Tuesday, 22 March 2011

らき☆すた /Raki ☆ Suta/ Lucky☆Star

Lucky☆Star was one of a slew of similar anime of the last two seasons. A light-hearted slice-of-life comedy about a group of teenaged girls drawn much younger than they were actually supposed to be, it had to directly compete with Manabi Straight and Hidamari Sketch.

In this race of silly loli shows, however, Lucky☆Star soon emerged as not only the front-runner, but gained truly widespread recognition and a huge fanbase, while the other shows faded into obscurity. With Hidamari Sketch, that’s no surprise, since it’s terrible, but as I mentioned in my Manabi Straight impressions, it was something of a surprise that show didn’t compete better, since it was warmer, more coherent, more consistent and cuter. Lucky☆Star, though, had a few things going for it that Manabi Straight just couldn’t compete with.

One was the reputation of Kyoto Animation. UFO Table are a big studio, but Kyoto are the new powerhouse and real otaku-pleasers, having produced their impressive animations of Key’s lonely-young-man-pleasing dating sims and the quirky smash hit Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, so all eyes were on them for their first cutesy animation. Also, knowing well that they were appealing directly to the basement-dwelling feverish spenders that are the Japanese otaku, they targeted them specifically, putting in lots of references and in-jokes, as well as making one of their cutest characters an extreme geek, playing directly into the fantasy that the audience just might find an amazingly cute, young-looking, childlike girl with interests directly aligned to theirs. This also had the side-effect of drawing in fujoshi, female otaku, especially in the West, who saw themselves reflected in an idealised form, and declared an uncanny alignment with this girl, at the least in personality terms.

I had a lot of problems with Lucky☆Star. A lot of people complained about the show’s slow pace and plotlessness when it first appeared, but I actually liked it a lot more back then. The first episode has a very long discussion of the best way to eat a kind of chocolate-filled pastry. There was a distinctive Azumanga Daioh flavour back then, at the inception, with four girls simply talking about the random things in their lives, the humour deriving from their strong personalities – Kagami is a strong-willed, sensible girl, her sister Tsukasa is air-headed and childlike, Konata is brash and proudly irresponsible and Miyuki is brainy and feminine.

But as the show progressed and one director was fired to make way for another in a bid for better ratings, the show moved away from its 4-koma comic roots and became a smug, self-referential comedy that just loved to pat itself on the back, so that otaku could feel included and pat themselves on the back, too. Slices of life got reduced more and more, becoming little snatched scenes of families watching TV or visits to the dentist, while more and more airtime was devoted to references, especially to Suzumiya Haruhi. The girls go to a cosplay café and see the show’s signature dance performed, capitalising on the fact that Konata’s Seiyuu also portrayed Haruhi herself, or we see her dressed as Yuki and doing impersonations. The references at the beginning of the show were subtle but unobtrusive, so that if you’ve seen To Heart or Maria-sama ga Miteru, you get the reference and get a thrill of amusement (as with other anime with a lot of pastiches, like Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei) but if you haven’t, the context is still there and you don’t miss much – indeed, there are so many references that it’s unlikely anyone will get them all. But if you haven’t seen Suzumiya Haruhi or know about its cultural impact in the otaku community in Japan, tough luck, great long sequences can go right over your head, with you being made very aware you’re missing something. And even if you do understand, recognising yet another reference to the same show soon loses its sheen. Watching the entire season feels like going to see bad sequels to a movie you like, or turning on an episode of The Simpsons from its later series – you like the franchise and feel a kind of obligation to it, but ultimately it feels hollow and the jokes are less and less funny. New girls get introduced, but somewhat like Scrappy-Doo, they’re less interesting rehashes of the established cast, and don’t really bring anything new or refreshing to the formula.

I’m not saying Lucky☆Star is a bad show. It looks nice, with cute character designs and Kyoto’s usual fluid and detailed animation, despite the simplicity of the aesthetic. It has some great little pastiches and nice music. I loved some of the subtler references, and like most of the keen fans, felt a certain affinity with the habits of the otaku. But I soon grew tired of this show and its lack of big laughs and constant rehashing of ideas – as with the ending credits, which become strange live-action sequences in the second half of the series, funny for the first two or three, then utterly painful. I also disliked it when self-referential humour conflicted with realism, as when Hiraishi goes from commenter in the one-note ‘Lucky☆Channel’ end section (its main draw being the amusing contrast between its presenter’s adopted cutesy characteristics and her real, belligerent personality) to actual character in the main show, but still seems omniscient, for example when in the last episode he shouts out something one of the other characters said earlier in the episode, which he could not have heard.

Ultimately, the big problem with Lucky☆Star is that it’s just not very funny. Put it beside Azumanga Daioh or Ichigo Mashimaro, both slice-of-life shows about young girls that revolve around their character quirks, and you soon realise how lacking in laughs it is, as well as how limited its emotional range is – no heartbreaking graduation here, or sensitive side of comic characters seeping through. Lucky☆Star is superficial and never has any build-up for its jokes. An entertaining diversion but, much like Suzumiya Haruhi, vastly over-rated. Roll on Yotsubato! the anime…

(originally written 15.10.07)

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