Why So Serious? The Equilibrium of Exposition and Comic Relief

by eternal on May 17, 2009


Serious business is serious. And it’s also important. Very important. Life, after all, is usually pretty serious, and since many works of fiction take on darker subjects than real life contains, it’s only natural that stories should be suitably heavy-hearted. However, the funny thing about seriousness is that there’s a very fine line between “serious” and “too serious,” and I’m sure we’ve all seen far too many times cases in which the creators of a show fail to notice that line.

The problem is, understanding how much seriousness to use is ridiculously important, to the point that a careless mistake can destroy an otherwise good story. And yet, the right balance between dark and light subject matter can make a good story even better. It’s one of those simple aspects of a work of fiction that’s easy to understand but hard to master.

Of course, this all begs the question: how serious is too serious?

A question like this can be answered using nearly anything as an example, and taking a random look around my room, I spot a Type-Moon figure. So there we have it: seriousness in the Type-Moon visual novels. How does it work? And more importantly, does it work?

I think many would agree that Nasu has a good feel for how to structure his stories in a way that is neither too heavy nor light. There were a few times in Fate/stay night where I felt as though the comedy was a little forced or drawn out, but by and large, they did a good job. The plot-centric moments remain untainted, the story knows how to take itself seriously, and the overarching plot, both in terms of mythos and character interactions, is good enough to be taken seriously. In other words, it works.

But what about, say, Da Capo? Or most any harem/visual novel adaptation? The DC anime is far less serious than a Type-Moon game, but as anyone who has watched the series can contest to, the seriousness is often too much. Admittedly, there are a few moments that work, but the anime attempts to throw Key-level drama at the viewer before doing much to earn his or her respect. The characters are all right if viewed from the perspective of a dating sim, but there isn’t enough substance – in the adaptations, at least – to handle the quantity of drama. The end result isn’t exactly bad, but I don’t think it qualifies as good, either.

why-so-seriousNot a bad game until it decided to take itself seriously.
(I’m talking about Snow Sakura, and no, the crab is neither relevant nor serious)

Lower-tier VN adaptations are the best examples I can think of in terms of stories that take themselves too seriously. Other infamous culprits include bad shounen and some JRPGs (the idea for this post first came to mind while playing the second Tales of Symphonia). The fact of the matter is that a bad story that thinks it’s good is arguably worse than no story at all. No one complains about the few serious moments in Lucky Star, but what if the entire second half of the series were dedicated to Konata’s family issues?

Obviously, the reverse can also be a problem. I believe a few people were bothered by the comedy in Darker than Black, though I was personally fine with it. At any rate, the argument is that the comedy breaks the plot apart. And that’s true, in a sense: too many lighthearted distractions can kill the atmosphere of an otherwise excellent story. Incidentally, I’ve also noticed this in a few RPGs, particularly the ones that like to throw in random minigames, but the problem is also present in Code Geass and Macross Frontier. My opinion of both shows is positive, but I can’t blame someone for questioning why Sheryl’s panties require as much screentime as a space battle – and we’re not even talking about real fanservice!

For the sake of avoiding needless verbosity, I’ll wrap things up by stating the obvious: that seriousness only works in the right amounts, and that it can destroy the original material if used in incorrent amounts. Saying it like that, it reminds me of some form of powerful medication – necessary, but only when used flawlessly. Many a story has been harmed too much comic relief and ineffective melodrama, and much of this comes back to the fact that seriousness is easy to use inappropriately. Thankfully, the shows that do it right seem to outnumber the ones that don’t – I’m looking at you, RahXephon and Clannad – but it’s important to remember the fact that seriousness is the kind of thing that either helps or hurts, rarely anything in between. As viewers, there’s little we can do about this delicate equilibrium unless we decide to write our own fiction (preferably not of the fan variety), but it always helps to note when and where flaws show up – and when debating things like Kannagi and Love Hina, seriousness is likely to be the word of the day.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaiserpingvin May 18, 2009 at 10:50 am

No one complains about the few serious moments in Lucky Star, but what if the entire second half of the series were dedicated to Konata’s family issues?

I, for one, would have adored the damn thing.

I’d challenge your assertion that it is the quantity that matters, some sort of balance between little and much. Rather, I believe it all lies in execution – if done well, any amount of humour can follow along with the grimmest, . Or so I believe. For one, look at Excel Saga, when it turned semi-serious (focus on semi), it did so well. The whole scene with Il Palazzo rising on his base and Excel finally meeting him there, with the consequences, didn’t feel “too serious”, despite it being set in a show where serious moments normally consisted of the director himself appearing at random moments as a half-god in afro and Char-expies looking like cute pseudo-rabbit-dolls wage intergalactic war.

It may not all that different, your view and mine, I imagine, since “the right amount” and “well-executed” may overlap in a large majority of cases, though. (the Excel Saga example may well be “the right amount”, considering it was not much more than a single, still slightly ridiculous, episode)


OGT May 18, 2009 at 12:43 pm

I’m pretty sure that “correct quantities” and “well-executed” are the same thing. It’s probably just a case of knowing how serious to make the serious bits in comparison with the humorous bits with regards to the overall story. And then it depends on how your audience takes it, because viewing a series as a “drama” can create issues between those who view the series as a “comedy.” Kannagi is a perfect example: taken more as a drama, the middle bit that focused exclusively on comedy seems jarring, whereas taken more as a comedy, the sudden bout of drama at the end seems jarring.

I find that anime is a devilishly difficult medium/genre as a whole to treat seriously, because it almost literally requires you to take it frivolously and seriously at the same time. You have to take the fact that you take anime seriously lightly, and you have to take the fact that you take anime lightly seriously.

OGTs last blog post..The Rediscovery of Haruhi Suzumiya


Kaiserpingvin May 18, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Well, “correct quantities” sounds as if there is an actual correct quanitity you need to find, and then inject that much, while I think any quantity can be a correct quantity… It’s a matter of implications and focus I guess.


Michael | Low on Hit Points May 18, 2009 at 6:22 pm

With any sort of heavy drama (aka seriousness), you have to earn said heavy drama. When that drama is forced, it becomes “overly serious.” When that drama is earned but not used (a comedy bit plays up a scene instead), it becomes “not serious enough.” Knowing what you’ve earned through the story, scenario, and character up to that point in the series and playing it correctly is the key to getting “seriousness” right.

Michael | Low on Hit Pointss last blog post..Futakoi Alternative is one good argument for excellent execution trumping everything else


zzeroparticle May 19, 2009 at 1:24 am

Interestingly enough, I consider Valkyria Chronicles (the anime) to be terrible on the basis that it took a pretty decent war drama and made it more of a funny-face extravaganza, which diluted the source material which was far more serious. While the jury’s still out on how it’ll turn out in the end, I’m not enjoying it quite as much because of my expectations for a well-told, serious story.

zzeroparticles last blog post..Anime Piece of the Week: #1 – Action


ETERNAL May 19, 2009 at 9:09 pm

@ Kaiserpingvin: Yeah, our opinions pretty much overlap. Any quantity is fine as long as it’s executed properly, but if the quantities are totally askew, then chances are it won’t executed properly. Like with most any other device, the timing and skill of using the device is everything.

@ OGT: It’s a difficult ability that we all get used to but never really master. I’ve gotten into the habit of not taking things too seriously until they start to get good, which gives me pleasant surprises like Eden of the East, but that also results in lessening the impact of some “surprisingly” good stories like Toradora. (Not that it was a surprise, per se, but it took me a while to properly acknowledge it as something more than what it appeared).

@ Michael: You’ve got it. That comes down to execution as well – has the story earned the right to take itself seriously and deploy the plot devices and twists? If not, then that could be a fatal mistake.

@ zzeroparticle: That’s a good example. Like OGT said, expectations are a big part of it, and I for one only found the end of Kannagi to be a bit jarring since I expected it to be a comedy. Likewise, Akikan became even worse than it already was after the half way point, although that was also due to Michael’s point about earning the seriousness (which it certainly did not do).


Lee June 1, 2009 at 12:20 am

That’s way more deep than I can go with this stuff.


Aydz June 21, 2009 at 7:51 am

Funny I should read this now, as I am smack bang in the middle of playing Tsukihime. As you’ve said Eternal, Nasu has a way of structuring his story in a way that conveys both happiness and heaviness to the readers as if they were one and the same. Since it’s a visual novel, you can tell the basic storyline after one playthrough (and which, if done improperly, won’t encourage a second playthrough) yet every story I feel my heart hurting with their every happiness.

I think he well makes us savour any humour he injects into it as Tsukihime is a game that gets serious fast. And I agree completely in that seriousness has to be earned. Whether by the characters, art, or story if they try to put too much in, it’s like getting a “loan” from the storyline further along, making it crappier the more they try to dramatise it (I think thus of Naruto which got too serious too quickly).


Veda September 9, 2014 at 6:32 am

fantastic put up, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector
do not understand this. You should proceed your writing.
I am sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!


Betsey October 15, 2014 at 8:14 pm

all the time i used to read smaller articles or reviews
which also clear their motive, and that is also happening with this piece oof writing which I am reading at this time.


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