The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Maesetsu! Opening Act
How would you rate episode 1 of
Maesetsu! Opening Act ?
What is this?
Four 19-year old women - Fubuki, Rin, Mafuyu, and Nayuta - are trying to become comedians, diligently honing their routines while working part-time jobs. With the philosophy that "laughter makes people happy, and if everyone is happy, I'm happy," they aim to take the stage at the renowned Nanba Grand Kagetsu Hall. For now, they settle for working their way up from the bottom doing shows in Shibuya.
How was the first episode?
Well, that was 24 minutes I'll never get back.
It took dividing the episode up into three viewing segments for me to finally get all of the way through it, and by the end I was left to wonder if the whole point of the episode wasn't a grand exercise in irony. The recurring theme here is a comedy routine which bombs badly because nobody in any audience understands or appreciates it, and I felt like that was true for most of the episode. The comedy routine in question is itself very obtuse in its humor value; maybe there is some element that I am missing to it, but it did not make sense even after multiple viewings, much less being actually funny.
In fact, it wasn't just the comedy routine which felt like something was lacking; it was the episode as a whole. The premise here – that a comedy duo which formed informally during high school is now seeking to go professional – is not a bad one, and this is not the first anime series to go the Cute Girls Do Comedy route. The episode suggests that the struggles of the central duo (and another such duo that they work at a restaurant with) as they try to break into the business will be a major part of the show. I can see that potentially being interesting, and one of the few things that the episode does do right is delve into the specifics of how the central duo talk about their set-ups and follow-throughs; this was clearly written by someone with first-hand experience.
However, a series about comedy – even if the topic is being handled seriously – still has to be funny, and the episode is not that. The air band sequence held some promise of real entertainment value, and one joke about a “secret menu” lands after the fact, but that was about it. The series can find no recourse in its technical accomplishments either; these are maybe the least attractive character designs of any title this season, and the animation effort is definitely in the new season's lower tier.
Maybe this series will eventually amount to something substantive in the long run, but will any viewers stick around long enough to find out?
Humor is one of the most culturally-specific forms of entertainment. Certain forms and jokes translate better than others, but what is considered “funny,” deeply-held cultural knowledge, timing, and many of the other intricacies of the comedic arts are just different from culture to culture. The nature of translating humor was always going to make Maesetsu! Opening Act, which is about the distinctly Japanese style of manzai comedy, a hard sell, but the show is still its own worst enemy.
Maesetsu! has a strange relationship with humor. Its main comedy duo, Mafuyu and Fubuki of Tokonatsu, are an amateur manzai duo determined to make it big. They started off doing little skits to make their high school friends laugh, and decided to try to go pro once they graduated. However, as they realize when performing at their little sisters' high school culture festival, a lot of their material just isn't very good.
It makes sense, in the abstract; comedy is a skill like any other, and Tokonatsu needs to refine and hone it if they want to be successful. They have discussions about things like timing, and workshop gags to try to figure out how to make them successful. However, the one gag they perform over and over on the episode – at least three times, maybe four – is aggressively unfunny. Like, even within the show it's not funny, and Mafuyu insists on performing it again and again. It wasn't funny the first time, and by the last time, I felt personally assaulted by having to listen to it so many times. I hear the ghost of Fozzie Bear on the Muppet Babies whispering, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” in my ear.
Outside the comedy act, there aren't really a lot of jokes to speak of. There's a café with an extensive secret menu, and that's kind of funny, I suppose. The only part that really made me smile was Nayuta, a member of the other comedy duo Tokonatsu teams up with, murmuring a joke for her own amusement and then quietly chuckling to herself. That's relatable.
I don't think Maesetsu! really qualifies as a comedy, at least not in the traditional sense; it's more of a Cute Girls Doing Cute Things story, with its cutesy character design straight out of 2007 and the involvement of Lucky Star's Kagami Yoshimizu. It's the kind of “comedy” that centers not on jokes, but just sitting back and watching unthreatening cute girls work hard and try their best.
With how male-dominated comedy is, particularly manzai, I'd love to see a series that actually examines what it's like to be a woman trying to make it in the field. The perception that women just aren't funny absolutely exists in Japan as well as here in the US, so it would be nice to have a show about female comedians who are funny, instead of one that pats its female leads on the head and assures them that they're just trying so hard.
So, correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't a show about comedy actually be…funny? At least in a few places? If so, Maesetsu!'s first episode isn't doing a bang-up job, at least as far as my sense of humor is concerned. That this doesn't seem to stem from cultural differences involving comedy styles (the show's about manzai duos) is what's primarily worrying; it's less that the style isn't entertaining and more that the actual content that's a problem, which is a major shame, because it's an interesting topic and stars characters who aren't in high school actively trying to live the dream in a field that isn't music or acting.
Part of the problem is that as of the end of this episode, we aren't really sure if they're any good. Mafuyu has been a fan of manzai comedy since she was little, and in high school she teamed up with her classmate Fubuki, with the latter as the straight man and Mafuyu as the silly half of the duo. While some of their jokes may have been actually funny at the time – classmates laughed, at any rate – Mafuyu's obsession with a gag that has never worked seems to be dragging them down; no one ever laughs at it, but she keeps insisting on performing it, effectively sabotaging the few shows we see them perform in this episode. While no one has specifically called her out for this maybe being the reason she and Mafuyu aren't yet successful comedians, it kind of feels like that's what the episode is hinting at.
Even without this particular stinker of a joke/impression that we see Mafuyu do at least three times over the course of the episode, the little interactions between Mafuyu and Fubuki, as well as those of another manzai group they're friends with, aren't particularly humorous. It isn't hard to see that they're meant to be – the delivery has the cadence of banter and the gestures that go along with each interaction are begging for us to chuckle. That I didn't crack a smile once during the episode perhaps says more about my sense of humor than anything, but mostly it felt like it was trying a bit too hard, like the episode-long equivalent of Mafuyu's failed joke.
Humor is one of, if not the most, subjective forms of writing, so what I found staggeringly unfunny might be hysterical to someone else. The episode's heart seems to be in the right place, with Mafuyu running full-tilt towards her dream no matter how often she faces setbacks, and she does seem to have supportive friends and family. The voice actors are also clearly giving it their all, with some interesting vocal changes during the gags. But the odd pacing, lackluster character designs, and absence of actual humor had me checking how much episode was left roughly every two minutes. I'll find my comedy somewhere else this season.
I'll admit upfront: Maesetsu! had an uphill battle ahead of it to get me to laugh. Not only is it a comedy about comedy, it's a comedy about a form of humor I've basically never found funny to begin with. I know through enough osmosis that manzai comedy duos are fairly commonplace in Japanese pop culture, but any version of it I've ever seen has just totally failed to translate in a way that could make me laugh. Things only got worse once I realized this first episode was a comedy about bad comedy, as it spends nearly its whole runtime with the entire cast slowly picking apart (and repeating) main character Mafuyu's singularly terrible, overly esoteric impression. There are ways to make jokes about bad jokes funny on their own, but the delivery here is so dry that it just drags on. It's a bad joke, everyone knows a bad joke, and despite this show's halfhearted insistence that repeating a terrible punchline enough can make it endearing, seeing it eight times in 20 minutes was just unbearable.
I'm also just not a fan of the way this show looks. The animation is sparse and altogether unmemorable, outside of a short scene with the main cast airbanding to the presumed opening theme. But more importantly I just don't like the character designs at all. The cast are all proportioned like 10-year-olds despite being in college, and the simplistic, wide-eyed designs made it hard to tell the 19-year-olds from the high schoolers and the one grown adult woman in the whole cast. I know Kagami Yoshimizu has some clout from Lucky Star, but this particular style has never gelled with me and likely never will outside of Out Of Touch Thursdays, so most of this premiere was a struggle to focus on either the tedious dialogue or the unappealing art until credits finally rolled.
There are some token bits of character writing going on – the angle on amateurs trying to perfect their performance is at least a solid foundation – but most of the character interactions are just dull and flat. It's nearly impossible to tell the difference between the intentionally bad jokes and the ones we're meant to laugh at sincerely, and without that contrast it feels like listening to a group of improv comedy students trying to start a podcast. So Maesetsu! ends up being a triple whammy of unfunny, unpleasant to look at, and totally tedious to consume.
So yeah, this is absolutely not the show for me in any respect. Folks with more affection for the Lucky Star look or an actually existent fondness for this style of comedic performance might find something to enjoy. But I spent this entire episode stone-faced, occasionally cringing in sympathy the same way I might while watching an open mic stand-up bomb through their first set. The difference is that's usually over in five minutes, not 22, and I desperately wish I could have paid my tab and walked out of the club early.
Maesetsu! Opening Act is the kind of “anime girls doing a hobby” show that you have to judge primarily from two separate angles: The “anime girls hanging out” part, and the “hobby” part. To be frank, Maesetsu! wouldn't be terribly good even if you were to take the basic look and feel of it and transpose it to a completely different subject matter — and let's be honest, most of these shows are working from the same formula when it comes to their characters and tone. There is nothing about the main cast to distinguish them from their airsoft shooting/board game-playing/fishing/hiking/cooking/rock-and-rolling/science-clubbing counterparts, except maybe for the fact that the cutesy designs make all of these college-aged women look like nine-year olds, which is not a point in the show's favor. The music is also weirdly annoying, to the point of being distracting, which simply makes for more evidence to be used when the entire anime industry is finally put on trial for the crime of weaponizing the recorder and unleashing it on the ears of unsuspecting civilians.
Then we get to the “hobby” part of the show, that specific niche appeal that is really the only reason to seek out other iterations of this tried-and-true formula. In Maesetsu!'s case, these girls are chasing the dream of live comedy, the type of improv/stand-up routine that break up the segments in a TV variety show and such. More than its completely flat characters and aesthetic, Maesetsu!'s greatest failing is having its heroines be largely terrible comedians. It's one thing to have your up-and-coming performers be rough around the edges, searching for the angle that will make their routines really click for the first time; plenty of great movies and shows have gone for that approach. It's an entirely different matter altogether to have your teenage comedy troupe just…not be funny. A less saccharine show might at least be able to play off of the schadenfreude that comes from seeing someone bomb on stage, but even then, you can't sustain an entire series on that tone either. Unlike other genres, there isn't really any kind of “so-bad-it's-good” joy to come out of bad comedy. It is, by default, bereft of joy, and its audience must surrender to feeling bored and sad instead.
That means that the only other part of the “hobby” angle that Maesetsu! has going for it is how it shows the girls working on their craft and refining their material. You know, it's a good thing that everyone's favorite part about bad comedy routines is when you get the jokes explained and analyzed in great detail…Wait a minute, I'm sorry. I got my review notes all mixed up here. I actually meant to write: “Literally nobody's favorite part is getting the joke explained to them." This is the first thing any writer learns about comedy. Why would anyone make a slice-of-life anime that is like this? Which international agencies do I need to call to make this injustice right? Maybe it's a matter of cultural differences so far as the humor is concerned, or maybe Maesetsu! is just really terrible at being funny. Either way, I'll be avoiding this series like the plague, and even the most diehard fans of the genre aren't likely to get much more out of Maesetsu! than a somewhat colorful bit of background noise, one that is just barely more engaging than simply looking at a blank screen for twenty minutes (and even that point is up for debate).
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