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Long long ago, and in a season far far away, in a fit of somewhat intentional provocation, I wondered out loud whether Lucky Star could ever compare in laughs to that classic, Azumanga Daioh. I also said I was very willing to be proven wrong. Was I? Well, no. But the gap between the two has considerably narrowed for me and it’s time to think about why this is a very successful otaku comedy after all.
I’ve already outlined why I like Azumanga Daioh: its blend of slapstick and extremely lovable characters, as well as genius comic timing, ensured that it was a very consistent laugh. Lucky Star is not really a slapstick show, though it has its exaggerated and over-the-top moments–mostly in the “Lucky Channel” segments rather than in the main show, which does become rather slapstick by the end. But Lucky Star is a calmer, more verbal kind of comedy. It is based on painfully acute, accurate observation of the annoyances of daily life as well as the minutiae of otaku obsession. But most importantly, the main quartet of characters–Konata, Kagame, Tsukasa, and Miyuki–turn out to be as lovable as any ensemble of comic high school girls.
It was obvious from the start that Konata, with her trademark smirk that was shown even in the promos, was the star of the show. This makes it very different from Azumanga, which had no one central character. Konata is that rarest of birds in real life–an athletic girl with male otaku tastes in games, anime, and manga. Two characters play off of the fact that her existence is, for the most part, a wish fulfillment for the predominantly male otaku who are watching the show–Kagame with her reminders that this is hardly normal for a girl her age, and Konata’s pedo dad, who affirms (often ridiculously) his daughter’s, and therefore the audience’s, tastes. A good half, and perhaps the majority, of the show’s gags consist of Konata saying something otakuish and Kagame rebuking it. Scenes take place at Comiket, Gamers, and even a cosplay cafe where Kyoto Animation indulges in a full blown cross-promotions with their other big franchise, Haruhi Suzumiya. (The constant references to that show got annoying after a while.) The life of fandom is lovingly depicted: spending hours in front of the computer, in front of the TV, swearing that this is only a short break, but ending up playing or watching for hours instead. It is the story of a good chunk of my life over the years, truth be told; it is probably your story too, if you are reading this. Konata often speaks for us all, which is why we love her. That knowing, Mona Lisa grin pasted on her face so much of the time is like a wink to the audience, a signal: “I know what you know, and we’re part of this secret club together.”
So it’s easy to love Konata if you’re an otaku. But the other characters are lovable too, especially Tsukasa and Kagame and their whole large family. Their family life is a close and warm one, with familiar annoyances (Tsukasa having trouble staying awake–how I know what that’s like!–Tsukasa excitedly texting everyone when she discovers SMS, Tsukasa–wait a minute, these are about one person!), sitting around the TV trying to guess game show answers. There’s a coziness that oozes from the atmosphere of this whole show, which Kagame’s family exemplifies, because so much of the humor revolves around things that would be ordinarily seen as trivial: the right way to eat a pastry, what to do when mosquitoes bite. Only once or twice does the show dare to touch on more serious matters, and that comes near the end; and that’s OK. There is something profoundly comforting about the focus on daily trivia; you only worry and think about such things when the remainder of life–the presence of school, the presence of parents, the cycle of festival and vacation and seasons–is secure. I came to genuinely appreciate, and laugh hard, at how accurately observed the micro-situations which compose each episode often were. What other show would talk about the following things I’ve been guilty of:
- Taking the box or magazine in the back because the one in front is usually slightly worn.
- Rationalizing extremely long “breaks” from studying with “it’s only going to be 5 minutes!” and “I wouldn’t be able to study at all if I didn’t take a break now!”
- Being unable to get up from bed early even when someone tries to wake you and the alarm goes off.
- Expressing frustration when current events upset the anime showing schedule. (Like this recent example we all know about.)
I’ve said before that in the slice-of-life genre, realism is extremely important. For such a crudely animated (for KyoAni) and obviously fan-driven show, I was actually amazed at all this situational accuracy, which is almost like Seinfeld’s famous “So what’s the deal with…” type humor. The jokes I laughed hardest at, of course, were the procrastination ones. You don’t know how much I’ve procrastinated to watch Seto no Hanayome lately. But Konata would. Oh yes she would.
The second half introduction of more characters did, however, threaten to upset the near-perfect cycle of repartee that the show had already begun to develop early on. Not too much, though, and eventually each new character developed their own schtick–I especially liked the fujoushi and her overactive, yuri-driven imagination (verifying in part the result of our fangirl fetish poll!). But given that the central characters are much more distinct and clear, so long as they got plenty of screentime it was ok.
What about the Lucky Channel segments that closed each episode? I predicted it would get stale early on. How utterly, utterly wrong I was. I’m amazed, in fact, at how consistently amusing they could take the same basic premise and joke each time, with increasingly outlandish variations on Akira’s cynicism and Shiraishi’s haplessness (I still have a hard time believing he is in fact a real person). The final few episodes in particular were golden, not to mention a rather wicked opportunity for Yuko Goto to make an appearance in a very non-typical role–especially given that so much of the Haruhi cast was present, including Haruhi-sama herself in the person of Aya Hirano. Which they explicitly make reference to at one point, Aya playing Konata squeeing over an Aya appearance in Akiba in support of Haruhi. +100 postmodern points for that. Plus, that girl’s ego must have inflated several psi at that moment!
The one part I did get rather tired of was live-action Shiraishi singing songs in the show’s second half. He actually doesn’t have a half-bad voice, but it was just annoying after a while. I preferred the Konata karaoke.
So we return to the original question I started this show with: why isn’t this, at the end of the day, quite as funny as Azumanga Daioh? Now I have some conclusions, and they’re really not that different from my original conclusions, but I would state them a lot less harshly now. For one, I accept it’s simply a different brand of humor. It’s low key and verbally driven, usually turning on one character saying something funny and leaving it at that. The mini-gags are also considerably more hit or miss.
Plus, while the characters are intensely likable, even lovable, one of the best things in Azumanga was the subtle but unmistakable growth the characters undergo, from the start to the end of high school. There was a continuity in Azumanga that not only built on top of previous gags and character knowledge, but, astonishingly, softened my heart to the point where I felt sad–yes, sad–when the series ended because I wouldn’t ever get to see new adventures from these kooky girls anymore. The final episode of Lucky Star did not make me feel tremendous warmth and nostalgia the way the end of Azumanga did; Lucky Star barely, except at the midpoint and near the end, gave any sense of a passage of time. The truth of the matter is that the laughter I shared with Lucky Star was mostly a knowing chuckle, much like Konata’s own laugh–based on recognition of the situation and perhaps a tinge of embarassment. The kind of laughter I had in Azumanga was often belly laughter, and in the end, laughter through tears. I can’t explain it any further, really. There was a real heart in Azumanga which is so rare in comedy, even good ones, one that it would probably be unfair to ask other shows to live up to. The very same manga author hasn’t even been able to replicate it in Yotsuba. Lucky Star tried only once to develop something beyond a surface emotional understanding of the characters, and it mostly succeeded–I mean, of course, episode 22–but it’s only one episode, and so different from other episodes that it sticks out like a sore thumb.
But none of this means that Lucky Star is bad. Hardly. In fact, it’s really quite ingenuious in its small way, a sliver of otaku life that reveals the layers of pop-culture trivia and daily life which we think about 90% of the time. This is not a show for the other 10% when we ponder the intangible and important. And that’s all right. This is comfort food, but it’s comfort food in the way your mother’s homemade casserole was comfort food: it was simple and wouldn’t necessarily compete in a gourmet restaurant, but it’s warm and it’s served just the way you like it.
Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances
Animation: 65%/85%. This is a tough one. The low grade is mostly because from an objective standard, this is a rather crudely animated piece, especially coming from the now vaunted Kyoto Animation. Only in flashes is their famous attention to background, fluidity, and detail evident, and often in the most unlikely places. On the other hand, a very strong case can be made that this doesn’t matter one bit. This is a quick, gag anime, not the latest epic or even Haruhi Suzumiya. It stays true to its 4-koma roots and its moeness. So I’ll let you pick whichever score you prefer.
Music: 70%. I think this is going to be my standard score for music that serves its purpose and not much else. Though I do have a few of the tunes stuck in my head, since there are some consistent themes that appear in certain kinds of jokes, as well as faux classical pieces. This is not all that different from the way Azumanga handled music, too. However, a special grade must be attached for
Outside Music: 80%. I mean the constant referencing and singing of Haruhi and other anime theme songs at the end, during the show, and elsewhere. The Konata karaoke segments are better than the Shiraishi singing, but it completely succeeded in its goal, which was to signal to the audience: here is a show for you, dear otaku! The more obscure the song, the better.
Story: 80%. This is not a story driven anime in the least. It’s a gag show, driven by characters with distinct and ultimately lovable personalities. And as such, it succeeds, particularly when they are discussing otaku minutia and everyday annoyances. It is not as glowing and heartfelt as Azumanga, but that’s also ok. Plus, the Lucky Channel duo are unexpectedly fresh and hilarious, and I actually looked forward to each segment at the end of each episode, even in the second half of the series.
Overall: 78%. Subtract 20% if you are not a self-proclaimed otaku, though. This show is not for you if you’re not. But if you are, and you like observational humor and cute, likable characters who understand exactly how you really operate in your daily life, it’s a winner.