Let's face it, guys—if you had an awesome animal in your anime this season, your show was bound to make it to the semifinals of Anime Survivor.
Whether it's cooler-than-advertised Anteater from Polar Bear's Cafe, leader-by-default Tapioca from Tsuritama, the adorably-dumb Apo from Space Brothers, or even the parliament of owl-headed goons from The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (yes, a group of owls is called a "parliament"!)—everywhere you looked, BOSS ANIMALS.
So which one is lowest on the food chain? The thirteenth show to be sent to the glue factory in Spring 2012's Anime Survivor is...!
Selling Points: Since the dawn of comedy in Japan, it was very typical for there to be a two-way receptacle for delivering laughs. One guy would play the uneducated dummy (the boke), while the other would play the sharp-witted straight man (the tsukkomi). To produce the punchline, the boke would make some dunderheaded comment, and the tsukkomi would straighten his partner out with a smack or a verbal jab. For every Koyomi, there was a Tomo, and there was never an alternative.
However, there has always been an undercurrent where the two roles weren't so simple. Once the tsukkomi in Cromartie High School, main-character Kamiyama suddenly exhibited a sly wit, a straight man so ingeniously smart that he became dumb. Shinpachi had to deal with two morons in Gintama. Hime had to straighten out Bossun and Switch in Sket Dance. Heck, you could argue that Yomi had the entire squad of "Knuckleheads" to handle in Azumanga Daioh.
And that's the style of comedy Japan's growing to embrace—three heads are (comically) better than two.
The best example this season is the wonderfully-articulate Polar Bear's Cafe (Shirokuma Cafe). Episodic in nature, the aimless show starts with a pinpoint objective—even lazy pandas are not immune to finding work in this busy society. Panda himself would rather lay about and chew bamboo all day, and after finding no leads at a job that lets him lay about and chew bamboo all day, he stumbles upon the diligent Polar Bear and his cafe in the wild. Inspired, Panda applies for the job, only to be passed over when the charming Sasako unintentionally impresses at the interview.
And things only steamroll from here with three main players. Panda's one-track mind gets him into situations that he hasn't seen coming, leaving the straight-laced Penguin to pick up the slack (despite his own tendency to be at a loss for words when he's dreaming of Miss Penko). This leaves Polar Bear as the central figure, but his wise words and decisions often take a back seat when given the chance to act out bad word puns or nonsequiturs. As time goes by, both humans and animals pay visits to the cafe, each episode showing that neither are willing to take their job seriously.
Defense: Surprisingly, the void left by Gintama's exit doesn't feel so empty, as Polar Bear's Cafe has taken the wheel for gag entertainment. You're not getting penis jokes and fecal humor, but you're also not getting situations that fail to endear the audience. The formula is basic with Polar Bear, Panda, and Penguin trying out different things that we humans would take for granted (i.e. driving, group dating), and while the results are not off-the-wall, they are further from the norm than expected.
The artwork and animation is pretty good for getting realistic-looking animals to interact with the humans (which actually makes the human characters seem more cartoonish), but the fun comes from better-than-expected acting. The voices for Polar Bear (Takahiro Sakurai), Panda (Jun Fukuyama), and Penguin (Hiroshi Kamiya) are not only popular and notable, but they're pretty much on-point in terms of intonation and are great with delivering their lines. I can actually imagine all of the animals sounding the way their actors portray them.
In general, you get an anime that is confident in its delivery. It knows that it won't be ruffling too many feathers, but it also knows that it won't present material that will fall flat.
Final Decision: However, this adherence to convention is also why Polar Bear's Cafe departs our competition. It's not that the above picture isn't funny; it's just that there are, at times, many hoops to leap through to fully appreciate its humor.
For instance, the above picture comes when Polar Bear ventures into gag comedy. The crew's car gets a flat tire (panku in Japanese), prompting Polar Bear to dress as a skunk (sukanku) and in a pink dress (pinku). Clever eye-rolling puns in Japanese, yes, but the humor takes a lot of translation to get to the punch line in English. In short, I'm afraid there will be an end to the humor once we tire of Polar Bear breaking through the fourth wall.
There's no doubt that Polar Bear's Cafe has been witty up to this point, but if it had to go any further, it would have to venture into territory it probably doesn't want to see. Aside from the one-trick-pony Anteater, there's not much else interesting about the full cast of characters. Sasako's good for a friendly grin, but the other humans and animals don't have the same charm the lead trio has. Good luck getting a ten-minute story from Sloth or Baboon.
It's been a good eleven episodes of Polar Bear's Cafe, but for the sake of this competition, it's time to close up shop until a new menu is produced. When it does, I'll be first in line.
Next time: There can be only two in the Final!