Mixing drama and comedy in anime

A common element of anime – or any TV show or movie for that matter – is the mixing of comedy in an otherwise dramatic story. Usually the overall story and themes are serious, but the show also has its share of comic relief and slapsticks to break up the tension. For me, the mixing of drama and comedy can either greatly hinder my enjoyment of a show if done poorly, or can greatly raise my enjoyment if done well…

Some people like their shows and movies either all dramatic or all comedic, and they feel that mixing the two ruins the mood. Placing silliness and hyperbolic antics in a bleak or serious narrative feels interrupting. From my experience, people who prefer straight-up dramatic and “adult” entertainment often don’t like kids shows and movies such as Disney films since, while they’re dramatic stories overall, the dramatics are constantly interrupted by jokes and slapsticks to keep the kiddies entertained. Then again, some people don’t care either way. Less critical minded people who tend to watch anime and other things purely for casual entertainment and not because they’re serious, analyzing fans, often don’t even think about this and welcome laughs in their otherwise dark stories. I’m definitely not against mixing these two opposing elements of storytelling. In fact, my favorite anime tend to be series that can be serious but also funny. However, doing it well is a much more difficult task than people think. I’ve come up with two things that have to be present in order for comedy in a dramatic story to work well for me.

Firstly, it has to be, well, funny. To give examples, a lot of the humor in the otherwise tragic Key series like Clannad and Little Busters! just wasn’t funny to me. The slapsticks just didn’t blend well with the overall serious and realistic portrayal of the setting and characters. Shonen anime I’ve seen have this problem too. I think Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic series, but the humor never clicked with me. The series would be sad and horrifying, then suddenly Ed and Al would turn chibi and the animation would turn crude and silly to get a quick joke across before returning to seriousness…and it always felt jarring to me and not funny enough to be worth it. And the humor in Bleach was one of the issues I had with the series. All the humor mostly consists of is the characters either yelling and arguing with each other or being comically violent, which doesn’t blend well with a show that’s mostly seriously violent. I’m more or less okay with Bleach when it’s being serious, but as soon as it switches to the silly stuff, I find myself wanting to turn it off. Something that could decide whether a joke is funny or not is timing, which is a huge factor for good humor in general. I’m sure it’s the case in an anime we watched where it seems to be building up to something dramatic, like maybe the main couple is sharing an intimate moment, and then suddenly something perverted or hyperbolic happens to ruin the moment. It could possibly work well depending on the context and style of the story, but usually it doesn’t.

And the other, and probably most important, thing that makes humor in a dramatic anime work for me is that it has to stay consistent with the story, characters, and setting. The reason the humor in Haruhi works so well for me is because it’s part of the show – it flows with the story and doesn’t “jump out” at us like it does in Little Busters! and Fullmetal Alchemist. Other anime that, in my opinion, do the drama and humor blending well while sticking to the overall mood of the show are Cowboy Bebop, Spice and Wolf, Inuyasha, and Usagi Drop to name a few. The animation doesn’t have to change to chibi-style to get a joke across and that stark distinction between these shows’ “funny mode” and “serious mode” is either subtle or doesn’t even exist. The less obvious an anime tries to distinguish its comedy from its drama, the more I usually enjoy it. And I don’t see this too often in anime thankfully, but another thing that could happen is changing the characters for the sake of humor. This is an issue I had with one of the worst anime I’ve seen, the second season of Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu. The characters’ personalities were degraded just to get more perverted fan-service across. Another example can be found in the currently airing Kotoura-san. While the show has a lot of this Mood Whiplash I’m talking about, it blends the comedy and humor somewhat well…except for randomly making Kotoura’s grandpa such a pervert. He didn’t seem that way initially and I really can’t see how it enhances anything (Manabe is a much more believable pervert. Isn’t one enough?)

Of course, humor is a very relative thing, especially in fiction. I’m sure some people find Kotoura’s perverted grandpa funny or get laughs at all the times Ed and Al turn chibi in Fullmetal Alchemist. Like I said at the beginning of the post, I welcome anime that blend humor and drama well. Doing so adds depth and likability to the characters if we can see them being serious when the story is serious, but also joking around and being funny when it’s appropriate too. It shows us the bright side as well as the dark side of a show’s world, which makes the setting, characters, and everything else all the more believable, since life isn’t just all funny or all dramatic. If the comedy and drama flow seamlessly into one another, like I feel is the case for the anime I previously mentioned like Haruhi and Cowboy Bebop, I really find myself engrossed in the series’ world and find everything about it more believable. But if the show has to make stark contrasts between its funny moments and serious moments, like having to greatly change the animation to emphasize a joke or have the characters cartoonishly punch and throw each other around in a setting that’s otherwise realistic, it tends to alienate me more than make me laugh. All of my favorite anime either blend comedy and drama well, or focus on one or the other. My two favorite dramatic anime, Noir and Wolf’s Rain, are pretty much devoid of humor in any form…and that’s perfectly fine because they’re anything but funny stories. If the wolves turned chibi and cracked jokes at random intervals in Wolf’s Rain, that would certainly be a downgrade for the show.

20 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Kal says:

    I guess Japanese are more used to this, as it is quite common in anime. Western shows/movies tend to be more one-dimensional in that case. Drama and humour are usually well separated (except some kid oriented movies/shows as you mentioned). So we are probably less used to it. The humour in Haruhi is the more sarcastic/dry kind of humour, so it fits much better with a serious theme.

    I did have a problem with it when I started anime. A perfectly serious show suddenly interrupted by some antic was quite jarring at the beginning. After getting used to it though, I do not mind it anymore, and can actually find it funnier when it comes unexpectedly. I’m probably more tolerant to interruptions, so it’s not so much of a problem (you mentioned in the last post that you like to give your complete attention when you are watching anime). I guess I just do not take it as an interruption (even if it was not very funny), and can continue watching without any problem.

    I do take that into account when recommending anime to other people. I know that most people would find that distracting, and may diminish their enjoyment. It’s one of those “acquired tastes” I guess.

    You did not mention the other way around though. What about when a funny, and somewhat light-hearted show takes a very serious turn? Like Steins:Gate for example, Chuunibyou, or even Madoka to some extent. I really enjoy those shifts, and I tend to remember more a funny/light show goes serious, than a serious show goes funny.

    • Yumeka says:

      I’m actually less tolerant of bad humor in anime than I used to be XD Or maybe the old late 90s/early 2000s series didn’t have it as much? But I have gotten used to it at least and can easily overlook a few bad attempts at humor if the overall show is good enough to make up for it. And like you, it’s something I take into account when showing anime to people who aren’t fans themselves. For the most part, I pick anime where the humor isn’t jarring and hyperbolic when the story is serious.

      I was actually going to talk about the opposite case – a funny anime suddenly turning dramatic – but decided against it because I didn’t have much to say about it. Unlike the other case, I almost always like it when a funny anime gets dramatic. There are some series where it doesn’t work, but usually it does for me.

  2. Cytrus says:

    Humor -_-. Suffice to say that I would point to Bebop’s disastrous attempts at mixing comedy and action as one of the major weaknesses of the show. Bebop can be really crude with its humor (like the sheriff-wannabe episode), but it’s at its worst when switching to funny mode in the middle of an action scene. There was this space-chase after a wanted criminal’s wife (I’m fuzzy on the details) scene, where “funny music” starts playing and any possible tension goes puff, but at the same time the scene isn’t inherently funny. So you’re left staring awkwardly at the screen until the show gets back on track…

    The sudden chibi technique can be both good and bad depending on how it is used, but at least it’s clear regarding authorial intent – you know the scene is supposed to be funny. That said, the more sudden the switch in tone, the more difficult it is to do well. On the other hand, the rewards are also greater. You can often find dramatic developments preceded by lighthearted moments to have you drop your guard.

    It’s obviously even more difficult to have your cake and eat it too by including both humor and other feelings in a single scene. Haruhi’s finale manages to be both funny and badass because while there’s a lot at stake there and Kyon does have to do things he would not normally dare, the idea of saving the world through making out with God is just too crazy.

    • Yumeka says:

      Hmm, I didn’t have that problem with Bebop and thought the comedy blended nicely with the rest of the show. I do recall some scenes where it was awkward, but for the most part I thought it was all good. Guess it’s a matter of taste =P

      I’m fine with the chibi technique in comedy or other light-hearted shows, but when it suddenly pops up in very serious stories, like FMA, it just doesn’t click with me ~_^

      Nice description of how that scene in Haruhi managed to be both funny and badass at the same time XD

  3. jimmy says:

    “To give examples, a lot of the humor in the otherwise tragic Key series like Clannad and Little Busters! just wasn’t funny to me.”

    I felt it fit the humour fit the situations well enough, but was about as funnny as an abortion clinic (I mean, in general to the average person. Abortion clinic humour can be a very rewarding acquired taste). I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in finding Key-brand humour terrible. It has nothing to do with how it fits to show or the mood, it’s just really, really badly written and plain not funny.

    Kotoura-san’s grandfather’s perverted antics, on the other hand, are an example of humour I think really just does not fit.

    What do you think of usually-comedic shows that have dramatic storylines? I love them if they’re done well. The Azumanga Daioh graduation chapter/episode (better in the anime, although the rest of the manga is better), episode 11 of YuruYuri♪♪ and the Mini Ika-chan part of episode 5 of Squid Girl are some of my favourite examples. On the other hand, outside of the music scenes (the band singing their angel song to Azusa was excellent) I couldn’t take K-On!!’s dramatic moments seriously because they seemed unfounded. It was like a totally regular, banal moment but with the nostalgia filter shoddily applied in Photoshop; there was no substance. When the president of Mio’s fan club turned up, was barely mentioned and then was present at the end of the episode while Kyoto Animation pushed their wistful natsukashii feeling onto the whole situation it just felt cheap. It was like two characters that were barely present having their relationship become the final storyline – it just felt forced and crappy. I found the same for a lot of the “guize school is ending soon” scenes in the last third of the anime. When the band played their concerts, on the other hand, that was where the series really shone. They may have been underdeveloped moe clichés, but their relationship to music I found very convincing and affecting.

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree about Key-brand humor and Kotoura’s grandpa =P

      Like I said to Kal above, I like it when comedic anime take dramatic turns too =) I wouldn’t want it to be too dramatic that it totally shatters the light-hearted feel of the show, like if someone died or was brutally injured, but something like the graduation in AzuDai is always welcome.

      Heh, I liked the dramatic moments in K-ON!! XD Maybe I’m just a sucker for KyoAni’s nostalgia techniques. But if I watch the series a second time I’ll take into account what you said and see if my opinion changes.

  4. Wingless says:

    Funny you’re posting about this. I just introduced two of my friends to their first ever anime experience earlier tonight. I initially planned on watching it alone (Toradora), but they decided to watch it with me. Not ideal as a first off, and I DID have to explain A LOT, some of which I may or may not have ass-pulled. But I was surprised at just how accustomed I’ve become to silly interruptions in otherwise serious moments. Watching Toradora with those two was like watching it all with a fresh filter.

    I’d have to say I don’t mind it at all though, and I consider myself a fairly critical show-watcher. But I have noticed my favorite anime do tend to be the ones that blend it together in less obvious ways. Must be some sort of connection there. :)

    • Yumeka says:

      Heh, yeah, the story of Toradora! sounds universal enough, but upon actually watching it, it’s filled with anime tropes and cliches that we as fans have become so accustomed to XD Unfortunately for non-fans, the Japanese-style humor in otherwise serious shows can be rather alienating. I tend to cherry-pick all the anime I watch with my mom ’cause I know she’d have a lot of trouble wrapping her head around anime with too much comedy-to-drama switching.

  5. Shikon says:

    I can definitely agree that some humor just doesn’t fit well in otherwise dramatic anime. Fullmetal Alchemist is a great example, I didn’t have a problem with the chibi-like comedy but it did get annoying as the series went on. I did however like the comedy in Clannad (not all), I thought some of the scenes were pretty hilarious, especially Tomoya’s pranks, although I’ll admit they did seem out of place.

    In the end (at least for me) I think as long as the humor is funny and entertaining I tend to overlook the execution of it.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, I can overlook some jarring humor if it’s good. A good laugh is worth a slight interruption. However, even if it doesn’t shatter the mood, if the humor is bad then that’s just…bad XP

  6. chikorita157 says:

    Usually, I’m fine with comedy and drama as I have watched a lot of these shows, especially the Key adaptations. I think the mix of drama and comedy is usually a good thing as life itself has a mix of happy and sad moments. For instance, in the second season of K-ON, Azusa gets upset since her friends are graduating and after graduation, they play a song for her. Usually, these moments ultimately give a heartwarming ending, although it’s not necessarily the case for all shows.

    • Yumeka says:

      I totally agree that life is a mix of happy and sad moments and I love seeing that in anime…I just tend to differentiate if it’s done poorly versus being done well. I feel that the Key adaptations do drama very well, but comedy not so well =P And I agree that that scene in K-ON!! was very touching. I guess it just depends on what you find funny and how critical you are when a show decides to change its mood.

  7. Midonin says:

    I usually watch more for the comedy than the drama, so I’d probably view this article through the opposite lens. Instead of seeing how well the comedy fits into the drama, I look at a show as to how well the drama fits into the comedy. And in that regard, I like shows like Kore wa Zombie desu ka? It’s never afraid to put a joke into a serious moment. (“That’s not a kick!”)

    • Yumeka says:

      Well, if comedy is your thing, then I guess you’d welcome funny moments in even the most dramatic anime XD I can be fine with that too as long as the funny moments are, well, funny, and not just poor attempts to break the tension.

  8. CoolCARTGuy says:

    To me, humor has been one of the medium’s achilles heels; often, jokes tend to be A) butchered in translation or, as you said, B) don’t fit with the feel of the anime in question. Anime has had just as awkward a time blending humor and drama, in my opinion; I think Little Busters! was a good example to mention – it’s my personal favorite Key series, yet besides the criminally-infectious “Kinniku yay yay!” and maybe the ill-fated lessons on how to ask out girls the other boys gave Riki (emphasis on maybe), I thought the humor was pretty poor, perhaps even anachronistic given its heavy reliance on slapstick and awkward innuendo.

    I think in terms of blending comedy and drama, Rumiko Takahashi has a great track record even in series that largely focus on comedy such as Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura. Full Metal Panic! also did a good job of balancing comedy and drama; the humor was largely derived from Sousuke’s constant soldierly behavior and dedication to protecting Kaname, but it never felt out of place and the fact that the show largely focused on Kaname and Sousuke’s interactions with one another rather than the more serious overarching plot (except in The Second Raid) provided the comedy a nice boost.

    • Yumeka says:

      Wow, I agree with all the examples you mentioned XD I find Little Busters! would be greatly improved if it dropped the humor (and maybe used that time to develop the main male characters instead of just the females) and that Rumiko Takahashi is very good at blending the two moods. Ranma 1/2 is mostly a comedy but the drama in it always sat well with me, ditto with Inuyasha which is mostly dramatic but has good comedy too. And from the little I’ve seen of Full Metal Panic!, I agree that its humor didn’t feel out of place and was actually very funny despite taking place in a serious setting.

  9. Kai says:

    Humors in anime. I feel it’s one of the most difficult things to get across not even in anime but all medias in general. Shounen for one, love mixing humors in an otherwise, battle-hardened show. There are quite a lot of bad attempts and I agree Bleach, is one of the worst. In fact, I even find most of the “joking” scenes incredibly annoying, perhaps most of them are fillers contribute to that as well. One shounen anime that I find at least somewhat funny is One Piece and of cause, the ultimate exception to all of these is still Gintama, probably the most funniest anime ever in my opinion.

    For drama anime, mixing comedy in can be a sink or swim. I actually find Little Busters funny, and if you’re playing the visual novel, there are actually genuine funny moments, not those “cold” jokes that you only watched awkwardly on the screen. But what you said might be correct too, since anime include motions and sounds, it perhaps is trying too hard to be funny by animating the characters and trying to make them look as funny as possible, as opposed to visual novels with fixed portraits. Clannad, I actually don’t find the first season great and all, just an average comedy slice-of-life that we see so much, it’s only after Clannad After Story that got me so hooked into the series. It goes to show that humors aren’t completely necessary in an anime. Although good to add some touch to an otherwise, serious dramatic show, the timing to put such comedy scenes are just as equally important.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, I agree that for some reason the humor in One Piece is usually pretty funny. Maybe it’s because the overall feel of the show, while it can of course be very serious, is very light and “cartoonish” compared to Naruto and Bleach. And I think the humor is just better written too XD

      It’s been a while since I watched Clannad and Clannad AS, but I remember feeling the same way – not thinking the first season was that great and disliking the humor, but loving the latter part of Clannad AS (which, not surprisingly, stayed more focused on the drama rather than the comedy).

  10. Adziu says:

    I’m glad you mentioned HagaRen. I’ve always thought it was the best example of striking the perfect balance.

  11. Overlord-G says:

    Usually when I see drama themed shows, they start off funny but once the gloves come off, do not expect to laugh for a long while. Oh the many shows I’ve seen that followed this formula.

    Shows like Noir and Wolf’s Rain aren’t meant to be funny because…let’s face it. When you look at the art style of both shows, “hahaha” is not a sound you expect to make while watching it. It is not like another Bee Train show I really like, El Cazador de la Bruja, where just looking at Ellis tells you that there will be some laughs and inexplicable cravings for tacos by the viewer. However, like I said above, once the gloves came off, El Cazador stopped being funny until the cloud settled.

    Anyway, drama and comedy blend well together.

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