At the risk of sounding obsessed with the topic, my instant – and I mean instant – reaction to the beginning of Punchline was “Yay – another series trying to bottle Gainax”. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one try this hard or be so blatant about it, either. And sure enough, the director (Uemura Yutaka) and character designer/animation director (Iwasaki Shouta) are both Gainax expats. I guess everyone else in the industry has raided that cupboard – why shouldn’t MAPPA have a go at the leftovers?
The thing is, though, that this show might, based on the premiere, just have the chops to pull it off. I know creator Uchikoshi Koutarou (Ever 17) has a good reputation in the VN industry, but I don’t know his work so I have no biases there one way or the other. All I know is what I see, and what I see is a show that’s unapologetically riffing on Gainax (Abenobashi Mahou Shotengai and Cutie Honey come to mind, but you can pretty much insert anything up to 2007), with a bit of J.C. Staff’s Excel Saga thrown in. The character designs, the animation style, the facial expressions, the scene transitions – it could hardly be more blatant.
The question this brings to mind for me is, for viewers for whom anime may as well have been invented in 2010, does this show make any sense whatsoever? Not so much the plot, which is nonsensical by design, but the existence of the show itself? Do modern viewers have the historical context to understand what Punchline is trying to do? Judging by the initial response I’ve seen – a collective “What the fuck was that?!” – I would have to say no. But then, unleashing Punchline (the title, by the way, is a pun based on panchira – “a glimpse of panty”) on an unprepared audience for whom vintage Gainax may as well be hieroglyphics on a tablet in a museum display case is like walking into a 7th-grade English class and speaking classical Greek. How could you not expect them to think it’s gibberish?
I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to talk someone down from a bad acid trip, but my advice to new viewers is that the best way to approach Punchline is not to try and understand it – it’s not designed to be understood in the conventional sense. Why does a kid who looks about 13 live alone in a building full of girls who constantly flash him? Why are these girls part of a group called “Strange Juice” that fights a terrorist group called “QMay” – and what is QMay terrorizing against? Why do we get our second floating, talking cat in two days as a spirit guide? We will get “answers” to some of this over time, but they’re not the point – the point is the non-stop insanity and endless stream of sight gags. Eventually, if the writing and direction is good enough, a story does got told in a sort of indirect way, and you do feel things when watching. But you have to really good to pull that off, or what you end up with really is gibberish.
Are Uchikoshi and Uemura good enough to pull this off? I certainly have no idea – as I said I know Uchikoshi only by reputation, and while Uemura did a good job on Dantalian no Shoka (the last actual Gainax show to remotely channel Gainax) it was hardly flawless. But I will say this, as a follow-up to the cool/poser point I made after Kekkai Sensen – so far, Punchline does get Gainax cool. It’s not posing here, it’s the real deal, and if it sticks to its guns and doesn’t make concessions to try and fit in with the contemporary anime landscape, it might just end up being pretty good. There’s a huge range of success/failure in this genre, with FLCL being the ultimate example of a masterpiece and the roadside littered with the corpses of shows that flew too close to the sun.
I see enough in the premiere to encourage me. The “premise” is sufficiently stupid – protagonist Iridatsu Yuuta (Inoue Marina, who’s got the chops to make this work, and incidentally, played Yoko in TTGL) has been booted out of his possessed body by a spirit invader, and if he gets too excited (which seems to mean two consecutive panty shots) an asteroid will destroy the Earth. There’s some very funny stuff in the premiere – my favorite moment being when aforementioned spirit guide Chiranosuke (Yoshida Yuri, who I’ve yet to like in any role) pops open a laptop to explain to Yuuta what’s happened to him and a cat porn video is playing. But it’s a dangerous game Punchline is playing here, and so many things can go wrong – the humor can grow stale, the series can lose its nerve. And the thing is FLCL actually had a story, and a great one (it’s a highly symbolic riff on puberty and the adolescent male psyche) behind all the craziness and humor. Still – it’s sort of interesting to see a show so blatantly try and channel the Gainax insanity. I thought Mikagura Gakuen was pretty open about it, but in that regard Punchline blows it out of the water.