Summer looks to be a good season for comedy: the darkly cynical Humanity Has Declined and the culture-steeped Joshiraku have both been making waves. Both are quite good – but for my part, Binbou-gami ga! is the season’s jewel. It’s a cartoon of the highest order, with an admirably old-school gag mentality and the technical chops to back it up.
Binbou-gami ga! revolves on a classic antagonistic conflict: Momiji the bumbling coyote, Ichiko the fortune-blessed road runner. In fact, their contrast in luck is built into the very premise: Momiji is literally an embodiment of misfortune, and Ichiko’s luck is physically quantifiable. This conflict serves as the foundation on which Binbou-gami ga! builds its gags.
The classic structure is all there: the misfortune god/too-fortunate human dynamic alludes to the same struggle that fuels any Tom & Jerry or Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Part nature, part pride, this is the lifeblood of the premise, what propels it from one gag to the next. This is established from the first scene: an offhand breast size joke makes the central conflict personal before they’ve even met.
On one hand this is often read as “repetitive”, as the jokes do follow a relatively consistent pattern of setup and payoff. However, as in the western tradition, this is very much beside the point. Binbou-gami ga!‘s goal is not to forward some grander idea, but to create a framework for fun and clever iterations of its central concepts.
And as luck would have it, Binbou-gami ga! has been blessed with enough talent that it could well deliver on its promise. It’s being produced by Sunrise’s studio #9, whose most recent work otherwise was the well-recieved Daily Lives Of High School Boys; the animation team is full of alumni from that show. The director, Yoichi Fujita, served as director for the second hundred episodes of Gintama. The first two episodes were storyboarded by the director and chief director, respectively. This is a team with a fair handle on gag comedy, and it shows.
Less obviously, the casting of Hanazawa Kana as Ichiko is a master stroke. Hanazawa’s typecast as a soft-spoken flower is brilliantly paired with Ichiko’s false sweetheart front. The contrast between Hanazawa’s standard lilt and her capacity for expressive overacting bolsters some of Binbou-gami ga!‘s strongest laughs.
Binbou-gami ga!‘s aesthetic is old-school in other ways, as well. The animation is remarkably loose and expressive for a modern anime, making heavy use of multiples, distortion and exaggeration to give visceral impact to its very physical humor. Momiji’s divinity gives ample opportunity for strange transformations and body horror, while Ichiko makes regular use of hammerspace and other convenient props. Sunrise is delving into a whole box of gag-construction tools that mainstream television anime seemed ready to throw out.
This freedom to ignore the bounds of real-life physics is one of animation’s most unique strengths as a medium, but the style in anime as of late is very rigid and realistic. Bastions of wild, free, technical animation like Imaishi and Yuasa are still around, and still make stunning and impressive anime. But outside of those boutique animators whose names have acquired the prestige to carry such a project, it’s rare these days to find a show this comfortable and frank in its immaturity. Binbou-gami ga! is no stunningly avant-garde project, but in a landscape dominated by bored angst and uninspired action, a proper cartoon is a great change of pace.