The idea that there’s a kind of bait-and-switch happening with Punchline has been part of the series’ zeitgeist from the beginning – comments by the staff and cast have made sure of that. But truthfully, I think it’s really only the premiere that suggests this show was ever going to be anything but the plot-heavy sci-fi dramedy (and maybe tragedy) it’s becoming. We’ve seen a steady ramping up of plot complexity and unsettling foreshadowing since then, with no sign of abatement in-sight.
That’s been treated as a de facto positive thing, but there’s a flip-side to all this. Is it necessarily a positive if Punchline stops being a zany comedy altogether? It’s actually a pretty common evolutionary profile for screwball comedy anime to become much more serious in their second halves – especially towards the end of them – and that’s not always a change for the better. The fact is that what initially drew me in to Punchline (aside from the massive Gainax nostalgia) was the comedy. And this episode was the first one that didn’t have a whole lot of it.
The other aspect of this series that troubles me is one I’ve touched on before, the lack of characterizaton for Yuuta. I like Yuuta actually – he’s a funny and agreeably offbeat kid, but he’s gotten no fleshing out (or spiriting out) whatsoever. Is that just going to be something we have to live with because Punchline is effectively a VN written directly for the screen? I hope not – I’ve never been crazy about the audience-insert protagonist – but it is part and parcel of the medium, just as wildly complex plotlines are a hallmark of Uchikoshi Koutarou’s writing.
What this episode did have was a serious level-up in terms of plot twists, on top of the ones we’ve already gotten:
- Mika is apparently a refugee from some sort of Zankyou no Terror/Brynhildr government lab.
- Presumably as a result of this (Brynhildr?) Mika must take pills in order not to die.
- Apparently – at least according to Gliese (Mutou Tadashi), who says he’s an NSA agent – the Earth really is about to be hit by an asteroid. And Qmay’s aim is to stop the USAF from stopping it via a computer virus, which they need Maika to disable.
- Rabura was involved in some sort of strange possession incident when she was 5 years old that’s clearly relevant here.
- Muhi was given to Ito by Rabura’s younger brother (if we’ve met him, I don’t remember it) who Rabura describes as a “compulsive liar”.
What I think we’re really seeing here is that the Gainax factor is mainly a stylistic one – the clothes that Punchine is wearing. The VN structure is the actual body, and it’s the pairing of this writer with this director and animation director that makes Punchline interesting – and is going to make or break it as a series. Some of the stuff in the second half of the episode felt a little discordant – the massive catfight among the girls was a bit extreme and sudden, I thought.
The developing plot here is a very interesting one, and I’m curious to see where it’s going. Clearly there are echoes of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks happening here, and it’s no surprise this theme keeps recurring in anime – it’s probably the seminal cultural moment in postwar Japan. But Punchline is beginning to feel so VN-like that I’m getting a bit nervous. There are limitations to that medium that are the reasons why it doesn’t always work as well when translated to anime – my hope is that though this is a multi-platform project, the fact that the anime is not literally an adaptation may alleviate some of that. I hope we don’t totally lose the comedy as Punchline gets darker and darker (the Gainax shows the premiere called to mind never stopped being funny, even as they got serious), and I hope Yuuta is allowed to become more than the likeable cipher he is right now.