The Konosuba: Legend of Crimson movie made its North American premiere on November 12th. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at why Konosuba is such a great comedy series on a character-writing level in the context of Japanese and Western comedic history.
Anime is a wondrous and varied medium, but the plague of generic European fantasy world “isekai” every season would make an onlooker think otherwise. Isekai stories revolve around characters entering another world from their own. Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Fionavar Tapestry could all be considered isekai. The glut of anime isekai in recent years—where protagonists invariably travel from the modern day to some Tolkienesque or Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fantasy world—has spawned its own permanent subgenre of self-aware parody and satires, of which Konosuba: God’s Blessing on This World is a part. Yet Konosuba is notable because it is also an exceptional anime comedy.
Dying from the stress of trying to save a schoolgirl he mistakenly thought needed rescuing, teenage hermit Kazuma Satou arrives in purgatory having done nothing with his life. The goddess Aqua gives him the choice to start life over in another world as long as he defeats the great evil sweeping the land. She offers him a gift to help him of which Kazuma chooses to take Aqua along.
Unfortunately for Kazuma, Aqua is both spoilt and a moron. He spends most of his time rescuing her from the mouths of giant, man-eating toads and other mishaps. His other companions aren’t useful either: the sorceress Megumin has specialized only in explosion magic, while Darkness is a highly skilled swordswoman but prefers to be hit by the enemy out of masochistic tendencies. They are a truly terrible company of heroes, and hilarious to watch.
To explain why Konosuba is brilliant beyond its amusing premise, passionate performances, or clever dialogue, however, we must ironically get serious about the mechanics of comedy.
Comedy is extremely subjective. The cultural nuances, sensibilities, and idiomatic expressions mean that not all comedy is universal—“American joke” is a derisive term amongst Japanese people for a failed and incomprehensible joke, for example—but certainly some elements do translate enough to make some general commentary on it.
Comedy is born of conflict, flaws, and suffering. Prominent Western comedies such as Blackadder, Frasier, and Parks and Recreation all share a few things in common. Firstly, the opposing personalities produce a strong and constant source of fundamental interpersonal conflict between them that can be mined continuously. This is absolutely the case for Konosuba; Aqua’s gullible and stupid nature contrasts Kazuma’s tactical deviousness, and their dynamic produces scenes such as him using her as bait to lure in crocodiles while she wails. It is a rich well of comedy.
Secondly, a character’s personality flaws are what bring about their downfall in a scenario. All four of the main characters manage, in their own ways, to make any given problem worse, and they invariably descend into further debt.
Finally, the overall situation they are in is an obstacle to the fulfillment of their desires. Kazuma desires peace and to laze about at home, but he keeps being sent on kingdom-saving missions. Within those missions, his personality directs his actions and were Kazuma able to lounge about uninterrupted forever, there would be no series.
These three elements roughly make up the basis of all so-called “character-based humor”. The versatility that it provides can be traced back through Eurocentric Western comedy for centuries if not millennia. Plautus’s comedies performed between 205 and 184 B.C. frequently revolved around class obligations. All of Shakespeare’s and Molière’s comedies endure because they concern both character dilemmas forced upon them by society and pettier conflicts with and manipulations of one another (allowing for salient observations of humanity). Even early silent slapstick films of the 1920s and 30s physically built up characters and their dynamics in order to motivate the pratfalls and slip-ups.
Japanese comedy independently arrived at these principles of character-based humor as well, but has tended towards reducing these concepts down to smaller scales and acting within distinct roles in live performance. In this way, the flawed characters are more boxed in by the parameters set by their role. This is where anime comedies like Konosuba differ in their sensibilities, owing to the long history of Japanese comedy being performed in this way.
“Manzai” might be the most enduring; it originated in the Kansai region during the Heian period (794 – 1185). The style features a double act with one person in the “boke” idiot role, while the intelligent “tsukkomi” comments and challenges them as a comedic “straight man”. Think Abbott and Costello. With the advent of television, the broader array of “owarai” (meaning “laugh”) comedy has given rise to “reaction” comedy, where, as the name suggests, the physical and verbal reaction to a situation is the focus and joke, frequently conveyed through exaggerated facial expressions and noises.
This is not to say that Konosuba, or any comedic anime, is a direct synthesis of traditional Japanese comedic art-forms, but that heritage has clearly filtered through to the sensibilities of anime comedies. The most common joke across anime is a sharp cutaway to the straight man protagonist’s exasperation and bewilderment at the bizarre actions of his compatriots. This copies manzai and “reaction” comedy. Konosuba is rife with these types of jokes and the limited and deformed animation by Studio Deen accentuates their impact. Konosuba’s real cleverness, however, is the way it uses role-based humor as part of its comedic repertoire and avoids the pitfalls often associated with it.
Comedy Roles in Anime
As said earlier, Japanese comedy heavily favors role-based characters as the source of character humor for many centuries. This is frequently evident in anime comedies and sometimes this works to hilarious results. D-Frag, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Nichijou, and Tanaka-kun is Always Listless have characters with very defined roles they occupy in jokes on the basis of their personalities (that long list is there as suggestions for viewing). What they can, therefore, do comedically is limited by the role they play, becoming a subset of specialized characters with flaws.
Where this practically differs from simply being a character with comedic flaws is the limits the role sets with the type of joke being able to be told with that character. Essentially, characters evolving from role-based humor will only be used for certain kinds of jokes and will only ever take certain kinds of actions. Their responses are not tailored to the situation. The situation has to be more tailored to them.
In something like the anime series Grand Blue Dreaming and Kaguya-sama: Love is War, or say, the sitcom Friends, the audience knows how the characters will respond to and behave in a situation, but you could give them a simple dilemma and each would be able to carry on on the basis of their flaws and be funny.
A more role-based character would need a particular problem and sparring partner to find that same comedic value. For example, Seo from Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun will always be completely oblivious and unintentionally confrontational in response to a situation, so she is only ever used for those sorts of jokes, like angering somebody with something she says. There is absolutely crossover between these two forms of character creation, and a well-written “role-based” character is nearly indistinguishable from a “flaws-based character”, but they are still slightly different in execution.
Where a lot of anime comedy falls flat then, at least to foreign audiences, is that the characters are identified less by their personalities, but rather exclusively by the role they play. At its worst, they become one-note and one-joke characters, repeated over and over to diminishing returns, as there is a lack of tension because the scenarios always have the exact same result.
Konosuba avoids this issue with character roles because all the characters’ personalities contrast the expected demeanors of the fantasy class roles they occupy. Aqua is an all-powerful god and yet she is a needy moron. Megumin is an “Arch Wizard” mage and should reasonably be proficient across various types of magic, but instead she is so hyper-specialized that she’s rendered nearly useless after a single, uncontrolled spell. Darkness is outwardly a refined and noble crusader as one would expect from a powerful knight, but her penchant for flagellation and depraved fantasies always threatens to expose itself.
The juxtaposition of character role and flawed personality helps set the absurdist tone and is the foundation for reaction comedy when paired with the cynical and conniving comedic straight man in Kazuma. However, that gap between the ideal and reality also leads to personal amelioration for the characters. Darkness feels obligated to uphold her family’s honor and embracing her fetishes becomes a mode for self-acceptance. Megumin’s delight in explosions makes her a social pariah, and so it is a touching moment when Kazuma recognizes it as important self-expression, endearing him to her. In this way, Konosuba neatly eschews the problem of equating comedic role to personality, and that helps set it apart from many other anime comedies. It is a genuine character-based fantasy comedy.
Konosuba is a superlative comedy because it is a complementary blend of Japanese character-based humour and fantasy isekai, and is able to use video game structure towards fulfilling comedic intent. It can both adhere to and mock modern fantasy isekai adeptly because its comedic foundations are built on character conflicts.
Character conflicts are everything in comedy, and the extra layer of restrictions via character roles that have evolved in the course of Japanese comedic history can make the styles confusing or simply not funny to foreigners. Konosuba is exceptional and acclaimed as a comedy because it manages to integrate both character roles and character-based humor in a tautly written and witty package. The fact that it is a fantasy isekai is ultimately incidental to it being a great comedy, but Konosuba is a beacon for what more comedy and fantasy anime could aspire to.