Sigh. Here we go again. A hilarious new comedy is being trashed by people who don't seem to get the humor of the absurd.
It happened last fall with Seitokai no Ichizon, which opened to a chorus of abuse and only gradually found the large audience it deserved.
Now it's happening again with Working!!, a new show set in a "family restaurant" in Hokkaido. It will start its run in April, but the first episode was streamed as a preview a few days ago.
Personally, I found the first episode extremely funny, as I did the bit I read of the comic strip it is based on. But various bloggers and forum posters have described it as boring, cliched, just "cute girls doing cute things" -- the same things people said about SeiZon. (click images to enlarge)
Certainly cute girls are part of the appeal -- and highly appealing they are, too -- but in fact this is classic Monty Python-style absurd comedy, with physical comedy and moe thrown in. Like SeiZon and Ichigo Mashimaro, I found it not only hilarious but humane and potentially enlightening, as well. It may not equal them, but it is playing in the same fields.
Humor is notoriously impossible to explain, but I am going to try anyway. Absurd humor depends on setting up an apparently normal situation and then unrolling events that violate one's expectations in a way that is ridiculous but not ultimately disastrous.
For instance in Working!!, a diner complains to the restaurant's manageress that the restaurant is too warm. Instead of doing the normal thing and either saying she will turn the heat down or explaining why she can't, the manageress tells the plump middle-aged woman that she should go outside and run around to burn off some ugly fat. A young waiter and waitress hustle the manageress off and then come back and smooth things over with the customer in a charming little scene.
Laughter has been explained as expressing relief at the passing of danger. An absurd situation is felt as an existential danger, and laughter is our instinctive joyous declaration that the danger isn't real.
I call the kind of humor seen in SeiZon and Ichigo Mashimaro "humane absurdity." It seems to me to overstate our normal human weakness and selfishness in absurd ways, converting them from dangerous faults to ridiculous foibles. That is not an encouragement of immorality, in my view, but a way of revealing human weakness in a context devoid of pressure. In fact it may help us become able to see our own weaknesses, rather than concealing them even from ourselves. It certainly helps us to forgive ourselves, thereby contributing to our mental health.
At one point in this episode, two young men are hassling the little waitress who is the lead girl in this show. The manageress, who has previously been established as a fairly sympathetic character, comes over to stop them. Instead of talking them out of it, as one might expect, she immediately boots one of them to the ground. They call her a "damn bitch" and leave without paying. She then takes her cell-phone and calls some local toughs she knows, telling them to stop the two guys and take all their money. Absurd.
When the girl who was hassled says this is going too far, the manageress replies that she has to protect her cute staff. But then she adds quietly that they called her a "damn bitch," so we realize that her own pride was the real reason she had them attacked. The situation is absurd, then we see the manageress's weakness (pride). But this is just comedy, not real life, and we are basically on her side, so we accept it as understandable humanity, more like a cute human foible than some great sin. And we laugh.
This perception of human cuteness works beautifully with moe. In fact, in this show I think it is not just the short, genki, optimistic lead girl who is moe in this way, but other characters as well. There is some well-animated physical humor as the girl struggles unsuccessfully first to put a cup back on a high shelf, then to pick up a big tray of dishes, and has to ask for help in both cases -- so that we realize she, who is supposedly showing the new-guy protagonist how to do the job, actually can't do parts of it herself. Cute human incapacity.
The rather obtuse 16-year-old male protagonist is also fairly moe. He once happens to ask the manageress how old she is, and when she says 28, comments absently that that is quite old. Then he can't figure out why she starts harassing him by giving him too many shifts too close together and saying he should be able to manage because he is so young. When the genki girl explains the situation to him, he agrees to apologize, then comments under his breath that that's what he hates about old people. Clearly, he doesn't really get it at all. We are all this dense about some things, but that doesn't make us bad people, just people.
The characters in this show are mostly set up with contradictory characteristics, giving all of them a fundamental bit of irony: the straight-seeming 16-year-old protagonist is a lolicon; the genki little waitress, who looks about 12, is actually older than he is; the mature-seeming manageress is lazy and violent; the pretty and gentle-seeming crew chief carries a sword as she waits on tables; another waitress is very shy around men, but reacts to her shyness by launching sudden violent physical attacks. When she meets the protagonist for the first time, and he greets her in a friendly way, she screams in shock and suddenly punches him in the face, and her panicked screams of "a man! a man!" echo through the restaurant. Totally absurd, with slapstick added.
Although I think absurdity is one of the fullest and funniest kinds of humor, it's okay if others don't happen to appreciate it. There are other kinds of humor that I don't appreciate. But just because we don't get something doesn't mean there isn't something there to be got. And just because a show is moe doesn't mean that's all it is. In any case, I regret that some people are denied the pleasures of this kind of humor.
For a show like this, it's the how, not the what that counts. Sure, we have seen similar archetypes before. But this show re-envisages them in a vivid and entertaining way, and uses them to deliver a style of humor that I love.
This show may end up just repeating its little memes over and over again ad nauseam and become uninteresting. Or it may not. This first episode introduced the characters in amusing ways. I have hopes that the same level of intelligence and inventiveness will continue.
The voice-acting here is good all round. Fukuyama Jun is terrific as the protagonist, with subtle shifts of tone to sell the humor. Asumi Kana, a favorite among Japanese otaku, is more entertaining here as the genki girl than I have ever found her.
Watanabe Kumiko, a veteran star who plays Keroro in Keroro Gunso and Shippo in Inuyasha, and who was Fran Doll in Turn A Gundam, is note-perfect as the manageress, subtle and dry.
The show is based on a four-panel comic strip that runs in Young Gangan magazine and is popular enough to have published twelve volumes.
The animation by A-1 (Sora no Oto, Fairy Tail, Kannagi) is detailed and smooth (at least in episode one), with a bright look and a nice range of character designs. Director Hiraike Yoshimasa has directed shows as different as Solty Rei and Sketchbook. He himself is doing the adaptation of the manga. Can he make it work? We shall see.
Top sound director Tsuruoka Yota (Turn A Gundam, Keroro Gunsou, Suzumiya Haruhi, Requiem for the Phantom, Bakemonogatari, etc., etc.) is there to get the most out of the seiyuus, who also include Itou Shizuka, Kitamura Eri, Fujita Saki, Hikasa Youko (Mio in K-On), Saitou Momoko, and Shiraishi Ryouko.
The past two winners of the top male seiyuu award, Kamiya Hiroshi and Ono Daisuke, play two cooks who act as the show's Greek chorus, observing and commenting drily on the weird happenings around them. Fukuyama Jun was a previous winner of the award. Asumi Kana won one of last year's "new seiyuu" awards.