You may have noticed how often some of my comedy anime reviews describe Japanese humor as “absurdist.” Well, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s not hard to figure out. It’s one of the few literary terms my bachelors in English taught me that actually means exactly what it says. Absurdist humor is humor that is, well, absurd.
Perhaps the best literary example of absurdist at work is the classic tale Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, which later grew into Alice in Wonderland. Although many don’t think of it as humor, it is absurdist. Many, if not all, of the events make little sense and the humor (for it does exist) is often hidden within a double meaning or when one steps out of the fantasy and takes what is said at face value (much of Carroll’s talent lies in distracting the reader by silly events while addressing serious issues at the same time).
Of course, Japan is not ignorant of Carroll’s classic. In fact, there are hundreds of anime, as well as many more manga, that give their own variations of the tale or are heavily inspired by it. And they’ve taken the comedy aspect to new heights. While not all Japanese humor is absurdist, a decent amount that arrives in America is. Why? Actually, the answer is pretty simple. Translation. Absurdist humor is absurd. There might be hidden meaning, but often it is of a kind that doesn’t need intensive translation. The comedy depends mainly on just being silly and thus actually works well in various languages, unlike puns and cultural in-jokes.
So if you happen to be new to anime and manga and are wondering if you’re just not “getting it,” don’t. You aren’t supposed to understand it all. It’s ok. Just relax, kick back and start laughing at the ridiculousness of skydiving right through an ocean liner and then wondering why it’s sinking.