Anime listicle: the utopian workplace comedy

As I’ve written previously, I don’t have the emotional patience to watch anything that isn’t fairly light and diverting, so even my anime diet is suffering reduced portions of the action and science fiction shows I used to consume in large gulps. Though there haven’t been any new shows like this in a few seasons, it occurred to me a while back that there’s a certain type of comedy that I find to be particularly appealing. Broadly speaking, it’s a slice of life show, but one that centers on the workplace as the unifying institution in the characters’ lives. There is almost always some sort of blossoming romance threading through the series, and there is almost always a self-conscious absurdity to the show—usually in the form of a character’s simply implausible eccentricity, perhaps in the form of a supernatural element. In any case, the most important thing about all these shows is a certain vibe that persists in greater or lesser degrees.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to characterize this vibe. Categorizing it by the shows’ premise—the “workplace comedy”—doesn’t really capture it, just as the “school club comedy” doesn’t really capture the range of comedies anchored in after school clubs. Categorizing it by other (sub)generic classifications—farce, screwball, romantic comedy—also don’t quite suffice. Those labels fit, as do adjectives like “zany” or “charming.” They just don’t capture it. In fact, the closest American analogy I can think of to what I dig about these shows is Parks and Recreation, which is certainly a workplace comedy with farcical and romantic elements, and which is frequently both zany and charming. Parks and Rec also grows out of a long tradition of workplace comedies like Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, Wings, Newsradio, and, obviously, The Office. Perhaps the most characteristic thing I can say about the vibe is that it is strangely utopian. Think about it: as much as the characters in these shows annoy the crud out of each other—to the point of being arguably dysfunctional—the truth is that the workplace is what provides these characters what is, as far as the audience can tell, the most important social network in their lives. The sitcom format also requires the minor conflicts of each episode largely to be resolved by the end of each episode, meaning that longstanding conflicts or resentments can be nursed for extended periods of time, but that there’s enough stability and human connection there to patch over those conflicts for at least another week.

Think about M*A*S*H, for instance. This show was entirely about the struggle of its characters to maintain their sanity and basic human decency in the middle of a war. People of good will can disagree over whether it travesties Robert Altman’s original film or if the shift toward dramedy in its later seasons was a bridge too far.[1] At heart, what really makes the show work is the genuine affection that the characters cultivated for them in the audience—characters that started out as caricatures (especially in the film, if I may be so bold), but who discovered and cultivated their shared humanity amidst the most deplorable conditions. In essence, these were all characters stuck in the workplace from hell, but it was either form a passable community or bust. So it was that 4077, with all its dysfunction, absurdity, and (debatably) bridge-too-far descents into melodramatic tearjerkery, was a utopian space created anew each week for just over twenty minutes.

The best of these workplace comedies acknowledge that many of the characters (if not most) have other important relationships in their lives, of course. Many supporting characters have significant others that remain with them for most of the series, or they have friends or social lives that are fulfilling in other ways. But these comedies acknowledge the often uncomfortable truth that we spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our families, and that many of our most important relationships—or at least most of the small, daily, mundane activities and events that give shape and definition to our inner lives—are rooted in the workplace. There’s something utopian about seeing a dozen-odd characters forge a long-lasting community over the course of however many weeks we spend with them.

In short, I love workplace comedies when they’re done well, and the anime shows that channel this particular vibe are especially good at plugging into a little something extra that we just can’t get with most live-action shows (although, again, Parks and Rec somehow managed to do it). The following shows are listed to give you a sense of the kind of show I mean. I’ve listed them in descending order, with the most paradigmatic show listed last. If there are any that I have neglected to mention, by all means let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to take recommendations.

Honorable Mention: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

A technical case could be made that this is mainly a high school club show. Hence the HM, rather than a place on the list. But it absolutely has the vibe of what I’m talking about. All the characters in this show are linked by their relationships with a single character: Nozaki, who happens to be (secretly, natch) a popular shojo mangaka. The big joke of the show is that this artist, whose comics are so in touch with the authentic romantic desires of his female readership, is just some clueless dude who takes inspiration from the dumb stuff that happens to the people he knows in real life—only when he translates his comically dense misunderstanding of the world into shojo tropes, it’s romantic gold. The real heart of the show, though, is the way Nozaki’s social network coalesces into its own pocket universe, one anchored in what amounts to his part-time job.

Honorable Mention: You’re Under Arrest!

I haven’t seen all the shows in this series, but I’m calling it a HM mostly because it doesn’t quite reach the absurd heights of most of the shows elsewhere on the list, and it’s not as straightforwardly a comedy (although it’s frequently quite funny). The premise is simple: the daily adventures of a pair of traffic cops in a Tokyo suburb. As with most of these shows, the premise is a useful anchor point for bouncing a lot of characters off each other and slowly developing their relationships over an extended period of time. It’s wonderful in its various incarnations; I’m just not certain it gives off the vibe I’m talking about.

How editors motivate their talent.

7.) The Comic Artist and His Assistants

For the most part, this is an amalgam of harem and ecchi tropes packed into mini-episodes. You’d be forgiven for thinking, initially, that it’s just another dumb show about a perverted manga artist who somehow manages to find himself in uncomfortable scenarios. It is that, certainly, and if mild fanservice and pantsu humor are your cuppa tea, this is a passable series. What elevates it is that it becomes much more about one of the assistants and the real value she gets out of working for her (pervert) boss than about the titular comic artist himself.

At that hour, this must be powerful magic indeed.

6.) The Devil Is a Part-Timer!

Ranked slightly below the next entry primarily because the workplace aspect of this show is so tertiary to… well, pretty much everything. That said, it’s a fantastic show. The title explains the central joke: when the Devil flees his parallel dimension after a group of heroes defeats him in battle, he winds up in our world. With only minimal reserves of magic left to draw on, the Devil is forced to get a part time job slinging burgers, and he decides to rebuild his empire on our Earth by working his way up the corporate ladder. A lot of this show is devoted to supernatural battles (all excellently done), but the core emotional trajectory is that of the demon king learning the value of life, work, and friends.

Every joke in this show’s quiver, captured in one image.

5.) I couldn’t become a hero, so I reluctantly decided to get a job.

Nearly contemporary to The Devil Is a Part Timer!, Yu-sibu is, in most ways, terribly inferior as a show. The jokes are telegraphed and uninspired, the central romance is beat-for-beat predictable, and there’s a ton of gratuitous fanservice. And when I saw “gratuitous,” I mean there’s an episode early on that’s barely the respectable side of tentacle porn. Once the show figures out that it’s a semi-earnest comedy about a commoner teaching a highborn how to value living like normal folk (albeit one that continues with gratuitous, if not-as-rapey, fanservice), it works a lot better. What saved this show for me was, at rock bottom, the workplace vibe. More than most shows on this list, it makes a point of emphasizing the hierarchical structure of the Japanese workplace and the web of mutual obligations that go with it. For that, its high-stakes, action-fantasy climax feels weirdly earned and sincere.

4.) Denki-Gai

While not a masterpiece, Denki-Gai is an almost perfect example of the kind of series I’m talking about. It takes place in a manga shop in Akibahara, so all the clerks are otaku of some variety. Like a lot of school club comedies, it spends perhaps a bit too much time making a spectacle of its characters’ eccentricities and not enough time delving into their lives outside of the shop—there’s a relatively thin supporting cast here that is not institutionally connected with otaku culture—but it’s warm and funny. The focus is on the developing relationships among the core cast of characters, and a lot of wacky situations are contrived in order to make that happen. Much as I hate retail work, this kind of show makes it seem reflexively appealing (and necessary) without losing sight of how hard it often is.

The Boss, obviously.

3.) Servant x Service

Based on a manga by the creator of Working!, SxS follows the misadventures of a group of civil servants. Of all the shows on this list, it’s probably the most consonant with the feel of similar American sitcoms: a bunch of wacky characters bouncing off one another in the confines of their cubicles, with occasional detours into the lives of patrons or tertiary friends, family, and acquaintances. While not exceptional, like Denki-Gai before it, it is an almost perfect distillation of the vibe I’m talking about into a single series. Given a sequel, I think it could expand on its core cast’s relationships pretty significantly without losing sight of the dynamics that make it so appealing. Oh, and the boss is either a talking rabbit or he uses a robotic rabbit as his at-work avatar.

2.) Polar Bear’s Cafe

One of the truly great anime series I’ve ever seen, Shirokuma Cafe is not entirely about or set in a workplace, but overflows with the vibe I’m talking about. Like any sitcom, it has a relatively small core cast, but like great anime comedies dating back to Urusei Yatsura, it expands continuously on its cast in a rather astonishing feat of sustained social worldbuilding. Also like Urusei Yatsura, Shirokuma Cafe has a perspective entirely peculiar to itself: the humor is wacky and deadpan—not unlike Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox—but also pretty chill. Every once in a while, it sneaks in just enough snark to leaven the genuinely utopian feel of the rest of the series.

It’s one of those shows that you can easily describe in a single sentence and never quite capture: Humans and talking animals who hang out together at a cafe get into lots of dumb adventures. If that appeals to you, great—go watch the show immediately. But the particular characters in this show each have distinctive personalities and their relationships really evolve over time. The evolution is slow, and is more of a constant deepening—a strengthening of community by routine—but it’s also peppered with delightful absurdity and eccentric characters whose eccentricity is (thankfully) not stereocopied from any number of twee, so-called “indie” films.

The titular cafe and a nearby zoo serve as the institutional loci for the show’s copious network of characters, but the core trio is the lazy Panda, the unctuous Penguin, and the puckish Polar Bear, who holds the entire community together with a mixture of trickster humor and patronly care. There’s truly no end of delights in this motley assemblage of personalities, which range from the bizarrely eccentric to the aggressively normal. The cherry on top is that, by the end of this series, you feel as though all the main characters have truly grown—not just grown, but grown together, with their ad hoc community having been utterly central to their (ever-so-slight) maturation.

Takanashi is, quite sadly, not entirely misunderstood by his contemporaries.

1.) Working!!

If every series were like Working!!, I suppose the original wouldn’t be so special. That said, the anime industry could stand to strive for a little more market saturation if every studio could take a crack at making at least one Working!!-esque show. This show tops the list for the reason that it is utterly paradigmatic of the kind of show I’m talking about. While the drama, such as it is, is driven primarily by romantic comedy subplots (basically, they’re all idiots who don’t know themselves well enough to be honest with the objects of their affection about how they feel), the appeal of this show is the obvious pleasure it takes in following the daily absurdities that crop up when a bunch of slightly peculiar people wind up working in the same place. Based on a four-panel manga by Karino Takatsu (also the creator of Servant x Service, remember?) Everyone has his or her quirk, none of which are totally debilitating, but which set them all up for the kind of codependent niches they can only really find with the particular social set at this particular place. Not to say they don’t all have lives outside the workplace—they do, and Working! does a masterful job layering them all into the misadventures of the workplace crew—but our perspective on those lives is always filtered through our judgment of the characters as formed through their interaction with each other at Wagnaria, the family restaurant in Hokkaido where they all work.

So far, there have been three series focused on the original cast, and a new series set somewhere else is apparently on the way. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to a show like this is that it makes working part-time in the food service industry seem like an innately desirable vocation. Given that working part-time in food service very nearly destroyed my mental health, that’s a testament to just how wonderful this offbeat slice-of-life comedy is. And as a sidenote, the opening themes for each series are about the most devilishly infectious confections you’re likely to hear. Whether you’re seeking the vibe I’ve struggled to articulate in this list, you should probably check Working!! out as soon as possible.

_____

[1] Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of the show than the film. I’ve been slow to recognize Altman’s genius over the years, but I’ve always like M*A*S*H. Two factors militate against my preferring it over the show: 1.) I grew up watching the TV version, whereas I didn’t see the film until early adulthood; nostalgia is a fearsome force when it wishes to be. 2.) As I grow older, I find that I much prefer bleeding-heart sentiment to the arch irony at which Altman excelled. I’m not sure that the characters in the TV show are necessarily more well-rounded than the ones in the film (although I think they are), but the anarchic film tends to use its heroes merely as archetypal tricksters, whereas most of the characters in the TV show are ultimately people. The only inflexibly dimensionless character in the show, Frank Burns, exited stage right just as the show figured out that its characters had to be people, and if the showrunners wanted to have moral monsters in the show, they couldn’t very well afford to have one as one of the regular cast. Rather than humanize Burns, they just wrote him out. Which is kind of a shame, since Larry Linville was brilliant, but also necessary, because it would be inappropriate to reframe the show’s tone on empathy, but retain the one character who couldn’t empathize with anyone, and with whom nobody else could, either.

Advertisements

About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: