Parody Anime: When does it work and when does it fail?

Although anime comedy is created with Japanese viewers in mind, it has to be admitted that even though us foreigners may not get all the references without recourse to liner notes or onscreen pop-ups, we can still derive entertainment from it. Perhaps the most difficult to wade into, however, are not those series which simply seek to make light of a single genre, but those which pack in as many jokes, cultural references and rip-offs as they can feasibly manage within the space of a twenty-five minute episode. From this rather select group of series, I will be looking at the four that I am most familiar with (interestingly, all of them are licensed by ADV in the US) in an attempt to determine what factors the success or failure of this ‘crazy’ genre depends on.

Excel Saga

The Story: The ideological organisation of Across has but one goal- to conquer the ignorant masses and take over the world. To that end, Lord Ilpalazzo and his underlings- the enthusiastic yet incompetent Excel and the terminally ill Hyatt- plan to start by conquering F City, but with ultra-cute aliens, the Department of City Security and a general lack of funds to contend with, they may never actually get around to it.

Excel Saga marked my first exposure to this type of series, and in many ways, it was a case of being thrown in at the deep end. With dialogue rattled off so fast that it is hard to follow in either Japanese or English, and a screen littered with AD-Vid Notes in the DVD version, Excel Saga was an unrelenting audiovisual barrage that one really had to work at to get much out of. Watch it once, and you probably won’t like it; give it a second chance and you may find yourself warming to it.

In terms of content, each episode parodies a different genre of anime, and unless you have an overwhelming familiarity and love of them all, the result is somewhat mixed. Episodes such as the sports, dating sim and Fist of the North Star rip-offs all have their hilarious moments, but equally there are some instalments that will leave viewers completely nonplussed- and that’s before we even consider the two budget-saving clip shows and the ultra crude episode twenty-six (a DVD-only episode that is effectively a collection of everything that is too explicit or obscene to be aired on TV). In fact, although the preceding twenty-five episodes cannot even approach that forgettable instalment in terms of content, it is best to have a strong stomach if you wish to attempt Excel Saga- this is, after all, a series where the leads are frequently killed and resurrected, and one of the characters’ prime traits is coughing up blood.

On the subject of characters, it should come as little surprise for a series of this type that the extensive cast is generally comprised of one-joke personalities, and whilst some of them are amusing, others are just plain annoying. Of particular note is the now infamous Nabeshin, the afro-bearing avatar of director Shinichi Watanabe, a character who shoehorns himself into so many scenes that he becomes more of an irritation than a welcome presence.

Final verdict: It certainly has its funny moments, but with its blunt approach and fondness for crude slapstick, there are times when Excel Saga can be equally tiresome. Some episodes work, some don’t- and by the time it gets to the end, you’ll have probably had enough.

Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi

The Story: Sashi (Satoshi) and Arumi are childhood friends who have lived all their lives in the Abenobashi Shopping Arcade. Unfortunately, the arcade is now set to close down, and Arumi will be moving away. Before that can happen, however, the pair find themselves thrust into a series of themed alternate realities, each based on the original shopping arcade. Can they ever get home- and, more importantly, does Sashi even want to go home?

At first glance, Abenobashi looks to be a retread of Excel Saga, with each episode parodying a different genre in the form of an alternate world. Unfortunately, even at this early stage, the series crippled itself by forcing each episode into the tiresome formula of making the leads have to find and defeat a goblin before they could move to the next world. Instead of being able to sit back and enjoy each world, the knowledge that we would have to see the leads chase after a goblin yet again soured the experience.

Worse yet, in the second half of the series, Abenobashi attempts to meld a serious plot with its random world voyaging, and whilst certain parts of this plot are not too bad when taken on their own (the flashback episode about how the shopping arcade was originally built is actually one of the series’ finer moments), when combined with the parody world elements, everything just becomes a bit too messy for its own good- all ready to culminate in that sort of awful ending that only Gainax can manage. By this point, Sashi’s character has become so irritating and insensitive that even the viewers can feel Arumi’s frustration as a rift opens up between them due to Sashi’s inability to explain the truth of events to his friend.

In fact, most of the Abenobashi cast are such hideous caricatures in both appearance and personality that their presence alone is enough to sour one’s feelings on the series. No matter which world we see them in, the sight of the world’s ugliest trap or the bouncing breasts of the appropriately named Mune-Mune quickly become too much to bear.

Final verdict: Others may have found it funny, but Abenobashi never really clicked with me. Aside from the aforementioned flashback episode and an amusing RPG rip-off episode, whatever humour there was to be found in its parodies was all too often obscured by the irritating cast and crippling presence of a main plot that, when mixed with the less serious elements, resulted in a hideous mess.

Keroro Gunso

The Story: Sergeant Keroro and his platoon were meant to lead the glorious invasion of Earth by the froglike Keron people, but when he blew his cover and got caught by the Hinata family, the Kerons withdrew and left him stranded on Earth. Now effectively stuck as the Hinatas’ live-in maid, Keroro plots to reassemble his other platoon members, complete the conquest of Earth and keep his collection of Gunpla up to date.

A tale of alien frogs causing havoc on Earth, Keroro isn’t as wholeheartedly devoted to parody as the other series on this list, but it still takes whatever opportunities it can to rip off tip its hat to popular series that have come before. Even so, what can be comedic for fifty-one episodes does start losing its lustre the longer it drags on, and even as we receive the news that it will run into a fourth season (bringing the total up to over two hundred episodes), it is hard to muster up enthusiasm for what is most certainly going to be more of the same. I’ll discuss this point more thoroughly in a future editorial, but suffice to say that Keroro is the best example of how stale comedy can become when the same situation is played upon too greatly.

Final verdict: Monster may have left me wanting more even after 74 episodes, but that same amount of Keroro was more than enough to convince me to drop it.

Pani Poni Dash!

The Story: Rebecca Miyamoto is a genius who graduated from MIT at the tender age of eleven, but now she’s about to face her greatest challenge- teaching at a Japanese high school. Join Rebecca, her eclectic class and the perpetually ignored rabbit Mesousa as they prove that high school life can sometimes prove to be anything but routine.

Although it took me a few episodes to properly get into, having watched the entire series, PPD has become my favourite entry in the parody genre. Even compared to the others, it is completely random and often bizarre, but therein lies its strength; since the series is in no way restrained by even the vestiges of a plot, it is free to drift along wherever the whims of the writers take it, without particularly worrying about conforming to any sort of requirements. Of course, ‘drift’ is perhaps not the best word to use since the series often barrels through no end of parodies and references from all corners of the globe at nothing less than breakneck speed.

Like its fellow series, PPD has no shortage of named characters, and whilst they remain the usual one-trick personalities, they are not only a lot more aesthetically pleasing, but they have a vitality and enthusiasm that somehow sets them apart from the average overpopulated cast. It can be bit overwhelming trying to get to grips with them all at first, but give it time and you’ll come to appreciate them all.

Visually, PPD is everything such a crazy series needs to be- brightly coloured, well animated and unafraid of adopting a different style where it better suits the flow of the jokes. And if that isn’t enough to win you over, just take a look at the characters in the cute chibi forms they often adopt.

Final verdict: Suspend your disbelief and accept that this is a world where talking cats living in vending machines is one of the least bizarre occurrences, and you too will find yourself won over by the unashamed randomness of Pani Poni Dash.

Final Thoughts
Comedy is perhaps the most subjective of genres, so whilst everyone will have their own unique take on these four series, for me, crazy comedy works best only when the writers are brave enough to go the whole way and completely abandon any pretence of a framing plot. This isn’t the easiest of genres to get into and it most certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but in those moments when you can just go with the flow and let the series in question take you along for the ride, it becomes thoroughly entertaining.

9 thoughts on “Parody Anime: When does it work and when does it fail?

  1. Other good mentions would be Yakitate Japan and Negima!?. The former, besides being disguised as a baking anime, had a helluva lot of injokes for otaku (I certainly cannot forget about the Naruto and Matantei Conan parody episodes), and also for native Japanese…
    Curse them and their onomatopeia. o_O

    Negima!? had the same team behind it as Pani Poni Dash, so there was no shortage of PPD-related jokes and such. But some of the jokes were too… deep for the casual foreigner, imho.

  2. Excel Saga was more hit than miss with me. Well, I thought half the episodes were funny and half the episodes weren’t, but those funny ones more than made up for the unfunny ones to me. There are lines from that show that still pop in my head, years after seeing it, as I’m going about my day.

    I loved the first have of Abenobashi. We could barely breathe while watching the first dvd. When it started to get more serious it started to become a drag. I love that first disc, like the second disc and don’t need to rewatch third and fourth one.

  3. I saw the first disc of Excel Saga and will (someday) get around to the rest – for me watching that show is like listening to a Melt-Banana album. That is to say it’s refreshing, manic and fun in small doses but it’s possible to have too much in one sitting! The ‘themes’ of each episode inevitably made it a hit and miss affair but it was a good way of broadening the appeal.

    Abenobashi shared many of Excel’s strengths and weaknesses but it wasn’t as funny in the second half. The more serious aspects began to be more interesting by that point and I wholeheartedly agree that Sasshi did indeed get annoying after a while. Although it was a fun show overall, the ending was a true mess: I think any one of us could do an entire editorial article on the subject of the notorious Gainax Ending, of which Abenobashi is a prime example!

  4. Chris Blumen: It’s hard to write about something you haven’t watched…
    meganeshounen: YJ is something I’ve been thinking of watching, but the high episode count (as well as the ‘will I like it?’) factor have put me off so far. I saw the first four episodes of Negima!? and it didn’t really click with me. That was before I watched PPD, though, so maybe it would be different now.
    Martin: In a while I’ll be doing a Gainax studio review- rest assured that a lot will be said on the subject of endings.

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