In defence of slice of life and why they’re not the same as comedies

Ah slice of life. The genre in anime which is as over-saturated as it is criticised. Most of these criticisms boil down to “well, nothing happens it doesn’t have a story” or something else which irritates me to no end: “the comedy in these shows aren’t funny.” NO. Stop. You’re putting forth a very specific criticism for a slice of life show that happens to also be a comedy. You are not criticising the slice of life genre as a whole.

My own personal definition of a slice of life show is one that has to be propelled forwards by its cast. The story has to be very character driven and spend most of its time getting us so attached to the characters, their relationships with each other and the fun/struggles/drama that comes in their daily lives that we want to watch the next episode of the show and also the next episode of their lives. Good slice of life shows have made me want to continue experiencing the journey of these characters in the next part of their lives and so it’s not strange that some of my favourite overall casts in shows have been those belonging to slice of life ones. The other part of this would be that the show also shouldn’t have that much of an overarching plot. Now I know that this seems like I am trying to agree with the stereotype that ‘slice of life has no plot’ but hear me out when I mean overarching. Having a story is fine, and necessary, but the story arcs should be just that – story arcs. They should be about our characters and each episode should try and further their small arcs until we reach their conclusion at the end of the show. These arcs could be concluded all by the same event or decision which the show has been leading up to and this can give the illusion that there is an overarching plot and give the illusion that the show is not in fact slice of life but these loose ‘plot devices’ (I use this term for a lack of better words to convey what I want to say) are just tools to wrap up the character stories in a fitting conclusion that feels satisfying to the viewer.

I’m aware these two requirements are very loose and could include shows that you and the majority of people do not agree are slice of life shows and exclude shows which are marketed as slice of life. But I’ll be happy to show you exactly what I mean by using a few examples:

  • Clannad and Clannad: After Story – Not comedy shows and are more focused on the drama and romance between the characters and use it’s supernatural story elements to facilitate the character’s arcs.
  • Kokoro Connect – I like to consider this show a lesser Clannad as I would explain it in exactly the same way as I explained Clannad. About the characters. Uses its supernatural story elements (the characters switching bodies) to further the characters in their understanding of each other. Also not a comedy although has comedic moments.
  • Cowboy Bebop – Yeah. Don’t get angry. I know Cowboy Bebop has what many would consider a ‘main story’ across it’s largely episodic run but this is mainly pushed to the sidelines for most of the show. I believe there is only around six or seven episodes that actually focus on this ‘main story’. The rest of the episodes exist to show us literal slices of the characters’ lives and the main takeaway at the end of an episode is that the episode was just a small event in the life of the characters. That they will live their lives out as normal. That they have seen this shit all before. Not a comedy.
  • Mushishi and Natsume – I pair these together as they largely have the same style of telling their stories. Again very episodic which contributes to the feeling that we are only seeing portions of the lives of our main characters. Lacks an overall story other than the general premise of the series and is more focused on the characters’ individual stories. Natsume more than Mushishi does start to focus on the relationships between the title character and the supporting cast as this is part of his character arc. Also not comedies.
  • Nana – I mean c’mon. Nana practically wrote the book on how to create interesting characters and using them to create a character driven story. Not really a comedy although it’s labelled as one.

I think I’ve made my point here. Another interesting thing to point out is that all of the shows I used as examples here are often touted as some of if not the best slice of life anime in existence (with the exception of Cowboy Bebop and Kokoro Connect which doesn’t have nearly as much praise as the others on this list). And they’re also not comedy shows. So we have five of the best slice of life series of all time and they just happen to not focus on comedy and also happen to have a lot of story to them. That seems strange for a genre where “nothing happens other than comedy”. Granted, the genre does have an immense over-saturation of school comedies without a plot but these are unfortunate by-products and should not be used to define a whole genre of worthwhile shows. Hell I’ve seen at least one of Clannad, Nana or Mushishi on practically everyone’s favourite anime of all time lists. The genre must be good for something.

Who made me love anime?

Why’s there a picture of a frog? Surely a frog didn’t make me love anime. Well, for the unfortunate ones amongst you who don’t recognise who that is, I’ll give you an introduction: that little frog is The Gamma Planetary System, the 58th Planet, Space Invasion Army Special Tactics Platoon Leader, Sergeant Keroro (oh yeah, it’s one of those anime). And he is the reason I fell in love with anime.

You hear other people’s stories about anime start pretty similar with how they just accidentally started watching Yuu Yuu Hakusho, Dragon Ball, One Piece or any other of the big shounens. I think I must be the only person in the world who got introduced to the wonders of anime through a wacky green alien who would rather build his next Gundam toy than take over the world. The show wonderfully parodies the sci-fi genre and is honestly a breathe of fresh air when I watch it after experiencing a lot of these dark super serious creaturetakesovertheworld-type shows. Despite the show near the end of it’s run having 20-odd characters that appear in each episode the cast never feels overly bloated. The show really takes it’s time introducing each member of Keroro’s crew and the aliens and humans they befriend and each member of the cast shines whenever they are on screen. Even if all the episode focuses on is the supporting cast being shrunken so they can found out why Keroro has a toothache, it gives each character something to do that furthers their individual arc, show off their unique abilities and makes full use of the world it has built. Ever aspect of the show is fleshed out to it’s fullest and you never feel like you’re struggling to remember who a certain character is or what their relationship is with the other members of the cast.

Sometimes it seems like I’m the only person in the world to even have watched the show. It breaks my heart every time I see the number of people on MAL to have watched the anime or read the manga.

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The first experience I had with Keroro and the cast were in the manga, strangely. That seems like a bit of a cop-out to say that I got into anime through manga, doesn’t it? I’ll probably write another post about how I got into manga in that case. It’s more of an interesting story/love-hate relationship. Sgt Frog (the English name of Keroro Gunso) was one of the first manga I actually bought a hard copy of and kept on buying the volumes until Tokyopop’s shutdown in 2011 meant I couldn’t find it anywhere. My thirst for more Keroro was satisfied once I found out that there was a long running TV show adaptation which had been airing episodes since 2004. After I binge-watched the whole series (all 350+ episodes) I knew I had found a medium that was special: Japanese cartoons. It wasn’t for another year until I found out they’re actually called anime and that anyone in the community will skin you alive if they hear you calling them cartoons. My journey into anime continued as I watched Polar Bear Cafe (twice), Chi’s Sweet Home and Shugo Chara. Looking back these three were less than stellar series but I absolutely adored them and I still feel a bit of nostalgia just typing their names, even if I no longer watch magical girl shows like Shugo Chara.

I think it must have been a short while after watching shows like those that I realised what shounens, shojos, etc. were and the differences between them. I started to think back to what I liked the most about Keroro Gunso; comedy and action. Thus started my love affair with shounen series. I vividly remember going through the action category on Crunchyroll and randomly clicking series that looked cool from the poster art. Shows like Reborn!, Eyeshield 21, Kuroko no Basuke and regrettably (*sigh* don’t judge I was young and everything was cool back then) Uta no Prince-sama. I’m embarrassed to say that I still watch that last one whenever a new series airs (which is almost every year at this poin- wait, what was that? They’re doing a season FIVE? Oh for fucks sake. Yes, of course I’ll be watching it).

But it was Kuroko no Basuke that truly became my second love in anime and almost shaped my real life in a way I would never have expected. It inspired me to play basketball and there was a brief time where I considered trying to make basketball into a future career. Alas times changed, however the magic of the show is still present whenever I turn on a sports anime and wish to be inspired like I was with Kuroko. Unfortunately Kuroko and friends never reached the same heights as Keroro and friends did upon further inspection. Perhaps if, like Keroro, the show labelled itself as a parody of the sports genre, what it did near the end with it’s characters would be considered clever. Instead near the end of the show Kuroko no Basuke turned into a mess of flashy lights and superpowers.

Now, this isn’t to say that when I look back on those first few anime I don’t feel overwhelming happiness and nostalgia, just that I’ve matured as a viewer. I don’t try and look at everything through only a critical lens but I know what a show has to do by now to make me ignore its flaws. It has to make me immersed. If I am so attached to the characters and the world that I’ll even watch a shitty adobe flash remake of the anime (I’m looking at you Keroro 2014) then you know you’ve done something right.

 

Visual Comedy in Anime

Cromartie High School is one of the best comedy shows I have ever watched. Period. It isn’t particularly popular nor is it spoken about all that much. Whenever I see a discussion about recommendations for comedy anime it always flies under the radar and is rarely even touched on by prominent voices in the anime community. The show itself had an appalling animation budget (which is obvious just from seeing a few screenshots of it) and as such looks worst than some shows made in the 90s despite airing in late 2003.
So why make this grand claim? Why even bring it up at all? It’s because Cromartie is a perfect example of a form of comedy which is rarely done right in anime: visual comedy.

“But wait then what’s non-visual comedy? Anime is a visual form of entertainment how are all comedy anime not classed as this!” I get this, honestly I do. You’re right to think it – anime is a visual medium so surely every form of comedy anime is visual comedy, right? But that’s where something unique about anime comes into play: the language. Y’know, I’m gonna make an even grander claim than before: Visual comedy transcends language barriers.
There are people out there in the community who just don’t like comedy anime. And no, it’s not because they’re boring people with no personality or sense of humour. It’s just that the vast majority of anime comedies (like comedies in film, TV, etc.) get their laughs through jokes which the characters tell. The problem is that these jokes can be play on words which, once translated, make no sense to the English viewer. But even when the jokes aren’t playing on the Japanese language; subtitles still ruin comedic timing and in dubbed versions the voice actors sometimes don’t get the tone of the punch line right. Even if just reading the subtitles can make an anime funny there is still a feeling that we’ve been cheated. If we just wanted to read something funny we could have just read a book. The audio and visuals which come with the anime often are wasted as the viewer either doesn’t understand the audio, isn’t paying attention to the visuals, or the series is completely neglecting the importance of visuals in the comedy.

The comedic masterpieces are the ones which can take full advantage of the medium they are a part of and can tell a joke without any or little dialogue. In my part of the world (Great Britain) I can thank of the likes of Rowan Atkinson and Edgar Wright for introducing me to what smart visuals can do to a comedy. In terms of visual anime, alongside Cromartie are shows which are considered by the community as some of the best comedies the medium has to offer (which sort of proves my point in itself). These are the likes of Nichijou, Space Dandy, Golden Boy and of course Gintama.

Originally I planned this to be more of a focused look at what makes Cromartie in particular so great but somewhere down the line took a turn to become a more general post about similar comedy shows.

Seriously though, I highly recommend you go watch Cromartie High School (even though it’s near impossible to watch legally unless you buy it). It’s been classed as one of the strangest anime ever and while I think that’s a bit of a stretch, you can tell the amount of fun that went into making this show and how there’s not one frame that’s wasted. I can only praise Production I.G’s staff for using the show’s low budget to their advantage and creating a master-class in visual comedy.