Comedy anime targeting otaku tend to embody a mix of three elements:
- reference humor
- self-deprecating humor (from the perspective of otaku)
- and fan service (which usually is disguised as humor)
These three methods of comedy rely heavily on the audience being “in” on the joke.
To state the obvious, anime aimed at otaku are meant to be watched by otaku. But I want to break things down a little further using one of my favorite comedy anime, Baka and Test.
Reference humor is going to fall flat unless the audience gets the reference. But if a reference is subtly added to a busy scene then a wider audience likely won’t feel left out in the cold when they miss it.
Baka and Test’s Evangelion tribute episode is a good example of this, where despite the segment being riddled with references to Eva and other anime, the sheer silliness of the characters and scenarios can be found funny even if you haven’t seen Evangelion. Reference humor is harmless when it’s mixed in with other elements. It shouldn’t need to take up the spotlight and shut out audience members that haven’t brushed up on certain points of pop culture.
Being able to laugh at yourself can be an empathetic experience. In Baka and Test the main character cares more about video games than food, and would rather starve than sell off his collection. So he settles for eating nothing but instant ramen to lift the burden of his financial woes.
This kind of comedic setup involves poking fun at the hobbies and fanaticism displayed by otaku. We empathize with the ridiculous actions of the main character but are also able to laugh at them. But there can be a down side when a non-otaku is watching the same scenario. Rather than finding humor in seeing themselves in the character, the comedy might just come from laughing at the character’s stupidity. If an audience member can’t pick up on the self-aware tones of a show, then the jokes on behalf of otaku could instead become caricatures of the sub-culture that are merely reinforcing bad stereotypes, rather than mocking them.
Easily the most problematic element of otaku aimed anime (not just comedies) is sexual fan service. Fan service is one of the biggest complaints commonly heard from American fans and it is for good reason. Too much pandering fan service can limit innovation in the actual storytelling of the medium. Fan service can turn off demographics outside of otaku, to the point that a work becomes only accessible to otaku. The idea that worries fans most is that this will create a cycle in which anime can only appeal to otaku, so only otaku buy it, so future shows follow the safer money instead of broadening horizons and risking making something more profound and less pandering.
This cycle primarily took effect during the “moe boom” in the early 2000s, where financially struggling studios relied heavily on visual novel adaptations and other otaku aimed anime in order to stay afloat. Many American fans still house fear and anger over this trend even though the industry is doing much better now, at least where sheer output is concerned. It feels like there’s something for everyone coming out on at least yearly basis.
But there are also fans that take fan service as a joke, which more often than not is the creators’ intention. Baka and Test takes part in this practice where the audience is meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of female characters comparing chest sizes and the jealous outbursts that follow a direct shot of jiggle physics.
This is the worst time to not be in on the joke. For a show like Baka and Test repeating the clichés of high school anime is meant to be taken as parody. The sexualization of its characters is meant to be kitschy and add to the overall wackiness of the series. But this intention doesn’t actually invalidate the interruption of fan service as offensive or even misogynistic. It’s not really a joke if you aren’t laughing.
Fan service can also play a role in reinforcing the bad stereotypes of otaku on a meta level. Many of anime’s cult classics that reached audiences beyond fandom are fan service heavy shows or just straight up hentai (e.g. Wicked City). Titles like these reinforce the stereotype of all anime being perverted or pornographic and extending those qualities to its fandom’s interests. Again, even if the fan service in an anime is meant to be facetious that doesn’t mean that’s how it will be interpreted.
There’s also the side of things where the comedic intentions of fan service are very likely to just be guise for sexualizing characters in the un-ironic context of doujins and other fan works. Adding a wink and nudge doesn’t excuse what’s really going on from any kind of responsibility.
As for me, I really enjoy shows aimed at otaku, because for the most part I get the references and don’t mind the fan service (sometimes). I’m in the intended audience and even when I know I’m being pandered to, I don’t mind. I don’t think anime as a whole will ever become so niche that it will only ever appeal to a small otaku demographic. Fans should just dig a little deeper than the typical teenage late night shows, when looking for something new.
But I do worry about how a work can be interrupted by those outside of the intended audience. Anime’s reputation isn’t improving anytime soon. That bad reputation has caused real issues that can lead to potentially harmful misunderstandings.
Baka and Test, and other otaku aimed comedies like it, don’t challenge the status quo. But my fondness for the series makes me unable to justifiably condemn it for its crime of niche humor.
[This post was originally posted: Jun, 15th 2016 on the Otaple 1/2 Tumblr]