(this review contains spoilers – you have been warned!)
The ‘stuck in an MMO’ story, on the back of SAO’s commercial success, has been repeated enough to become a genre in itself. Give Studio Deen that story, however, and they turn it on its head. If they truly are ‘saving anime’ with shows like Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, it fits that they’ve revitalised the tropes of fantasy harem anime all over with their second project of the Winter 2016 season.
KonoSuba, short for Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo!, is a satirical love-letter to fans and cynics of might and magic in otaku culture. It succeeds not only by parodying a fantasy world, but by forming a world of it’s own that feels genuine and attractive. The cast and plot flow naturally from escapade to escapade, all in the irony of never leaving the tutorial town.
But as powerful as the characters become towards the end, the show it begins to lose track of what makes it special, like an adventurer forgetting the skills they’ve acquired. In the battle to keep its audience hooked, KonoSuba buckles and ends up relying on dead humour that not even the highest level necromancer could make lively.
The premise is beyond hilarious, immediately laughing at itself. Kazuma, an otaku insecure about his hikikomori lifestyle, drags a Goddess, Aqua, down from her throne and into an MMORPG world that promises a dream of adventure but doesn’t deliver it in the slightest. The pair couldn’t be more perfect for each other, both ‘shut-ins’ of some variety, both playing God in their position of power and separation from mankind.
Their goals are well-defined and naturally drive their characters into collaborating or clashing with each other. Kazuma wants a rich, comfortable lifestyle, while Aqua always vies for attention. But they’re doomed to ironic failure. The Goddess keeps landing our cast in poverty, a far cry from the monetary devotion of deity is used to. As for our hero, we’d expect his ‘steal’ skill to slowly yield him his riches. But with a maxed-out luck stat, the only thing he can pilfer from girls are their panties.
The story finds momentum straight away. Rather than enter overblown battle sequences, our heroes first find themselves stuck in manual labour jobs, sleeping in a stable. It’s both idyllic in how comfortable they find themselves, as a well-paced montage shows, but tragic for Kazuma who came into this world craving adventure. KonoSuba’s first deep note of satire is unexpectedly sober; no matter what world you escape to, you’ve got to work to earn your keep. Conversations early on about the danger and minimal pay of monster-killing quests heighten this pleasant realism that underpins much of the show’s comedy.
The imbalance of the world takes the realism one step further; early kill quests pit our cast against giant frogs that Aqua can rarely keep out of the mouths of, and eventually the cast must fend off an apparently unstoppable war machine that looks set to level the tutorial town as it passes. The show’s use of setting is comic but clever; it keeps a constant irony around every encounter, but also reinforces the idea that you can have great adventures from the moment you start something. It’s far cry from any game you’ve played that has hours of monotonous hand-holding before you feel free to explore. Still, the message is marred by a cast that develops into a remarkably unadventurous, typecast troop.
It isn’t long before the duo are joined by more members to form their stereotypical RPG party (Knight, Mage, Priest and the jack-of-all-trades protagonist). Following on from our hero’s pantie-snatching ‘flaw’, this is where the cracks really begin to show. Megumin, a chuunibyou wizard, is undeniably adorable and fits into the pathetic nature of the party. She wields incredible power, but falls flat on her face every battle as her spells drain her of all her energy. Like a physical catchphrase, this joke never gets old.
What gets uncomfortable, however, is how she often talks about her magic; there’s an exoticness, an illicitness, a lustfulness behind her ‘explosion magic’. It’s hard to ignore the connotation to orgasm, particularly in how she’s at one point shown seductively embracing her staff. A more mature character would make this no issue, but it’s established that she’s in her early teens. This ‘loli’ aspect of her character may be popular for some viewers, but her lewdness would be better off staying in fanart. She already has the qualities of ‘best girl’ without her tantalizing sexualization of her power.
It gets worse. The party’s crusader, Darkness, is – fitting to her job – a sexual masochist. We have the ‘giving’ aspect of the sexual undertone in Megumin, and the ‘receiving’ element in hers. While Megumin is more than just her fanservice subtext, however, Darkness aspires to be nothing else. One Punch Man may have repeated one ‘joke’ over and over, but that had the thematic resonance of the struggle of the Japanese salaryman. What of Darkness? Is her clumsiness with a sword, a phallic symbol of sexual sadism, because of a Freudian contradiction with her masochistic desires? No-one cares; the same shallowjoke of her finding pleasure from assault and torment, grossing out baddies with fantasies of what they might do to her, quickly grows stale, then sickly.
Even deviance from this dynamic of her’s is only observed as its absence. The grotesque fanservice-fest of Episode 9 ought to deliver a hilarious inversion to her character, as she finally finds herself in a real, oppressive sexual situation, but by this time we’ve grown tired of the flustered horniness she faces each fear with, and the comedy and characterization are lost. Darkness is KonoSuba’s sour note, a character left out of the fridge for too long, too often resorted to for unimaginative gags, who accomplishes nothing for the plot. Far cooler characters come and go throughout the series; who wouldn’t have wanted more of Mitsurugi, the smarmy weakling whose one-shot power comes only from his sword?
Often the only saving grace of Darkness is Kazuma’s fantastic comebacks. Jun Fukushima plays the protagonist with a snappy, witty tone and comic timing that’s second to none. But behind the well-paced gags, Kazuma ends up weighing down the show with his contribution to an unfunny and unwelcome portrayal of gender relations. It’s understandable that the men who end up in KonoSuba’s world are RPG fanatics who are easily equated to perverts, but KonoSuba summarises the whole of masculinity under that umbrella; even the Devil King’s generals have the objectification of women ingrained in them. Our only noble man seems to be Mitsurugi, but he’s proven to be a wimp. It could be funny that chivalry is shooed away, but mild-to-blatant misogyny is the norm, not a subversion, of harem anime.
Whenever one of Kazuma’s female cohorts, usually Aqua, need to get one up on him, they resort to feigning gross acts of indecency done against them, blackmailing Kazuma with embarrassment, or they whine. Along with this, Darkness’s masochism and Megumin’s collapses work too overtly as an overall paradigm of female submission for male pleasure. Fanservice moments like Megumin losing her underwear in Episode 8 encourage a kind of pleasure that’s contrary to the plot on-screen. It may be a traditional resource of the harem show, but KonoSuba attracts praise for its mockery of such things. It’s not long before it starts to feel like this is something the show should be parodying, not performing.
Deduct Kazuma from the show, and like any harem it falls apart. Given how likeable Megumin is, and how much more (infinitely more) could be done with Darkness, more autonomy from these characters should be sensed at the end. Aqua is the only girl who can face Kazuma on a level playing field, and while her spoiled brat persona is hilarious at first, a lack of development away from it becomes dissatisfying. Maybe the cast’s way of becoming more and more comfortable in their characterization, with few challenges to how they define themselves in the second half of the series, fit in well with Kazuma’s goal to settle down in peace in the tutorial town the cast is tied to. But as it’s time for them to leave by the end of the series, we get a warning that our foursome won’t be moulded much by next season’s experiences either.
The unfulfilling dynamic of the central cast, and the overuse of off-putting sexual humour, end up holding KonoSuba’s first season back from delivering the utter hilarity that the first few episodes promise. Fortunately, its antagonists are always a hoot. Be it Verdia’s insecurity as a boss monster, Aqua’s overextended communion with the mansion’s ghosts, or the Destroyer’s way of being popular with children, KonoSuba’s battles are enveloped with laughs and the undermining of what they usually stand for. Enjoyably-animated action sequences manage to sustain a sense of the serious underneath all the humour, keeping most of the cast (sorry Darkness) rooted as realistic human beings we don’t want to see die.
Cementing the show’s production are a number of good choices when it comes to music and editing. The OP and ED sequences and songs are a treat, and the OST puts vigour into every gag by following the great comic timing of the cast. Also, throughout each episode, cross-cutting is handled by end cards which members of the cast sometimes blur their speech into, exclaiming the short form of the title almost like a swear-word. It keeps the beat of the comedy better, and helps to encourage the light-hearted tone that makes KonoSuba’s world feel so pleasant to explore.
KonoSuba’s second season should be eagerly awaited, as the greatest flaw of the its first run is how it fails to take the advantages it offers itself, defaulting to dull does-what-it-says-on-the-tits ‘comedy’ that only gets laughs because of comic delivery and not comic content. Its world is at once a great mockery of a fantasy realm and an ideal place to settle down. There are no ‘feels’, no impending doom, which subverts the whole point of the world having become a terrible place due to the Devil King’s rule. We only see the Devil King through his generals, and their oddball humour and hilarious interactions with the cast give us the adventurous spirit to want to step out of the tutorial and towards his fortress in search of even funnier stabs at the RPG genre.
If it had avoided the pitfalls of Japanese comedy, KonoSuba would be a perfect light-hearted parody. It’ll definitely keep its audience hooked into the second season, but it could have done so much more with its first.
Good for: Pacifying anti-‘stuck in an MMO’ circlejerks. Explosions.
Shortfalls: Playing it safe with repetitive, unadventurous humour. Getting too cosy with other harem tropes.
Lowlight: Kazuma’s Episode 9 ‘dream’.
The Bottom Line: A hilarious parody of tired RPG tropes, but the same jokes soon get stale. KonoSuba may mock its fantasy world, but it remains trapped in the uncomfortable cliches of Japanese comedy. It’s a bumpy but still worthwhile ride.
—— Must Watch! ——
—— Great! ——
—— Cool! ——
—— Decent! ——
—— Poor! ——
—— Terrible! ——
—— Almost Unwatchable! ——