When you study animated cartoons, particularly the old ‘toons of the Warner Brothers heyday, it’s explicit that a lot of the humor is contextualized by the culture they were made in. When Bugs Bunny gnaws on a carrot and asks, “What’s the hubbub, bub?” he’s saying something that a non-native speaker of mid-20th century English has no idea of. Outside that context it’s gibberish.
I used to have class where we’d watch cartoons and then deconstruct the gags in order to elucidate their historical and sociological contexts. I know that sounds overly intellectual, but hey! We got to watch cartoons in class!
On a completely related note, I like Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid a lot. I think Kobayashi is totally chill, and the interrelationships between her, the dragon she rescues who becomes her maid, Tohru, and a second, immature dragon, Kanna, who they take in, are warm, even touching. They are nice people – the dragons all have manifestations as people – with unique strengths and weaknesses, with powers and vulnerabilities, that somehow find a way to work past their differences to make their similarities work for them. The anime is fun to watch and the manga…both the main story line and the spinoff focusing on Kanna…fun to read. (You do have to overlook some creepy stuff going on with Shouta, a boy, and Lucoa, a dragon, and Kanna and her human classmate Riko.)
From left: Kobayashi, Kanna, Tohru
But I mention that here because it contains examples of the sort of culturally bound trope I’m talking about. They attend the holidays, for instance…The Japanese do Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day somewhere between a little and a lot differently than we do, and so the representation of those holidays seems somewhere between a little and a lot off to the Western eye. On the other hand, those holidays show up so often in other series that a non-Japanese reader/watcher can pick up the differences pretty quickly.
Here’s a better example of the kind of thing I mean. Kanna decides she wants to go to school, so on her first day she’s introduced as a transfer student. They ask her where she’s from, and she says, “Ushishir.”
If you’re watching the anime, there’s a pause there, and a voice in the background says, “Ooh, a foreigner.” The timing clearly says that it’s a joke…the pause is for a laugh…but what’s supposed to be funny about it?
Okay, Wikipedia time. Oh, now I get it: Ushishir is in the Kurile Islands. They were taken over by the Soviet Union after World War Two, so, yeah, if Kanna’s from Ushishir, she’s Russian, and a foreigner.
But here’s the real gag: Ushishir is uninhabited. Kanna’s a dragon – a dragon from another world so oh heck yeah, she’s a foreigner – and on her home world dragons and humans don’t get along, so she thinks Ushishir’s a great place to live, and has no idea that she can’t pass as human and say she’s from Ushishir.
Insert facepalm here.
A lot of animes have moments like that, and it’s not for that gag that I use Miss K as an example. The reason I want to talk about this topic using this anime and manga is Miss Kobayashi herself.
You see, Kobayashi is…Well, apart from being called Miss Kobayashi she seems like “just one of the guys,” as her co-worker Makato says. She’s in a male-oriented profession (computer programming), wears pant suits and a boyish hair style, has an obsession with cosplay maids, plays the father role in the trio of herself, Tohru, and Kanna, and is so flat-chested that her front is drawn as a straight line.
Are those markers? Are we supposed to look at them and understand just by looking that she’s a lesbian?
By her statements Kobayashi’s gender role orientation is straight…she refuses sex with Tohru several times in no uncertain terms. (Tohru’s desire to serve the woman who saved her makes sense; at the same time she has a strong sexual attraction for Kobayashi that doesn’t, but for whatever reason Tohru is hot for Kobayashi.) At the same time, when Kobayashi’s drunk she rips Tohru’s clothes off, and at least once in the Kanna spin-off manga Kobayashi and Tohru are drawn cuddled up together in the same bed, asleep.
I know homosexuality is not tolerated in Japanese culture as well as it is in anime and manga. It makes sense to me that Kobayashi would say she is straight even if she isn’t. But the question I have is not whether or not she’s straight. That does not affect the story.
My question is: Are we supposed to decode her sexuality from her appearance? Is it a trope that we’re supposed to know? Or is she just a flat-chested woman who wears a pants suit? Do the blue curtains indicate the character’s inner depression, or are the curtains just blue?
Not that it really matters. The affection she and Tohru have for each other is sincere and makes for good storytelling, as do the cultural differences between the dragons and the humans; the way Kobayashi and Tohru band together to “raise” Kanna (as a dragon Kanna is very much older than Kobayashi) is pleasurable to watch and read about. It’s cute and warm and funny and fun. I’m waiting for the next volumes of the Kobayashi and Kanna mangas to come out in May with bated breath.
But it bugs me to not know whether there’s a joke there I’m not getting. It’s like not knowing that getting a character getting a nosebleed means they have an erection (or the equivalent). It’s a gag that doesn’t read until you understand the trope underlying it.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.