MMF: Respect, But Not Love, for Rumiko Takahashi

April 26th, 2011

Rumiko Takahashi taught me that I hate low comedy.

Low comedy, hijinks, farce, or what I refer to as “wackiness ensues,” i.e., the use of physical gags, has been a standard form of humor at least since Greek Drama. (You can’t convince me, however, that prehistoric pies weren’t being thrown in prehistoric faces….)

In live-action performances, low comedy often requires extraordinary physical skill – you can see this watching a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton movie. If you like Rumiko Takahashi, I strongly suggest you do watch Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton movies. You will love them. Even I love them – and I don’t like physical comedy.

In comic performances, low comedy requires, at minimum, excellent timing. Slapping the boke on the back of the head a little too slow ruins the dramatic tension that was created by the boke being a doofus.

In comics or manga, low comedy still  requires excellent pacing. A storyteller must be able to break up the comedy with drama, just enough – not too much – and the drama must never overshadow the comedy. As fanfic writers found, when Ranma 1/2 became the first massively popular series to spawn fanfic here in the US – comedy is hard, and farce is nigh on impossible, to create well in text. So, when faced with a manga built on impeccably timed and framed low comedy, there’s only two routes you can take – one, to desperately try to recreate the slamming doors and “I’ll get you!” comedy and fail miserably or, to forget the comedy and wallow in the drama. Both kinds of fanfic mostly suck, but they taught me how *hard* comedy is to write. Wit, sure, no problem. Low comedy? Forget it. For instance…

Telling you that someone falls out a window and lands on a ladder precariously balanced on a sawhorse, so that they end up walking back and forth on the ladder so that it balances, then they slowly tilt it to one side and walk down to the ground is pretty damn boring. But if you *saw* it, it would be a pretty funny trick, don’t you think? A comic genius like Lloyd or Keaton could turn it into five solid minutes of fun.

Rumiko Takahashi understands humor. She understands that to balance the humor there has to be a smidgen of drama and a sympathetic, if not entirely average, protagonist. She knows how to balance romantic interest without ever really moving the romance forward. She understands how to balance on the ladder, slowly walking from side to side to keep the thing level on the sawhorse of audience attention.

I have sincere respect for Rumiko Takahashi’s skills. She taught me important lessons about balance and timing – lessons I still incorporate in my own writing. But she also taught me something else about myself.

Rumiko Takahashi taught me that I really hate low comedy.

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11 Responses

  1. You’re breaking my heart! I love low comedy done well. Done terribly (think most stoner comedies or Adam Sandler vehichles) and it makes me weep.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing!

  2. @Rob McMonigal – I like it well done too – see Buster Keaton, etc.

    We at least agree that watching Adam Sandler is like stabbing one’s self with a BBQ fork. ^_^;;

  3. @Erica Between a fork in the back and watching Sandler–I’ll take the fork.

  4. @Rob McMonigal Totally with you on that.

  5. Pocky says:

    I think I appreciate most forms of comedy, simply on how well it’s done; regardless of sub-genre.

    Let’s take for example; Shaun of the Dead. Parody is usually reserved for the end of a genre’s life, when everything has been done to death, that audiences get tired or want to see it mocked, even with good intentions. Shaun of the Dean was a parody of love, that used the aforementioned low comedy, irony and surprisingly strong dramatic moments, which all worked do to greatly written characters and pacing. Most parody usually is played for straight comedy, i.e. hi jinks ensue, as you say. However, a movie like Shaun of the Dead manages to parody the character structure, common events and subculture of the zombie-movie horror genre.

    In my opinion, the only really bad low comedy is the kind of low comedy we’ve seen in things like disaster movie, or various other works, which try to hard to make popular reference, without actually trying to strike any flavor of real humor. And when it’s not funny, it’s not worth much to the genre as a whole, and usually hurts it.

    but these are mostly examples of movies, it does happen in manga, at least for me, to a certain extent. Usually I have more problems with tone shifts that are done poorly. A series has been all laughs up till one second, then the series goes all serious on us, and tries to tug on our heartstrings. If we like the characters, it can work, if they were just funny, it’ll fall flat.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Awesome post as usual! :)

    “…there’s only two routes you can take – one, to desperately try to recreate the slamming doors and “I’ll get you!” comedy and fail miserably or, to forget the comedy and wallow in the drama. Both kinds of fanfic mostly suck, but they taught me how *hard* comedy is to write…”

    Good points!

    A third route I’ve seen taken in some Ranma 1/2 fanfics (I’ve probably read way more of this stuff than you have, and I totally respect that you have less time to waste and may not have come across any of these!) is to try to recreate the giggles themselves, not recreate how they were induced. Not recreating the the slamming doors and “I’ll get you!” physical slapstick comedy in the manga-format and anime-format originals, but trying to get similar OMGWTFBBQ reactions out of the audience using low *prose* comedy (what is this called? verbal gags? language slapstick? I dunno) for the text file fanfic format.

    Would you like me to try to find some of these fanfics again for you? :)

    “Telling you that someone falls out a window and lands on a ladder precariously balanced on a sawhorse, so that they end up walking back and forth on the ladder so that it balances, then they slowly tilt it to one side and walk down to the ground is pretty damn boring. But if you *saw* it, it would be a pretty funny trick, don’t you think?”

    Yeah! Likewise (I’m paraphrasing here since I don’t have the original to quote and can’t even remember the author’s nom de net! :( ), if you *saw* two characters standing there and talking:

    “…by the way Shampoo, why do you talk like that?”
    “Like what? Ah! Shampoo fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Tibetan, and Ancient Greek but not in Japanese. Shampoo very direct, Japanese not so direct. Philosophical differences maybe?”
    “Um, OK…”

    it might be boring because the two characters are just talking heads. But when I *read* it, I found it pretty funny (and a sweet debunking of the immigrant’s-Japanese-is-broken-ergo-she’s-stupid stereotype in some other fanfics). :)

    “…I have sincere respect for Rumiko Takahashi’s skills. She taught me important lessons about balance and timing – lessons I still incorporate in my own writing. But she also taught me something else about myself.

    “Rumiko Takahashi taught me that I really hate low comedy.”

    Well said and right on.

  7. @Anonymous – That Shampoo line may well be the best Ranma 1/2 fanfic line ever written. Again – wit, rather than gags.

    Verbal gags are doable, of course – puns, wordplay, etc. But they also need a high level of skill to pull off or they end up reading like Stanislaw Lem’s “Memoirs-of-a-Space-Traveller” which is widely acclaimed and which made me throw the book across the room, as it is written around a single tedious, oh-so-obvious pun.

    @Pocky – I was just commenting to my wife the other day that, y’know, I can’t stand when fun, or funny, episodic stories turn all serious and arc-y. Like X Files, or Trigun. Really, folks, I was okay with episodic, yet entertaining crap! As soon as Trigun got serious, I stopped watching.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Okay, that explains a lot about the poor ratings you gave a couple of manga. *laughs*

    “Telling you that someone falls out a window and lands on a ladder precariously balanced on a sawhorse, so that they end up walking back and forth on the ladder so that it balances, then they slowly tilt it to one side and walk down to the ground is pretty damn boring. But if you *saw* it, it would be a pretty funny trick, don’t you think?”

    Eh, I don’t think it’s funny at all. I’d be pretty damned impressed by the finesse, but definitely not find it funny in the least. Guess to each their own.

    Oh, and I really wish Adam Sandler and the tons of others just like him would return the money I wasted at the cinema.

  9. George R. says:

    “Rumiko Takahashi taught me that I hate low comedy.”

    And me as well. You got me thinking about taste in general, and I find that low comedy is like some foods for me: I enjoy them as an ingredient, but not as a food. In other words, a little can spice up and add interest when combined with others in moderation, but when asked to carry a dish on their own, it’s a flavor I can’t stand.

    And you have produced another good example of how, “popular”, “done well,” and “liked by me” are three completely independent scales to measure a work.

    Thanks for the insights,
    George

  10. @George R – What a fantastic idea…measuring the popularity, versus “objective” quality, vs how much I like it.

    I doubt that that would stop the hate when I don’t like a series as much as the masses, but it does give a sort of LCD score, cumulatively. ^_^

  11. Anonymous says:

    Instead of low comedy, Takahashi taught me that I hate stories where characters never grow.

    I started reading Ranma when I was young, and the little bits of drama and sympathy had me caring about the characters. I was also impressed as an aspiring artist at Takahashi’s craftsmanship in general and the understated beauty of the drawings in particular. By the final volume I was weary, but had managed to stubbornly still care about a few characters; Ukyo, Ryoga, and their associated side side characters. The blatant haha it never really ends ending hurt. Takahashi did the balancing act, then did not lower herself to the ground.

    Shattering of my naivete aside I think it is sad because it does not have to work that way, even when keeping things stupid funny. For example: things become ridiculous to the point were something gives, but harmlessly, and people just wakeup, have a laugh at themselves, and then change. In fact, didn’t a Shakespeare or two go like that? I don’t think it is beyond real people either, to change that way.

    So the offender for me was really the difference between:

    We are all stupid so lets not bother doing anything and revel in it.

    and

    We are all stupid so lets forgive each other and ourselves so that we can grow.

    Takahashi living in the first of those two hurts even more as an artist then a reader really. She draws so well ;_; but I don’t think I can read her anymore.

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