Comedy in “Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan”

Since summer break started, I’ve been feeling less like writing than ever. I guess it’s because during the school season I had homework and classes to put up with. Since I couldn’t play video games or watch anime while there was work to do or a lecture to listen to, I would have to sustain myself by spending every spare moment (walking from class to class, flossing) thinking about things that were actually interesting, and that would give me ideas on what to write about. But now that I have anime and video games available 24/7, there’s no need to think anymore.

My plan was to write a post on the Japanese pitch accent before doing this one, but then my gosh-darn conscience started acting up and telling me to do more research before writing. So I discovered that my point was much weaker than I thought it was, and that post will have to be either edited to make less sweeping claims, or just indefinitely suspended.

Anyways, I’ve been learning Japanese, and since I’d been reading a lot lately, I thought I’d watch some anime to listen to Japanese spoken aloud for a change. This time, I decided to re-watch Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan. The first time I watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been expecting it to be corny and unoriginal just based on the sound of the title, but it actually turned out to be pretty funny and endearing. So since I’d already seen it once, I was sure that this time it would definitely be corny and unbearable.

But now that I’ve re-gotten to episode 15 of the second season, I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised again. In particular, there are three consecutive episodes around the middle of the first season that are comedy gold. The second season, unfortunately, puts less effort into comedy and more into action of the standard shonen variety, so I find that it loses some of its charm at that point.

One scene stood out to me as particularly well-written.

Nurarihyon and Yura
(SPOILER ALERT!)

The premise of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is that yokai, as the Japanese call the monsters from folktales (among other things), are real. The leader of the yokai, Nurarihyon, is the grandfather of the main character, Rikuo. Rikuo is one-fourth yokai, so he is split up into two forms, a human form and a yokai form. He can only take his yokai form for a fourth of the day at most, and that only at night.

nurarihyon-2 (Nurarihyon as depicted in the anime. Nurarihyon is actually a Japanese mythical creature.)

Rikuo has one friend at school who is completely obsessed with finding yokai. So he often forces his friends, including Rikuo, to go on yokai hunts. One day, an onmyoji girl named Yura moves into Rikuo’s town to hunt down the leader of the yokai―a.k.a. Rikuo’s grandfather. (An onmyoji is a kind of Japanese shaman. They’re portrayed in this anime, as in many other anime, as people who use super(natural) powers to fight yokai.) She transfers into Rikuo’s class, and soon she too is compelled to join the yokai-hunting club. As time goes on, the yokai-hunting club actually does run into hostile yokai several times, and Rikuo ends up being forced to take his yokai form―without revealing his secret identity, of course―to fight the bad yokai and save his friends. At one point he even gathers a band of his yokai underlings to help. Needless to say, this is very distressing to Yura. For one thing, she’s humiliated at being helped by a yokai, someone she sees as an enemy. For another thing, it causes some serious cognitive dissonance for her. She’s been taught from an early age that yokai are evil by nature. So why would a yokai save her life?

So one day, while she’s out shopping for groceries, she runs into Rikuo’s grandfather. She and Nurarihyon are already acquainted, since Yura has visited Rikuo’s house before, but Yura still only knows Nurarihyon as “Grandpa”; she doesn’t know that he’s a yokai at all, let alone Nurarihyon himself. So the two of them sit down to talk.

Yura tells Nurarihyon about how she is an onmyoji, and how she came to this town to get better at her craft. Nurarihyon compliments her bravery in coming all alone to a place she doesn’t know for the sake of improving herself.

Nurarihyon comments that it seems harsh that her family, the famous Keikain family of onmyoji’s, should send her here on her own. To which Yura replies that it was her choice to do this. She tells him that she wanted to come to this town in order to fulfill her ambition of defeating the leader of the yokai, Nurarihyon.

nurarihyon (“Hmm… Nurarihyon?”)

But since she came to this town, she tells him, she’s been in a rut, messing up left and right. She’s too embarrassed to actually say that she was saved by a yokai, but this has been weighing heavily on her mind, and she wants reassurance. So she asks…

yokai“Grandpa, yokai are bad creatures, aren’t they?”

In response to which, Nurarihyon laughs and replies, “No need to think hard about it.”

bad-creatures “Yokai are bad. After all, they are yokai.”

Yura is happy to hear Nurarihyon’s response and renews her resolve to exterminate yokai.

So here we have Nurarihyon, the leader of the yokai, having a friendly chat with an onmyoji―who came to this town specifically to kill him―reassuring her that yokai are in fact bad.

As Guy Hasson says in this Gamasutra article, the essence of comedy is to take a series of logical steps to a climax that doesn’t make sense. That’s exactly what we have in this scene.

Each step in the scene is logical. The two of them running into each other at a grocery store, their starting a conversation, the conversation turning to Yura’s onmyoji work, Yura’s doubts about her mission, her reaching out for reassurance from a kind grandfatherly figure, and Nurarihyon’s response that yokai are bad―which might be because he doesn’t want to reveal his yokai-hood by showing sympathy for yokai, or because he wants to cheer her up and doesn’t care much that he puts himself down in the process, or maybe because he just likes the incongruity of the situation. And yet, although each step makes sense, the final result is a person kindly reassuring someone that his race is evil, which ordinarily would be hard to imagine any reasonable person doing.

Note also how the situation escalates in absurdity, another feature of comedy that Guy Hasson mentions in another article in the same series. A yokai and an onmyoji having a friendly conversation is already a bit out of the ordinary. But then Yura actually tells Nurarihyon that she wants to kill him. And finally, going a step beyond just telling him that yokai are evil, she asks him to confirm from his own mouth that yokai are evil. And sure enough, Nurarihyon happily obliges.

So this is a pretty clever bit of comedy writing here. Not necessarily ingenious, not particularly revolutionary, but definitely clever. At any rate, it’s much more sophisticated than something like, say, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo (much as I love Bo-bobo). One thing I couldn’t help but notice as I wrote this is that the humor of this scene depends on the story as a whole. In a show like Bo-bobo, since the jokes stem from randomness, it doesn’t really matter whether you completely understand what’s going on or not. I first started watching Bo-bobo from episode 27, and I still got a big kick out of it. But in this scene, since the humor stems from the situation itself, you can’t really get the humor unless you understand the context of it. Heck, just look at the beginning of this section of this post. I had to summarize most of the story leading up to this point before I could talk about why this scene is funny. I think that’s another sign that this scene had more thought put into it than most comedy nowadays. It’s like this saying that I heard I-forget-where: “You aren’t done when there’s nothing else you can add, but when there’s nothing else you can take out.” This is in contrast to most comedy nowadays, which relies on isolated, atomic wisecracks, usually pop culture references, exaggerated reactions, or just plain snark. Such as in this little snippet from Black Butler, which almost single-handedly made me give up on the show:

sebastian

sebastian-2

ciel

… Haha. Sebastian said he hates dogs and Ciel said “woof.” Haha. What a knee-slapper.

I didn’t actually stop right at that moment; I finished the story arc I was on first. But as soon as that was over I was done with the show.

(That’s not the whole reason I gave up on it, though. More importantly, I just don’t see the point of it all. So we have our rich, precocious child earl with his super-powered butler. So what? What are they going to do with all their riches and precociousness and aristocratic-ness and super powers and butlering skills? Maybe they do find some purpose later in the series, but 8 episodes in (which is where I stopped) is way too late not to have an overarching point yet. Heck, ordinarily the point is revealed in the very first episode―like in Nura, where Rikuo’s refusal to acknowledge his yokai blood and Nurarihyon’s insistence that he succeed to the leadership of yokai make for an obvious source of conflict and change right from the get-go. Or in Psycho-Pass, where the very first episode introduces the Sibyl System as an efficient, computerized method of maintaining perfect social stability, but then casts doubt on both the justness and the reliability of that system. In the case of Black Butler, I guess Ciel wants to take revenge on the people who murdered his parents? I seem to recall hearing conflicting evidence about that. But if that is his goal, he hasn’t apparently made, or even tried to make, any progress on it by the eighth episode. To be fair, though, this might not be the manga’s fault, since apparently the Black Butler anime adaptation departs from the original manga for whole seasons of material.)

In conclusion, let me leave you with a line from Nura that, like the whole scene above, doesn’t sound particularly interesting by itself, but is hilarious in context:

“Don’t underestimate rabbits.”

If you ignored the spoiler warning and read all this without having watched Nura, why not watch it to see how this line comes up in context?