Pani Poni Dash! Vol. 1

Comedy just shouldn't be this hard.

It's a given that every culture has its own unique ideas as to what is funny. While there are many universals, often times jokes are unique to their culture of origina. They really only work in context...and explaining that context kills the humor. And this is the central (if not only) problem of the first volume of Pani Poni Dash!, an amazingly popular series in its homeland. The show relies on a scattershot approach of throwing ten gags a minute at the audience hoping that one might hit you as funny...and if you only understand two of those gags, it's doubtful you're going to find more than a couple an episode amusing.

Becky Miyamoto is an MIT grad...the youngest one in the school's history at age 11. What does she do with all that intelligence? Become a schoolteacher for a bunch of 12-year-olds? You betcha! Accompanied by a depressed bunny and a temper, Becky is going to do this job justice come hell or high water. It won't be easy with a classroom of stereotypical girls, from "boring girl" to "the spazz" who goes around perkily repeating her meaningless catchphrase. But when you can cry your way out of any situation and have no problem giving your class the bird when you get upset, you can get a lot accomplished! Just nothing really related to school...and lest you think that's all the plot there is, a bunch of space aliens are also in orbit spying on Becky. Let the insanity begin!

As you can probably tell by the above description, plot isn't exactly the point of Pani Poni Dash! This show is all about the laugh, and the setup is so ridiculous that you're supposed to think that it's funny in and of itself. The setup is amusing for about 12 seconds, but the scenario is so impossible that there's little comedy to be had except for the madcap. The show's creators seem to be happy with that, and they heave the kitchen sink at the audience. There are in-jokes in almost every frame. Want cheesy tag lines from ancient robot anime?  They're here. Think that pop culture references written on the classroom blackboards that change every few seconds are hysterical?  Then you'll think it's a laugh riot. And when all else fails, the characters are so wildly over the top that they can be counted on for a chortle or two.

For a Western audience, though, much of this is right over our heads. In a show like this, the only way to experience it the same way that the Japanese do is to localize the jokes. The purist faction has done a lot for promoting anime, but that mindset has killed the ability to make this show intelligible or funny anyplace outside of the Far East. Realistically, the average Japanese viewer probably didn't catch every single reference, but they got enough to think it was darn funny. That's just impossible for us, even those of us who think we know a lot about anime history.

I don't blame ADV Films for this...they have delivered what can be considered a near-perfect disc under these conditions. They give you options to watch the show with just minimal captions or the full monty, and they include pop-up liner notes that explain about 98% of the in-jokes. Because of the rapid-fire nature of the show, there are times when the pop-ups literally cover the entire screen. In a crazy show like this, though, it's just an addition to the insanity already going on. Though I watched part of the first episode with the subtitles, I quickly switched over to the dub, which is really the only way to even begin to catch all that's on the screen.  Here, too, ADV did a bang-up job; the characters look and sound just right. It's localized slightly, but on this show, that's actually a good thing. In fact, the only thing more ADV could have done would have been to have localized all the written jokes, which are numerous and would have just upset the purists.

The thing is, even when I did understand the Japanese gags, I didn't think they were that funny. To me, Pani Poni Dash! wasn't just mediocre, it was at times deeply annoying. The first four episodes, all set in the classroom, played around with the same style of humor, and if it was old in the first episode, it was exhaustingly painful by the fourth. (I will admit that it got a little better in the fifth episode when the class went on a camping trip.) One of the reasons it took me so long to write this review was that I had to watch it in multiple sittings. It got grating after too much time. On top of all that, for the most part, I was bored. I will be the first to admit that there were one or two lines that had me howling, but to sit for over two hours and only have a couple good laughs just says to me that the whole thing didn't work. And since there is no plot worth mentioning, no continuing storyline, and no character development, there's really not much reason to watch.

Frankly, I see Pani Poni Dash! as being one of those titles that will split anime fans for some time. Those otaku who think the show is the greatest comedy ever to be seen will accuse those of us who don't like it of just "not getting it." In fact, I expect that many people will like this show precisely because the jokes are so Japanese; it will make them appear more knowledgable to their friends. But for those of us who have really been around the block on anime, this isn't all that new or all that funny. Madcap can be done well; watch some Child's Toy/Kodomo no Omocha and you'll see. In comparison, Pani Poni Dash! is just manic bad, not manic good.

Pani Poni Dash! Vol. 1 -- mild language -- C-