What is Gag Anime?


Comedy is subjective, and there are various elements that go into what constitutes humour. What is funny depends on context, and in the context of anime and manga, humor is a particularly interesting and colorful aspect that takes on various forms.

One form of comedy in the media of anime and manga is gag, and fans of anime hear the word “gag” thrown around a lot, especially in comedy anime. What exactly is gag anime?

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Etymology

As you’d expect, the invocation of the word “gag” (“gyagu“) in the context of Japanese media and colloquialisms refers to the same general idea the word does in English – in the context of comedy, of course. In English, a “visual gag” is something that conveys humor without the use of words at however, there is the idea that what is presented visually is generally an impossibility or something that is unexpected.

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The use of the word “gag” in English is thought to originate from slang, and is an extension of a joke in which the elements that produce humor are not words or stories, but what is seen and (mis)interpreted. Gags are found in various kinds of performance and media, such as films, comics, cartoons, and of course, anime and manga.

In Anime and Manga

In the context of anime and manga, the word gag has come to have a much looser definition than the above. What is particularly different is the use of the word in reference to various kinds of comedy, not merely those that are visual in nature. Gags in anime and manga tend to have a particularly ridiculous quality, that much is the same as what is implied when the word is used in English. However, in anime and manga, gags can be jokes in general, or even humorous bits performed by characters for whatever reason. Often times, the humor is the result of a make-believe violence which is evident in all kinds of anime, Shounen in particular.


The History of Funny

Gag humor supposedly has its roots in live theatre, and eventually made its way into film. The first known instance of this is L’Arroseur Arrosé, an 1895 film by the Lumière brothers, who were pioneers of photography technology and are known as some of the earliest filmmakers. The history of gag is also vaudevillian in nature, partly inspired by the French vaudeville genre of comedy. What defines vaudevillian comedy was originally comedy without deeper intentions; moral, psychological, or otherwise. Slapstick comedy is similar in nature due to the use of visual humor in an exaggerated manner; however, the common outcome in slapstick comedy is humor derived from deliberately clumsy actions, embarrassing events, and the like.


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This kind of comedy also features accidental violence, regular violence, and clumsy use of various kinds of props. The term “slapstick” comes from a device made of two flexible pieces in the form of a paddle made of wood used by pantomimes and clowns. These devices make a loud slapping noise, and is a possible origin of characters in comedy acts literally slapping their knees after telling ridiculous jokes, or making puns. In anime, slapstick comedy features prominently in various kinds of anime, not just comedy anime; however, what’s prominent in gag anime are various elements that are of Japanese origin, and Japanese comedy has various tenets that are culturally significant, albeit still analogous to forms of comedy seen elsewhere in the world.


Wise Guy and Idiot

What can prominently feature in Japanese comedy is the duo concept of Tsukkomi to Boke (Straight Man/Wise Guy and the Idiot), a prominent element of Manzai comedy, which is a traditional Japanese comedy act comparable to the double act or comedy duo, like Key and Peele; Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; and various other examples come to mind. tsukkomic comes from “tsukkomu” – to butt in, while “boke” is a shortened form of the verb “bokeru” – referring to being an airhead or a dunce.

Anime fans might recognize this from characters’ use of “boke to shite” – to “space out”; to be distracted. This is also partly due to the boke having a tendency of forgetfulness. This type of comedy is also vaudevillian in nature, with the crux of the format of this humor being the asymmetrical relationship between the members of the pair in which one is the airhead and the other, the sensible. Usually, in Japanese comedy, the idiot sets up by saying something ridiculous, with the wise guy completing the humor by correcting (hence butting in); or verbally and physically abusing the idiot throughout the length of the dialogue.


you mad?

Sometimes, part of the humor in the wise guy’s routine is their short temper and lack of patience for the idiot’s ridiculousness, and this element is referred to as “kire” (a colloquial term for “anger”, ie being “ticked off”). the tsukkomi to boke dynamic extends over an entire conversation and can have each back-and-forth kind of quality, and a lot of the time, the wise guy will enact some form of harmless violence upon the idiot. The act of violence is often performed with a harisen, a pleated paper fan prop which is not unlike the slapstick in its purpose of being a harmless weapon of comedy. An extremely notable example of tsukkomi to boke in anime comes from a title that is far from comedy – the pair of Hange Zoë and Moblit Berner in Attack on Titan, as the ridiculous and wild Hange is often pulled back from getting too close to danger in their enthusiasm, told off for being reckless (“You’re really going to get killed, you know!”), and this dynamic, while humorous throughout the series, eventually leads to Moblit’s demise. Evidence that these two were always operative as a pair is the fact that Moblit’s death is subtextually paralleled by Hange’s loss of their left eye, which is, in superstition, representative of emotion, and thus, Moblit’s death is the partial death of Hange themselves.


The Key?

The key to gag is the aspect of contrivance – the degree to which the humorous situation or joke is manufactured is debatable, but this is the central element. The aforementioned Naturally, this ambiguity is also what leads to the current situation The immensely popular One Punch Man is a great example of gag, although it does fall into the category of a spoof because it creates humor from making fun of an entire genre. Shows like Nichijou, Pop Team Epic, Daily Lives of High School Boys and various other notable comedies make use of recurring gags, which are partly funny because they come to be expected in certain situations. Subversion of expectations is also a huge element of humor in anime, particularly on the levels of parody and spoofs, with Isekai being a huge source of various kinds of humour, particularly on the subversive level, which is partly due to the huge influence of titles like KonoSuba. The currently airing Isekai Ojisan (Uncle From Another World) is in this league, as it turns the Isekai concept on its head, leading it away from the usual fantasy setting and having it set in our world, much like The Devil is a Part Timer!.


Rule of Four

Overall, “gag anime” quite simply refers to comedies; however, in the world of manga, gag titles have a certain feel to them. 4-koma (four cell) is a format of Japanese comic strips that are created to have only four panels of equal size that are read from top to bottom, but sometimes they run in a 2 x 2 format with the panel pairs existing alongside each others. While not exactly unique to Japan, the Japanese use of 4-koma has its origins in the works of Rakuten Kitazawa, who wrote under the pen-name Yasuji Kitazawa and produced the nation’s first recorded 4-koma work in 1902. The structure of the 4-koma goes according to a four-step format known collectively as “Kishoutenketsu”. Each kanji in the word refers to a step in the 4-koma narrative process:

  • “Ki” – from “okiru”, “to wake/rise up”. This part is the first panel of the 4-koma, which is used to set the scene.
  • “Shou” 「承」– commonly used in words like “ukeru”, a word that denotes a humbleness referring to “receive”, “to consent”. This step is the second panel of the 4-koma, featuring the development of the set-up created in the first panel.
  • “Ten” – This is the climax of the story in the third panel.
  • “Ketsu” 「結」– The final panel of the 4-koma, in which the consequences of the third panel are seen.


As a consequence of 4-koma’s root in comedy, lots of gag anime are adaptations of these and maintain core features, such as a sketch comedy format, which is ultimately one of the main aspects of the gag concept as it appears in anime. Examples of 4-koma titles adapted into anime are extensive, with titles like Could!; Azumanga Daioh!, I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying; Lucky Star, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun; and of course, the most notable 4-koma in the history of Japanese comic strips, the earliest 4-koma series that spawned what is now the longest-running anime in history, Sazae-san. Gag anime is not just about jokes, as a series like Sazae-san was created partly out of a desire to escape a harsh post-war reality through comedy. To answer, “what is gag anime?” is hard to pin down; however, it can be understood that gag anime and manga are pivotal to the development of anime and manga as Japanese entertainment media, and are not just a huge part of not just popular culture, but of history.


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