Pop Team Epic blasted onto our screens at the start of the winter 2018 season and has been confusing and amusing viewers ever since. It’s fast-paced, surreal, absurd, a little crude, entrenched in pop culture, and just plain ridiculous. It stars Popuko and Pipimi, a pair of schoolgirls who, in taking this wild and wacky spotlight, step into a role not often given to girls in comedy. Self-aware as the show is, the characterisation of Pop Team Epic’s leading ladies serves as a sort of metatextual raised middle finger to the concept that girls should be cute rather than funny.
How does one explain Pop Team Epic? The show is comprised of a stream of self-contained skits, based on four-panel webcomics by Bkub Okawa. The show’s sense of humour runs the gamut through a variety of comedy techniques. It has a love of pop culture references, be they quick visual shout-outs (such as the characters appearing as Pokémon), genre parodies (including a fake romance anime that’s advertised at the end of every episode), or shot-for-shot homages to ‘80s music videos (yes, really).
Sometimes Pop Team Epic’s punchlines come from the skit simply not going to way you’d expect, using juxtaposition or a sudden change of direction to throw the viewer off. Sometimes there is no punchline, simply continuous absurdity. And sometimes it’s in French.
The overall result is a series that viewers are calling “the shitpost anime” both as a critical and affectionate term. Even a producer working on the series has happily agreed “It’s a shit anime. There’s no mistaking that.”
The only thing that connects this wild array of skits is the main characters: two schoolgirls, the tall and sage Pipimi, and the tiny, rage-filled Popuko. Whether they’re best friends, girlfriends, or two chaotic beings that manifest in various forms across space, time, and genre, is up to each viewer’s interpretation. The most important thing to note for this article is that they are young, female anime characters defying convention to be crude, absurd, and hilarious, all the while maintaining a sense of self-awareness that allows them to tell the audience to get screwed if they don’t like it.
So, why is it important that Pop Team Epic puts two girls at the forefront of its ridiculous whirlwind of comedy? Silly as it may sound, critics are still scratching their heads over the question of “can women really be funny?”, which bleeds through into fiction as the question “should women be funny?” or “should we write women into funny roles?” As Dee noted in the AniFem premiere review, female characters as the sensible “straight man” to the hapless, entertaining male lead is a trope entrenched in comedy, so Pop Team Epic and its two female leads is something of a genre subversion.
Just as it’s good to have shows like Please Tell Me! Galko-chan, where a cast of teenage girls engage in bodily-functions-based humour (which is generally considered “unladylike”), and otaku comedies like Lucky Star that have their female cast reference and poke fun at a geeky world largely considered the realm of boys, it’s valuable to have Pop Team Epic’s absurd, slapstick humour carried by two leading ladies.
You also only have to look as far as this season’s Slow Start, last year’s Hinako Note, and much of the “cute girls do cute things” genre to notice that young girls in anime are most often designed and framed to be as cute, nonthreatening, and appealing as possible. With this as the norm, it’s oddly refreshing and rewarding for Popuko and Pipimi to have starring roles in this crass, off-the-wall comedy.
Many moments in Pop Team Epic rebel against the notion of the cute, manufactured-to-appeal anime girl. The first episode begins as a generic romance anime, starring an average male protagonist surrounded by pretty girls in cute costumes singing a bubbly opening theme, only for Popuko to rip through the title card and violently interrupt audience expectations.
Promotional material showed Popuko and Pipimi giving the viewer the middle finger with meaty, masculine hands. Similarly, their sketch “The Documentary”—where Popuko takes a stint as a pop idol, all the while smoking, cursing, and being aggressive towards her fans and band members—reads as a criticism of the idol industry, the popularity of idol anime, and the expectations it places on girls to be adorable and accessible.
While there is a certain cuteness to Popuko and Pipimi’s designs, they also verge on the uncanny and can swiftly turn bizarre and inhuman. This could be a literal transformation, such as into a jet plane, or simply to their sketchy, unsettling renditions in the “Bob Epic Team” segments. Popuko actively threatens the audience in one skit, switching from a cute persona to glare at us through the fourth wall. Pop Team Epic is deeply self-aware of the media ecosystem it exists in on two fronts: both its love for pop culture references and this awareness of the expectations placed on female anime characters.
Of course, we have to take into account that this juxtaposition of cute girls taking part in slapstick and bizarre “shitpost” humour might just be one more “didn’t expect that, did you?” joke. Even with its genre self-awareness and sketches like “The Documentary,” Pop Team Epic probably isn’t a deliberate feminist media critique.
However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t still valuable or subversive. Whatever the intentions behind the decision to give the lead roles to female characters, they’re still there, proving through practice that girls can and should be funny, even in oddball, ludicrous, trashy humour. Whether it’s industry critique or simple absurdity, it’s both powerful and oddly delightful to see a pair of anime girls in this unusual role: being wacky, nonsensical, and shamelessly confident enough to give their audience the finger.
Pop Team Epic’s sense of humour (or anti-humour) is not to everyone’s tastes, but there is something refreshingly inclusive about the show. Popuko and Pipimi’s starring roles and their brazen attitude to their audience serves as both meta-commentary and a neat subversion of girls’ traditional roles in comedy and anime at large. Whether or not Pop Team Epic is saying something hard-hitting about the anime industry among all that wacky surrealism or not, it’s still a bit of fun with girls doing their thing in the spotlight, and sometimes that’s just as valuable.