First Impressions – Punchline

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My one-line synopsis of Punchline: “You had to be there”.

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.

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  1. c

    Can't believe I'm saying this, Mistress of the Prudes that I am, but I freaking loved Punchline. The color, the energy, the direction, the sound; it was nuts but it's a nuts I can get behind.

    Well. Except for the actual ecchi premise, all about dem panty shots. At least I knew that from the get-go.

    I think the thing that's getting me past that hurdle is how much i love Uchikoshi's solid character writing, and even in that short amount of time the first episode gives us, I see his firm hooks in there. That and his tight plotting. (Okay, that's totally speculation; but the little clues we get from each character having their own schedule/business/timelines gives me similar echoes from hus other works.)

    It's beyond trippy to see his stuff in conjunction with the madness on screen, but knowing what I do about what HE can do, and seeing how this first episode played out, I think this is gonna work. They might this pull off. Wow.

    (Let's see how long 'til the ecchi gets too much and I drop it. :p)

    Btw, I keep hearing comments about how very unfunny it was. Was it supposed to be funny? I never got the impression it was trying to be a comedy. More, uh. Well. What it is, really! A thing that might make you laugh but will do it's own thing in the pursuit of unravelling its story.

  2. That last sentence sounds like a pretty good description to me, but I do think it's trying to be funny. In the same way FLCL was trying (and succeeding) to be funny. For me the cat porn bit was the funniest moment of the season so far.

    I think that reaction you describe is very much for the reason I laid out in the post – this simply isn't how anime comedy is done these days. It's as if this show is speaking a foreign language the viewers have never heard before.

  3. D

    Yep. Watching it the phrase that kept going through my head was "random" or rather it seemed like there were 2 gainax shows being made simultaneously here, one a sort of Cutey Honey-type girl superhero thing with vibrant colors and action, and the other a kind of dumb/self aware Panty-and-Stocking etchi comedy.

    It was interesting enough I'll certainly watch the next episode, though.

  4. One bewildered commenter on another site said "that was like 5 animes in one" to which my reply was "Yeah – four Gainax shows and Excel Saga".

  5. s

    Uchikoshi is more of a mixed bag, I'd say. You mentioned Ever17 – personally, I didn't think too highly about it, to be honest. His primary claim to fame for the western fanbase would probably the Zero Escape series – consisting of 999 and Virtue's Last Reward so far. Both very well received in the west, both apparently bombed pretty hard in Japan so that he's struggling to get the budget for the third and final game of the trilogy. So I -do- kind of wish for this anime to work out on some level, since the Zero Escape series is good. As in, really good. Has some flaws here and there, but those are fairly minor.

    I have to say that the ecchi really is a bit too much for me. I don't mind if it tries to imitate FLCL and actually succeeds at it, since FLCL is in my own top 10 to begin with, but… eh, I'm still not getting my hopes up too much here. He's already proven that he can write both very good AND very bad stuff.

  6. E

    Its an interesting anime, sort of plays out like a game. I have no idea if the style would translate well to anime, I hope it does but quite a lot of it seem to play out as point and click events. I like the visual gags and how non-mainstream the show is, how its panty shots are different from mainstream even though they are still pretty ecchi.

    Great post by the way, its really refreshing to see someone with a different opinion from the majority, even though I hadn't started watching anime before 2006.

  7. K

    WTF – that's my comment for this anime.

  8. What's really interesting to me isn't just that Punchline is receiving a collecting "WTF" from most viewers, but that it seems to have put the original Gainax catalogue on trial. It's presence is getting people talking about whether the whole Gainax thing is overblown, the product of nostalgia freaks and hipsters (not in my damn opinion, for the record). So I would argue that means its getting something right here – achieving the vibe it's setting out to achieve.

  9. E

    As someone who is not really a fan of TTGL(admittedly because of that one hot springs episode with yoko where I promptly dropped it), I've never really understood the appeal of Gainax animation. It does look cool at times I admit, but I've always found it to be style over substance. I haven't watched FLCL and most of their other works, which MIGHT win me over, so far only Evangelion has been completed.

    I think that the whole difference in opinion over Gainax is because most fans post 2010 got into anime because they were a fan of the current style and not pre-2010s Gainax. So far over the last five years Gainax has been absent, with only Kill la kill being the most popular show that wields its cool factor as its main appeal. That probably shaped the current audience a lot, more people right now might be attracted to stuff like Kyoani atmosphere instead of Gainax cool.

  10. Nothing in your post disturbs me so much as the notion that KlK is anything like a real Gainax anime. It's not.

    TTGL is, you must understand, the last of the "classic" Gainax shows – it marks the end of their creative and commercial peak. It's not a purely typical Gainax show by any means, certainly not thematically (it was written by a well-known playwright with no prior history with the studio) although from a visual standpoint it certainly is classic Gainax (mostly).

    To me it's pretty crazy to judge a 27-episode series with very sophisticated and complex plot and character arcs by one episode, much less a hot springs episode (which was a satire of other hot springs episodes). But in any case, I do like TTGL very much while recognizing its flaws. Still, it's by no means a prototypical Gainax show and neither is NGE. It's their most famous and important, but quite singular – it doesn't really fit in with the rest of their catalog.

  11. E

    As someone who only made it to episode 4 of KLK, my perspective on this is probably quite flawed… TTGL never really grabbed me from the beginning so the hot springs episode was the final nail on the coffin.

    Its interesting to note that TTGL is not a protypical Gainax show, I really need to get one of them onto my backlog. Would you say that FLCL fits in more?

  12. It's not you – the problem is that I fear an entire generation of fans think KlK is representative of Gainax. And that kills me.

    While I would never deny NGE is Gainax' most important and influential series, my favorite is FLCL. It's simultaneously unique while being, for me, the pinnacle of whatever the Gainax mystique is. It's also only 6 half-hour episodes so if you don't like it, you're not out much.

  13. S

    As someone who loves Kill la Kill, I'd say we just may safely label P&SwG and in part even TTGL as being TRIGGER-style ante-litteram rather than Gainax. They're their own thing, which of course is influenced by that past like everything is, but it's also a very different thing from Evangelion, FLCL or good ol' Gunbuster (which personally I actually enjoyed more than Evangelion, go figure).

  14. Yes, I think that's about right – I do think P, S & G is more an Imaishi series than a Gainax series, and it's spiritually more a Trigger anime than a Gainax anime. A different breed, by design.

  15. Y

    FLCL is one of my favorite anime. But KlK and this one? I couldn't/won't make it to Ep. 2. Just not working for me. Maybe I need to watch FLCL again… It's been a while… But as far as remember, the visuals have almost nothing in common with those 2. Maybe on a very superficial level, but they're in completely different leagues I feel…

  16. A

    "it's a highly symbolic riff on puberty and the adolescent male psyche"

    You have no idea I've waited to see someone else understand FLCL. And to top it off by immediately shooting down KlK as anything remotely similar… thank you.

    Regarding WTF responses to anime, I'm honestly having more of that towards Blood Blockade Battlefront. Or maybe that's more of a "WHERE the F is this going?" But I'm simply loving Punchline. I don't really care where it goes. It puts a smile on my face.

  17. It seems to have become a badge of hip in certain cliques to rip FLCL as overrated. Why? Who knows – I suspect it's the growing tendency to condemn anything creatively ambitious as pretentious, at least in anime.

    Kill la Kill, to me, represents the essence of Trigger so far – crass, extremely calculated and mostly soulless. We'll see about Punchline – it's no FLCL, but based on the premiere I'm cautiously optimistic that it's at least authentic.

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