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Teacher’s Pet: "School Rumble Second Semester" Is Top of the Class!

by on June 12, 2009

I’m never really equated Japanese animation with comedy. Action? yes. Originality? Certainly. Surprise? Part and parcel. But comedy? No, not really. Sure, the genre is filled with the occasionally beat of silly expressions and exaggerated reaction shots, but I have never really seen Japanese animation as something that would make me laugh out loud. Until last year, that is, when my arrogant assumption was proved a little too hasty by School Rumble: Extra Class.

Now, with School Rumble: Second Semester sitting on my shelf in two parts, one question prevailed: would the comedy I discovered in the short, disconnected Extra Class work over the serialized second season?

School Rumble follows the escapades of the pupils from class 2-C attending Yagami High School. In particular, the focus rests upon tough-guy Kenji Harima and the quirky, undeveloped Tenma Tsukamoto. This pair exist in a comic unrequited love triangle alongside Tenma’s crush Oji Karasuma. Outside this awkward love chain there is Yakumo, Tenma’s young sister, who has a crush on Harima, while Haruki has a crush on Yakumo … and the list goes on. It all comes together to create a rather bizarre romantic school comedy that really doesn’t take itself too seriously.

And it works. It worked with Extra Class as a collection of short scenes, and it works as a series. In fact, compared to the Extra Class DVD, I’d even say the Second Season is twice as good. True, the stories themselves are hardly anything to write home to mama about, largely dealing with school events, out-of-school tomfoolery and the general genre ilk, but the characters function superbly within the respective teen niches, and take simple scenarios to a new level. Yes, I laughed. Unlike most Japanese animation, School Rumble doesn’t rely on the aforementioned comedic visuals to carry its giggles; the moments are created through the situation and the characters. For me, this is a rare find in Japanese animation that I feel has become far too comfortable with its bid for visual humor. I’m sorry, but flash cuts of chibi characters and the legendary sweat drop/forehead vein have become such a generic and predictable tool within anime. That’s not to say School Rumble doesn’t have its fair share of visual humor (and it delivers good on that), but the real fruit is in the situations and the character interactions.

That being said, there are some very sweet dramatic moments woven into the comedy. There is a lovely episode later in the set where Harima unexpectedly comes to Yakumo’s aid in a way that is both touching and hilarious. Another comes in a poignant flashback sequence between Yakumo and Tenma. All in all, it’s a reminder that there are some very touching beats within the insanity.

The English voice artists are excellent as well, especially Brandon Potter’s Harima, who really steals the show (as he did as Sven in Black Cat). VA dubs are hard enough as they come. But when having to VA a comedy series, timing is even more essential, so hats off to the U.S. cast. Speaking on the subject of sound, I have to say “Sentimental Generation” is as catchy an opening theme as “Scramble” was for season one.

For me, the show works better the less surreal it is, and School Rumble can certainly play the field of plausibility wide often, enjoying its escapes from the confining school parameters with some pretty unusual episodes that put the characters in some more unexpected environments. When it does, I can’t help feeling it loses something, so thankfully it’s pretty infrequent that School Rumble spreads its wings like this. The show’s strength comes from the charm of its characters, and the school setting gives the show space to develop their charisma.

The only grumble I’d have with the show is with an aspect that is baked into the show’s storyline. After a whole season, the lack of progression within the set character dynamics becomes frustrating. Nothing really ever changes, despite the fact the stories are built on the character’s desire for change. The show’s characters teeter on the edge of revelation but never drop over, preferring a reset and return to the status quo. I must admit after half a season I wanted to see some change in the dynamics, and I was quite disappointed the series never delivered on this score.

But then, maybe that’s the whole point of the show. Looking back at the season, I have to say that when we strip away the comedy veneer we are left with quite a perceptive adolescent model. In School Rumble, the characters each have their focus, and most have a focus that is far beyond what the reality suggests, which is very Teen. They live in a world that desires change in their favor, but have yet to come to terms with harsh reality that what we want we don’t always get. This attitude is very much the core of the humor, taking ridiculously simple inane situations and let the characters, the direction and the visuals blow them way out of proportion. We laugh as we see Harima’s pitiful attempts to swallow Tenma’s terrible rice cakes as we are treated to visual allegories of stampeding mammoths, exploding volcanoes and the trampling feet of a thousand soldiers not simply because its such a brilliantly cut visual gag, but because it ridicules the sheer melodrama of teenage. Nothing becomes everything and the slightest hitch in the teenagers blinkered desires becomes a world shattering situation—and this really is the heart of School Rumble’s brilliance.

The DVDs themselves are acceptably packaged. I can’t say the design blows me away. It is, in fact, rather misleading, as you won’t find too much teen titillation in this show (well, maybe a little). The reversible fanboy/fangirl covers a nice touch, though. Sure, it’s a simple jape that appeals to simple minds, but don’t judge me too harshly when I admit that swapping the covers around kept me occupied and out of trouble for a short time!

The special features won’t blow you away either. An interview with the creator for one set and an interview with the Japanese VA for Tenma is the feature for the other. Not bad bonuses, but I guess we kind of expect a little more from our box sets these days!

School Rumble is a fun, diverse and dare I say hilarious show and the second semester is a brilliant seasons worth of smart storytelling. The characters are so well crafted it was easy to find myself slipping into an adolescent regression (shipping Harima and Yukomo 4eva!111XD) and yearning for those painful days of high school. Sure, as with all comedy, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like silly, character-driven humor with a touch of the abstract to keep you on your toes, School Rumble might be one trip back to school you will enjoy.

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