What’s it about? Meet the girls of the Pastime Club! There’s Olivia, a Japanese-born daughter of foreign parents with blonde hair, blue eyes, and absolutely zero English skills. There’s Kasumi, who has hated games since she was a child because her older sister used them as a way to power trip over her. Finally, there’s Hanako, who really wants to be cool and popular but just can’t seem to make it work. Together, they explore a variety of pastimes from different cultures.
I’m sorry, were you expecting a “cute girls doing cute things” show? I can see how you got that impression—there’s that lovely pastel promo art, and the OP of them blushing and singing in flowing white dresses. It all felt like a slice-of-life fan’s dream.
Then the actual show started, and that dream turned into a nightmare.
Yep, all the gentle-looking promo art was a ruse. While the show does still feature the basic slice-of-life framework—no particular plot, lots of teenage girls faffing about without any real goals or purpose—it has more in common with Pop Team Epic than K-On.
Months ago, Alex Henderson wrote a lovely post for us about the subversive importance of fiction that lets girls be weird and kind of gross. Asobi Asobase embodies that principle, as Olivia, Kasumi, and Hanako make the weirdest, least cute faces ever seen in anime. In fact, they’re borderline uncanny. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m more of an analytical writer than a descriptive writer, so just take a look at the screenshots through this piece.
The weirdness extends past the visuals. The three girls have distinctive (and distinctly unlikable) personalities. Olivia likes to keep it ambiguous whether Japanese or English is her native language, which backfires horribly. Kasumi, since having the fun sucked out of her life as a child, is dour and harsh. Hanako… well, she tries her best, but she just isn’t very bright.
There’s little sense of affection or camaraderie to be found, as the three seem to enjoy picking on each other more than anything else. There’s nothing gentle about this comedy. They’re crude, mean, and violent in a way that somehow never passes into being mean-spirited, largely because the humor centers on the girls picking on each other, rather than laughing at their misfortunes or failures.
The inherent subjectivity of humor does guarantee that your mileage will vary, and cross-cultural boundaries are especially hard for some jokes. However, I must say that while I dislike director Seiji Kishi as a visual storyteller, I’ve always felt comedy was his greatest strength. Persona 4: The Animation, for all its many and myriad issues, for example, still had great sight gags. He puts those comedic sensibilities to great use in the rapid-fire physical and verbal slapstick of Asobi Asobase with impeccable comedic timing.
Crude comedies inevitably use body humor, which is tricky territory when the focus is teenage girls. This quite often goes terribly wrong, since their bodies and their functions are often fetishized or stigmatized; every so often, however, the gross-out comedy works without being sexualizing or dehumanizing.
Asobi Asobase happily falls into the latter category, complete with breast-related humor than doesn’t come across as fan service. After the club has snuck a kiddie pool into their classroom and the trio are hanging out in their swimsuits, Hanako asks Kasumi how her breasts got so large. Kasumi calmly responds, “Genetics”… but then they go into the idea of gaining weight in order to get larger breasts.
Surprisingly, Hanako isn’t totally opposed to the idea, nor is their imagined version of “fat” an hourglass figure with slightly thicker thighs. They do dip into discussions of obese bodies, which could be marginalizing—it’s not my area of expertise, so readers please share your thoughts! I do, however, appreciate that they left Olivia mostly out of the boob chat, since “big-breasted blonde foreigner” is a character archetype I can live without.
Like any comedy, Asobi Asobase won’t be for everyone. Some people may find it wildly hilarious, while others may find the crudeness off-putting. Regardless of your personal feelings, however, comedy that celebrates the crude side that resides within all of us, including teenage girls, is something that I’m always glad to see more of.