With Punch Line, Studio MAPPA’s original comedy ecchi, there is a sense of the creative team throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. In the first episode alone there’s an obvious nod to the glut of superhero series we’re seeing coming out of Japan, and a blatant nod to Akira. But as the 12 episodes unfold, it becomes more and more apparent that Punch Line is an anime about anime. That’s not to say it deals with the industry itself, like Shirobako; it’s more a postmodern dissection of the medium, past and present. It might be the title, the marketing or its central conceit, but this writer was as surprised as anyone else to discover a smart and experimental series executed with a kind of mad finesse.
The plot is admittedly a dense and convoluted affair, and trying to explain it will further add to the confusion. Suffice it to say that Yuta Iridatsu, a resident of the Korai House apartment complex, whose response to seeing panties is nothing short of metaphysical, is probably the most ordinary of the lot. Following a bus-jacking, and the appearance of magical girl-cum-superhero Strange Juice, Yuta’s soul becomes detached from his body. Despite his bottom half being no more than a ghostly appendage, his excitement levels are powered up by seeing panties. Yet, if this meter reaches critical limits, an asteroid will hit the earth and annihilate the human race. With feline spirit guide Chiranosuke, brilliantly voiced by relative newcomer Yuri Yoshida, to catsplain, Yuta begins to unravel a progressively more complicated and perilous situation. To say much more would take the joy out of the ensuing weirdness and many of the genuine surprises in store.
In many instances Yuta takes a back seat to the other residents of the apartment complex, as we learn more about the four women at the heart of the show, interspersed with a well-paced unveiling of the history that ties them all together. As events unfold, creating real empathy for the characters, the narrative arc is one of sisterhood, as much a response to the rest of the medium as any other aspect of the show.
MAPPA boast a catalogue of gorgeous looking series, such as Kids on the Slope, Ushio and Tora and Terror in Resonance, and the animation here is simultaneously cotemporary and a throwback to the late 80s, early 90s aesthetic. The colour palette is made up of bright, poppy hues and blocky colours, while the backdrops are densely detailed, giving a real lived-in impression. In this regard there’s something of studio TRIGGER about it, but with scenes and stylistics that clearly poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of said studio, it’s clear Punch Line is desperate to set its weirdness apart from others’.
One of the more persistent trends in modern anime is the gamification of passive storytelling, something a series as self-aware as Punch Line has taken on in spades. Yuta needs to perform small tasks to raise his spirit level before being able to interact with larger physical objects. Likewise, if he fails in his task, he’s able to simply go back to beginning and have another try as the laws of physics and time travel don’t apply to the spirit world, a caveat explained by Chiranosuke using a surprisingly apt booby metaphor and giving a whole new definition to “wibbly wobbly timey wimey”.
Punch Line doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to the ecchi, and its own brand of perviness adds new impact to the up-skirts compared to myriad other anime. Watching any kind of panty flash hereafter will never be quite the same. Yet underneath the knickers shtick, there are some great comedic moments, relying more on good timing and double entendre than the brash, gross-out comedy of Shimoneta. But the real punchline, perhaps, is in just how many people dismissed the show outright and missed out on one of 2015’s highlights.
Clean opening/ closing animation; also available from Sentai Filmworks.