Review of Asobi Asobase: Workshop of Fun (2018)
Seen in 2018.
Three maladjusted middle-school girls form a club around time-wasting traditional games.
A raunchy comedy where sex is excluded, comparable to Zero Motivation (2014) and Derry Girls (2018). As such it’s a welcome reaction to the “cute girls doing cute things” genre. However, Asobi Asobase is a work in that genre, not pure parody. The relationship is expressed in the opening and ending credits: The former are bright, sweet and very gentle, while the latter are dark and furious, with a hammering numetal soundtrack like the contemporary Zombieland Saga (2018). Some premises have the absurdity—but not the reference humour—of Pani Poni Dash (2005). The characters and their games exist in an uncomfortable twilight zone between moeblob blandness and the worst of real adolescence, not reaching the pervasive meanness of Derry Girls and only occasionally hovering near the gilded realism of Azumanga Daioh (2002) as a compromise solution. It never quite finds its own groove.
Olivia, a characder, is a particularly awkward combination of the over-adapted foreigner—like Ana Coppola of Strawberry Marshmallow (2005)—with a blond bombshell and a source of bizarre cultural artifacts (gags) from an unspecified home country, with foul-smelling armpits as a running gag.
Interestingly, the show is both heavily adapted to screengrabbing Internet meme culture and critical of its hard core. Olivia’s older brother, a recurring character, is a Miyazaki Tsutomu-like stereotype of an otaku: Spouting bullshit in archaic language, cosplaying, creeping on adolescent girls and thumbing his nose at the “lower world” of responsible adults. Overall, it seems like an evolution that welcomes a broad female audience into the genre, and as such it is more admirable and innovative than e.g. School-Live! (2015), but I would have preferred a stronger effort to break away from the object of parody.
My favourite joke runs through episode 10. The minor character of Fujiwara, who is named after the medieval Fujiwara clan and looks like an extra from The Tale of Genji (1987), has trouble studying classic literature. Like a doubly ironic mirror image of Olivia she prefers English and conducts half of her internal monologue in that language. Fujiwara develops a crush on Olivia’s friend Nomura, the straight man (girl) among the protagonists. Nomura herself is into BL, and Fujiwara’s move on her is ironically intercepted by the all-girl school’s crossdressing secret boy, Aozora. These layers of swift reversal, irony and contrast are the primary ammunition, but alas, it all ends in an interrogation of the upskirt motif.
References here: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020).