If you were curious my three choices for Anime Secret Santa this year were both seasons of KonoSuba, both new parts of FLCL (FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative), or both seasons Blood Blockade Battlefront. For some reason, my Secret Santa seemed hellbent on me watching two seasons of whatever I picked.
I passed over FLCL mostly because while I was interested in watching the series I heard it was extremely disappointing. It was not horrible, or even worse, it just was a pale shadow of the original. It felt like something that would produce a rather limp review. Blood Blockade Battlefront seemed the safest choice. At worst I might find the show dull but it would have to go some really bad places to be hard to watch. KonoSuba seemed to be the show most in the spirit of the Secret Santa Project. It was a show I avoided because it seemed like more of the same isekai nonsense that has been flooding the market. But along with Re:Zero it is one of the few transported to another world series that I actually saw good reviews for. It seemed like a title I might have wrongly prejudged as another wannabe part of the Sword Art Online wave.
To be perfectly honest I also had I plan that if KonoSuba was Texhnolyze bad I could just hit the eject button and review the far safer Blood Blockade Battlefront. I’m not going to suffer THAT much for this project. Once was enough. I’m not that much of a masochist.
Clearly, since this is my Secret Santa review KonoSuba was not total unwatchable trash like The Master of Ragnarok & Blesser of Einherjar but that does not mean it was good. Does KonoSuba rise like cream to the top of the isekai barrel? The short answer is: It’s complicated.
Kazuma Satou dies a rather embarrassing death but is given a second chance but the not so benevolent water goddess Aqua. She will send his soul to a troubled world with all of his current memories in hopes that he can be the chosen one that will defeat the Demon King. As a bonus, she will throw in any ultra powerful bonus he wants to help in his mission. Satou chooses Aqua as his trump card in a moment of panic and spite. Even when downgraded to a mortal body Aqua is still an ultra-powerful cleric. The problem is that she is a trash fire of a person ripped out of a Rumiko Takahashi manga and as dumb as a sack of hammers. Satou is no luckier when a Munchkin of a mage and a masochistic paladin join their party. Can this five-man band pretend to be competent long enough to save the world or will rocks fall and kill them all?
If you just want my Cliff Notes review of the show here it is: At first I thought KonoSuba was a lame fan service comedy with terrible main characters. As the show went on I realized lots of the initially lame jokes and basic characterizations become much more clever and complicated jokes that build on themselves. Also, the show realizes the characters are horrible and treats them accordingly. It also has some nice tip of the hat send-ups of tabletop RPGs material alongside video game logic. That won it some major points in my eyes. So as the show went on it definitely grew on me and I began to understand how it got its good reputation. It is a show that rewards you for sticking with it.
I also realized KonoSuba has some MAJOR deal breaking elements that will kill the show instantly for some people. The two major problems are fundamental and unavoidable. If these elements get under your skin the show will remain horrible no matter how long you watch it. The first is while KonoSuba is a parody of isekai shows it can fall into the same traps it often makes fun of. Kazuma is the most notable criminal in this respect. The second major problem is Darkness has some jokes around her masochism that can easily go from funny, to someone’s kink, and even occasionally land all the way into the territory of disturbing or offensive. She is easily the most probable reason someone might be grooving with the show and then immediately have to stop.
Kazuma clearly demonstrates the first flaw of KonoSuba. He is supposed to be a send-up of the milquetoast isekai protagonist that is always billed as the ordinary everyman that just so happens to be a godly warrior and strategist that has a Paptimus Scirocco level harem magnet. They get to be a power fantasy that also allows nonthreatening self-insertion. In many ways, Kazuma is a character that thumbs his nose at the idea but at the same time, he falls into that niche despite the attempts at subversion.
Kazuma is the weakest Onion Knight styled class call the Adventurer that has no restrictions on who can use it but also has no major advantages. He has no inherent skill and bonuses, unlike all the other party members. The thing is he can learn any skill from any other class. He will never be able to use those skills as well as someone in that job making him a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The thing is anyone who has ever played a tabletop RPG will know that skill synergy can easily take two well-balanced skills and turn them into a broken nightmare. If you allow a character to use any skill in a game a savvy player can become an unstoppable demigod with a few smart combinations. This allows an underpowered hero to defeat the top soldiers of the Demon Lord.
Also, Kazuma is supposed to buck the trend of having a harem of hotties because Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness are horrible people and therefore they break any fantasies of being surrounded by beautiful babes in a fantasy world. At first, this seems like it is well executed. The main three heroines are unabashedly irritating broken fools who are overly specialized monsters that shine at their weird niche and are useless outside of it. But here is the rub. If you look at the fandom you will see Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness all have sizable fandoms. They might be train wrecks but they still have a very distinct appeal. Characters like Flay Allster and Akane Shinjo also prove conclusively that if you make a character attractive enough a disturbing number of fans will forgive whatever they do. So what first appears to be a parody of the genre can easily be argued to be nothing more than a sadistic version of the norm.
Speaking of S&M the other main problem is Darkness. She is a paladin that took the job as it fulfills her masochistic desires to a sometimes orgasmic degree. She comically throws herself in the path of danger to the point of being suicidal in order to chase the next big hit of extreme pain. In theory, it is an amusing examination of the role of the tank through a dark mirror. The problem is the show takes this to some dark extremes which can easily turn off anyone without a particular style of dark humor. The easiest example is when Darkness talks about her ideal husband. She says that her perfect match would be a drunken wastrel who would take advantage of her devotion in the worst ways possible. She also frequently “let’s slip” her monster rape fantasies. I’m not here to kink shame anyone but Darkness seems to be the vessel for the disgusting desires of the reader more than anything else. While it is the logical extension of the joke to its darkest extreme it does feel like it goes past some very important lines that perhaps should not be crossed in the process.
I mostly left Megumin out of the conversation about problematic elements mostly because she is never as much of a lightning rod as the other cast members. She is not wholly innocent but overall she is never a major criminal. Her whole shtick is she is a mage who learned the most powerful attack magic spell and devoted herself to casting that single spell as perfectly as possible as the cost of the myriad of other spells she could have learned. On top of that, she basically is a major chunibyo which is quite an accomplishment in a fantasy world. She will remind any tabletop player of that one horrible little munchkin that made a character’s whose whole existence is to do as much damage in combat as possible at the cost of everything else. She does have a bit of a low-level loli vibe going on being younger than the rest of the party but they don’t actually exploit that anywhere as much as you would think. For a Rumiko Takahashi analogy, she is the Ryuunosuke Fujinami of KonaSuba. At her worst, she can be just as terrible as the rest of the cast but she usually just trends toward quirky all things considered.
Speaking of terrible people let us talk about Aqua. She is a selfish, lazy, greedy, petty, and vain drama queen. She is a terrible friend and a mediocre goddess. But unlike other series, KonaSuba makes sure to reward Aqua with an equal amount suffering for her terrible behavior. She gets as good as she gives out. It is also worth noting that Aqua does seem to genuinely care for any member of the Axis Order and tries to do the best she can for her worshipers. She wants to be a benevolent goddess but she is sadly just not very good at it. She also has moments of kindness and selflessness. It is just that her horrible vices always get in the way in the long-term.
You might be saying, “Al, you only mentioned four characters in the party all this time.” I’m not spoiling the arrival of a character who arrives later in the series. This fifth part member is omnipresent and unavoidable from the first episode. The fifth party member I was joking about is Aqua’s ass. There are episodes where it appears more than Megumin or Darkness. For plot reasons, Megumin and Darkness are not in certain episodes so that claim is not an exaggeration. Aqua wears a ridiculously short skirt, she has a plump rump, and the camera loves to focus on her posterior if it has the chance. In fact, the default camera angle is on her tush if there is nothing more interesting to focus on. Some episodes are thirstier than others but Aqua’s derrière always appears at least three times usually with at least one lingering shot. Aqua’s ass might not do much but you will be hard pressed to forget it.
Make no mistake. KonoSuba is filled with fan service like all but a handful of valiant holdouts in the isekai genre. When the busty guild master or wizard appear there is the prerequisite juvenile jiggle you expect from a show like this. Most women wear cheesecake fantasy outfits and the show will remind you of this fact. Anytime Darkness is in casual wear they make up for lost time in the upper body fanservice department. It is just that Aqua’s fanny gets an extra degree of attention that sets it apart.
Now that I have pointed out the problems with KonoSuba I feel I can explore what it does right. If you were able to get through the above and are still interested there is a clever show at the core of it. I would just never fault anyone for never getting to that point. I have a feeling that left to my own devices I might have had the same feeling.
As I mentioned the humor in the show actually nicely snowballs. There are a surprising number of gags that actually gain moment as the series goes on. What often starts off as a collection of decent jokes often build into some really great and complex gags by the end of the second series.
The prime example of this is the Axis Order. When Aqua originally is made mortal she makes a big deal that she was higher in the celestial bureaucracy than her underling Eris. (Despite what the show would normally have you believe about Aqua’s SOP this is actually true and confirmed by Eris herself.) When they actually get to the fantasy world they discover that The Eris Order is the major religion of the region and Aqua’s followers are called the Axis Cult. They are mostly seen as a crazy group of weirdos that are some mix of Scientology and Aum Shinrikyo.
This first comes to light when Aqua and Kazuma need money to join the Adventures Guild. She hits up a cleric for money and discovers that he is actually a priest of Eris. Since their gods are related he gives her the money and it mostly just seems like a set up to show how far Aqua has fallen. It seems like a throwaway gag but it is actually a bit more clever than that. As the series goes on we get a clearer and clearer picture of why exactly the Axis sect is seen as a cult of dangerous weirdos. It is mostly a little gag here or an awkward situation there. When they actually go to a town controlled by the Axis Cult in the second season all these previous gags are paid off and built upon actually making a pretty clever stab a religion in general. It really works because all the previous jokes solidified into something greater but they needed that time to brew into something stronger.
I want to make it clear there are still a bunch of jokes that are nothing more than dumb puns, awkward moments, simple physical humor, cringe humor, or bouncing tits. There is a good deal of the show that caters to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes that low hanging fruit adds to the more complex comedy and sometimes it is just a quick gag and nothing more. It is just when the show actually works for its jokes it can actually be clever, insightful, and surprisingly complex. It is probably the reasons the show grew on me the most but it is not something that is immediately obvious.
I also have to say I was won over by the commitment to poking fun at everything fantasy related. While video game RPGs owe much of their current form to the tabletop RPGs that inspired them they have now distinctly become their own form. I would say that while Fantasy video games, books, and tabletop game share many tropes and ideas they are distinct enough that they have elements that are unique to themselves. You could easily be an expert on computer RPGs but have never touched a d20 or read a page of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin. It feels like for the last decade or so the main focus of parody in fantasy anime has been game like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Aqua’s frequent use of Turn Undead or Megumin’s obsession with party killing fireball spells proves that Natsume Akatsuki probably has rolled up a character sheet or two in his day. So a series that goes back and looks at the whole oeuvre of fantasy is very welcome. A good deal of the humor still comes from modern games but the fact that some of the humor is from the older forms of fantasy won me over.
The animation in the show is easily in that category where if you ask about the quality you will probably get several different answers. This comes from the fact that it is a show that definitely emphasizes the fluidity of movement and expressiveness of characters over staying on model. It is not that the show never looks good it is just that when it comes down to looking perfect and feeling great the show always chooses to be expressive over perfect. This allows the humor to hit harder and the action scenes to have more impact at the expense of consistency. That is not to say that Konosuba is never rushed or sloppy. It can look cheap for no real gain at times but often what looks messy is actually more rewarding exactly for that reason.
There are some VERY high walls preventing people from entering the town that is Konosuba fandom. Some fans will stroll right in through the front gates and quickly find themselves a citizen of the town. Others will take some convincing and will have to spend some time with the content that can easily turn away anyone who is not willing to put in some effort for the promise of greater rewards inside the walls. Others still will either happily never try to enter the city or will run away screaming after a few days inside. Konosuba is a show with some great virtues and equally terrible flaws and often they center around the same elements. It is distinctly a show where if any element turned you off you might want to be wary of watching the show but at the same time if you heard anything that catches your fancy there is more meat on that bone then you might expect. Konosuba is not a party everyone will want to join but they are a party that might just defeat the demon king if you join up with them.
Or the party might just take your money and Aqua will use it to buy booze. Either scenario is equally possible.