Andy Warhol once made an eight-hour movie of nothing but the Empire State Building at night. Ditto a five-hour movie of his friend (poet John Giorno) asleep on a couch. Ditto a twenty-five hour movie cobbled together from endless reels of his buddies horsing around. Like most of the rest of his art, they weren’t about anything except looking at something. Warhol took things people normally didn’t pay attention to — like a Campbell’s soup can — forced people to notice them in the context of a painting or a lithograph (or a film), and called that his art. You didn’t have to agree it was art, but you couldn’t ignore the impact it had on the art world at the time. Why’s a soup can less interesting than a sunset, especially when we see both of them every day?
Now enter Lucky Star (if you dare), a smash hit anime with the fans, now available domestically thanks to the good graces of the folks at Bandai. It’s also not about anything except … well, looking. And like Warhol’s movies, you’ll either be enthralled or you’ll be thrashing around screaming for it to stop. The best analogy I’ve heard yet was actually drawn by a friend of mine: Lucky Star is like a moé version of Seinfeld. There was obstinately, deliberately, intentionally no point at all to the goings-on in Seinfeld, either: it was simply a document of Seinfeld and his buddies colliding with the real world, over and over again.
The same applies for Lucky Star, which introduces us more or less randomly to a small stable of characters and allows them to either endear us or drive us crazy. Me, I was endeared, in much the same way Azumanga Daioh grew on me (and grew, and grew), although not even a casual viewer would mistake one for the other. Azumanga Daioh’s childlike and full of wonder;Lucky Star’s more sarcastic and acerbic. That’s more of a difference in tone than quality, though — there were many, many moments in Lucky Star where I laughed hard enough that I feared for rupturing something.
On the surface, Lucky Star follows the day-in-day-out adventures of four high-school girls, each embodying (with a knowing wink on the part of the show’s creators) a different clutch of anime/manga character tropes. There’s Konata, the wiseacre and perpetual slacker, spending most of her nights either in front of a computer or with a game controller in hand — and yet somehow she manages to ace every test put in front of her. It doesn’t help that her dad’s an aging otaku … who buys eroge … for both of them.
Kagami, an older sister, ends up playing the frustrated straight man (woman? girl?) to many of the others, especially Konata. A constant running gag through the show is to have Kagami attempt to do something and fail repeatedly (like, say, win a UFO Catcher prize), and then have Konata knock it out on the park on the first try. Kagami’s younger sister Tsukasa, the more innocently cute and hapless of the two, has enough trouble just keeping track of what everyone just said, let alone competing with her friends on anything. And then there’s Miyuki — polite, beautifully mannered, and endearingly clumsy in exactly the way Konata feels a moé character needs to be. This is one of the many, many ways the series mines its own cultural cardinal points for humor: the cast themselves make these references.
As with Azumanga, there’s precious little in the way of an overriding plot. Most of what goes on in the show breaks down into a series of blackout-style vignettes that revolve around everyone’s personality quirks. Case in point: when Kagami and Tsukasa celebrate their birthday in the fourth episode, it’s on a brutally hot summer day, and Konata whines at them over the phone “Can’t we have the party at my house?” They tempt her out with cookies. In the abstract it doesn’t sound funny, but the timing and pacing, the voice acting, and the precise choice of words — something that works in the dubbed version as well, amazingly — make it hilarious. (And when Konata finally does arrive, she declares, “Happy birthday, Tsukasa and one other person!”)
A good chunk of the humor isn’t of the laugh-out-loud variety, though — it’s more Warholian, to coin a phrase. Most of the “jokes” revolve around the way the simplest little things in life are dissected by the girls with complete sincerity. The very first episode kicks off in this vein with an extended (and I mean extended) debate on the merits of various ways of eating a chocolate-filled cornet. The discussion stretches on and on with no end in sight, but that’s precisely the point: for these girls, the details of something that “minor” aren’t minor at all. You can’t eat a cornet from the narrow end, because then everything drips out the wide end! That’s wasteful! Snacks are costly these days!
As goony as the body of the show is, it’s downright conventional compared to the surreal bookend, “Lucky Channel”, that closes off each episode. This is allegedly the “cards-and-letters” portion of the show, but it’s really a forum for the host (fifteen-year-old Akira Kogami) to go from perky, pert young teen idol to snarling cynic in seconds flat. This is not only funny the first time it happens; it’s a surprisingly well-sustained gag that works in the same observational vein as the rest of the show. Everything from her voice to her mannerisms to the shape of her eyes (my favorite part of the joke) shifts on cue — it’s like an anime version of that scene in Errol Morris’s inimitable documentary Gates of Heaven, where a woman gearshifts in mid-conversation from innocent talk of pets to brutally castigating her son and never once looks back.
I have a fascination with shows (or media in general, really) that assume the people watching are at least partially in on the joke. Half of the fun of something like Paniponi Dash! was how gleefully the show elbowed us and winked at us, the fans. Then comes something like Genshiken, where the humor is gentler and more centered on the personalities of the characters: yes, we have known people like this, and yes, maybe some of us are people like this. Lucky Star is about halfway between those two poles: the characters themselves are nudging us in the ribs, and sometimes the best way to get a good laugh out of something is just to watch, and watch, and watch.