mean-spirited. KONOSUBA is odd because it seems spiteful in a way that clashes with its bubbly aesthetic. There's this weird unspoken delight in Aqua's description of how Kazuma pissed his pants before dying (with piss-pants closeup in harsh lighting). The show goes out of its way to say that Aqua herself is really stupid and shallow, even emblazoning her abysmally low intelligence on her RPG-style character sheet and mentioning it multiple times after that. The problem with this is that Aqua doesn't act like an especially stupid person. She just acts like "a girl," or more accurately, an over-the-top facsimile of how a cliché otaku might describe "that 3-D bitch, looking down on me." Yes, that's an unfair diminishment of otaku stereotypes too, but that's also how the show characterizes Kazuma, so I guess it just thinks everyone stinks equally! This nasty flavor might have given the show more bite if it was doing anything interesting with it, like Welcome to the NHK or other shows that play on the dark side of otakudom, but it's just buying into the most virulent untrue stereotypes about both sides from an otaku perspective.
You know that one guy in a D&D group or a con party room who just throws out the easiest possible mean jokes about the people around him, because he thinks it makes him funny and cool (but everybody just kinda wishes he would shut up for two seconds)? KONOSUBA is that guy.
But to get back to the point, the show isn't bad because of this strange tone problem. It's just sort of uncomfortable on a story level. The thing that really drags this show down is its jaw-droppingly garbage animation, courtesy of that posterboy studio for overburdened underperformance, Studio DEEN. Not one single character manages to stay on-model in any shot for basically the entire episode's run, and that's before we get to the hysterically lazy "leveling-up montage" in the second half where entire shots and sequences of animation are repeated to pad the episode out. Every character's poor limbs and faces and even butts (not the butts!) are melting into one another under shaky, jagged lines from start to finish. This is one of the most poorly animated first episodes of an anime I have seen in years. I have no idea what happened during KONOSUBA's production, but I cannot even begin to imagine how bad future episodes are going to look.
I gave KONOSUBA just a half point up from the bottom of the barrel because its unexpected childish cruelty does make it stand out, even if it's mostly for the wrong reasons. To me, it's an example of a rote genre story trying to spice things up by taking self-awareness and cynicism in the wrong direction, but lord knows they could have used more self-awareness when it came to how absolutely broken the show's animation looks. Blech! What a mess!
Review: In many respects KonoSuba is the radically-different twin of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash – you know, the one that is wild and crazy while the other is prim and proper. Whereas in Grimgar the characters come into it blind and with amnesia, here the protagonist knows exactly what he's getting into (or at least thinks he does), and whereas Grimgar takes its concept and approach mostly very seriously, KonoSuba is a comedy both at heart and in execution, from the pathetic way that the protagonist dies to get in this situation to the way the goddess Aqua gets trapped into this situation, too, because she goes more than a little too far in teasing Kazuma. In fact, I daresay that this is looking like a parody of “trapped in a game world” scenarios, with healthy dose of parody of Ah! My Goddess mixed in for good measure.
And on that level it's working just fine. Almost everything is a jab at the dignity or self-importance of either Aqua or Kazuma, whether it be Kazuma rolling over at night to get a noseful of horse manure or Aqua being proclaimed to have “below average intelligence and luck being the lowest level possible,” but the humor doesn't just depend on that. Director Takaomi Kanasaki has some significant comedy creds (the second School Rumble series, Is This a Zombie?), and that experience shows in how he uses precise levels of repetition and twisted facial expressions (such as the one in the screen shot) to milk the content for everything it's worth on the comedy front. The closer – which I'm guessing will actually be the regular opener – indicates that two other girls will eventually join the lead duo, but so far they work well as just a duo; they have a nice back-and-forth going which (mercifully!) doesn't wallow in the most trite interactive dialog between male and female anime characters. The first episode is also at least a bit clever, too, such as by showing that Kazuma and Aqua get forced into grunt work because all of the nearby monsters have already been cleared out or the whole business with the possible side effects of the crammed language-learning in the divine contract Kazuma signs.
The artistic effort is definitely not a high-end one, but anyone familiar with Kanasaki's other directorial efforts (especially Zombie?) should see some distinctively similar artistic flairs. The way the fan service in the episode is handled almost seems like a subtle running joke, too, as there are all sorts of odd visual things going on with female characters’ breasts, to the point that it seems deliberate after a while. The fan service is definitely more of a tease than outright lascivious, though, as several camera angles suggest – but never outright show – that Aqua isn't wearing anything under that very short skirt and other golden opportunities for service are routinely passed up on.
The goddess/young man pairing is also undoubtedly going to invite comparisons to DanMachi, but there is already an entirely different type of chemistry forming between Aqua and Kazuma than what existed between Hestia and Bell. This one also shows little sign of ever turning all that serious, while that one clearly showed such a vibe early on. Overall, it isn't great fare but is nonetheless plenty entertaining enough to give at least some hope of expanding on the basic “transported to a game world” concept. And if it doesn't. . . well, it still has the fun factor going for it, at least.
So KonoSuba is one more of the recent “transported to a videogame world” shows, a subgenre where at this point you really need a hook to stand out. Fortunately, KonoSuba has one - instead of being a classic, earnest adventure, this is mainly a comedy, and its leads are both terrible people. Our main character Kazuma first meets his companion, the goddess Aqua, after “sacrificing himself” to save a girl in the real world. Aqua doesn't have much sympathy for his sacrifice, though - in fact, she can't stop laughing about the fact that he pissed himself while dying, and gleefully describes how his family is now also laughing about his death. In retaliation, when Kazuma is told he can choose to reincarnate in a magical world and bring one thing with him, he chooses Aqua as his thing, condemning both of them to a lifetime of drudgery or a quick and bloody attempt to defeat the demon king.
Aqua and Kazuma continue to be weirdly endearing jerks for the rest of the episode, as Aqua laments her lost goddess status and Kazuma complains about his useless companion. Aqua is arrogant and brittle, crying over not being worshipped properly at first, but immediately enjoying herself once she learns she has good character stats. Kazuma is petty and resentful, complaining to himself about Aqua's failings but not really doing anything of value himself. Together, they form a likably terrible team, as they get caught up everyday labors and sleep in the barn and occasionally drink so much they puke rainbows (as goddesses do).
I was frankly surprised by how much I enjoyed this episode. I normally don't like mean-spirited comedies, where the jokes come out of terrible people being terrible to each other, but Aqua and Kazuma are a very endearing pair of failures who pretty much instantly display a strong antagonistic chemistry. The show has enough confidence in its humor to only oversell a joke when it's actually going for a long-form gag (like its finale montage), and the fact that these characters aren't really taking their world seriously means it has a bunch of jokes that feel more like actual friends messing around in a videogame than standard anime humor. The aesthetics are reasonably strong, too - the show has solid character designs and backgrounds, very expressive silly faces, and a nice angular personality to its animation. Even the voice acting is notably strong, with Aqua's voice actress in particular sounding like she's having the time of her life playing a spoiled, hysterical goddess. I'm guessing KonoSuba will go in a more traditional fantasy direction eventually, but as an independent slice of mean comedy, this was a very fine episode.
The “living in a game world” genre certainly isn't in a hurry to leave. This marks the winter season's third variation on that basic theme (obviously Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash hasn't made itself clear on that front yet and may just be set in a TSR-esque place), and while it isn't terrible, it also isn't great. The idea of an otaku shut-in who basically only leaves the house to buy special editions of games is pretty overdone, as is death by traffic accident, which appears to be the number one cause of mortality in anime. That's where Konosuba shows that it has a sense of humor about how trope-laden it is – it quickly turns out that Kazuma didn't die because he was hit by a truck – he died because he thought he was hit by a truck, when it fact all he did was fall down in front of a tractor, wet himself, and have a heart attack. It's a great stab at the very tropes that Konosuba is otherwise following, and it hints at there being more to this show than we at first assume.
On that same front, the goddess Aqua's reaction to Kazuma showing up (once she stops guffawing) is a little ominous – it seems that there may be multiple dead otaku who are being steered towards “rebirth” (more like “relocation” since they end up in the new world exactly as they were when they died) in a world with a Devil King problem. The fact that this world is almost identical to an RPG, which is how Kazuma is able to navigate it in the first place, and that Aqua whips out a book with a title about otakus in a fantasy world life guide, makes me very suspicious about what is actually going on here. It even seems possible that Kazuma isn't really dead, but rather taken away for Aqua's, and the other gods', own purposes.
Of course, that may be attributing entirely too much to this pretty light (or even lite) episode. Apart from some gags like a pause screen on Aqua ranting, game noises, and a repeated sequence of the duo working construction, drinking, and Aqua barfing, there really isn't much to this. It's amusing at best and dull at its worst, made slightly more-so by lackluster animation. The character designs feel pretty generic as well, although it is interesting to note that female underwear apparently doesn't exist as none of the women look to be wearing bras (although anime breast physics make that hard to really tell) and Aqua's clearly got no undies on. Not that there's a ton of fanservice – some barely there butt moments for Aqua and a lot of jiggling are pretty much it, with the jiggles being fairly inoffensive.
Konosuba may go the route it implies in the beginning, that of poking fun at its premise and enjoying itself as it shows Aqua's lack of brilliance and Kazuma's attempts to live the game dream. If it does, it could merit keeping an eye on. If it just plays it straight, however, there are better shows in the genre, and this one can be safely forgotten. Only time will tell.
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