For some reason, most science fiction fans also love Japanese anime, and I’m no exception. Perhaps that’s because these shows are much more creative than American animation, and the stories and settings are often quite bizarre. Those anime that incorporate humor are well-suited for my warped, Monty Pythonesque sensibilities. Occasionally, though, I find something that’s too weird even for me.
Last week my teenage son introduced me to The Super Milk Chan Show. Although we like a lot of the same things, this one had me puzzled. First of all, on the website we were on, it was designated for “mature audiences” and I had to log into my Facebook account to view it. That was amusing, given that I can watch full-fledged pornography on my computer simply by clicking a button that says “I certify I am over 18.” In any case, Milk Chan appeared promising at first. On the first episode we watched, the characters were discussing a news story about a world’s record being set for the longest human turd. Perhaps this is what passes for Japanese gross-out humor. If so, the Japanese are more fastidious than we are, because the few shows we saw wasn’t nearly as cool as The Ren and Stimpy Show.
The protagonist of the show is a little girl named Milk Chan who wears a costume and investigates crimes. Though she fancies herself a superhero, she has no powers except her obnoxious personality and rampant greed (when someone mentions money, yen symbols appear in her eyes.) Her sidekicks are Tetsuko, a nagging robot who looks like a talking water tank, and Hanage, a green slug, who never speaks. If I had to pick a favorite character, it would be the slug. Was it silly? Yes, extremely. Was it funny? Not particularly.
On the other hand, if you want more cerebral, albeit morbid, humor, you can’t go wrong with Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, which in English is Goodbye, Mister Despair. This is another of my son’s favorites, and this time I agree with him. It’s a light-hearted romp about Nozomu Itoshiki, a chronically depressed high school teacher, and his dysfunctional students. In the first episode, cute teenager Kafuka Fuura (who is so relentlessly optimistic that she enters the realm of denial) saves his life by preventing him from hanging himself. Surprise, he later shows up at school as her new teacher. All of Nozomu’s female students (the class is coed but the show mostly ignores the boys) suffer from various maladies that include obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, stalking, and domestic violence.
The humorous treatment of these serious topics will surely offend politically correct Americans, but so what? One of humor’s most important functions is to help people cope with life’s problems. It’s also healthy to laugh at oneself. My favorite character is Kaere Kimura, a foreign exchange student with obviously American traits. She’s the class’s only blonde, and is much taller and bustier than the other girls. If anyone gets a glimpse of her panties (which happens frequently, due to the shortness of her skirts) she screams, “I’ll sue you for sexual harassment!”
Mr. Despair, or SZS as it’s also known, has one more interesting feature. All the characters’ names are Japanese puns, which are achieved by regrouping the characters of their names. That’s why poor Nozomu Itoshiki is always depressed. Regrouped, his name reads “Mister Despair.” The episodes in the first series are quite strange- the various characters are introduced, have identity crises, disappear and reappear. The second season doesn’t quite match the first season’s morbid brilliance. It’s dominated by observational humor a la Seinfeld (in one episode, for example, Nozomu and his students poke fun at snooty restaurants that don’t accept “first-timers.”) Yet it’s still pretty funny. At its lowest point it’s still miles above the ridiculous Milk Chan.
Super Milk Chan is available on theanimenetwork.com and hulu.com. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is on animefreak.tv, gogoanime.com, animeseason.com, and probably others.