Keijo and the Gag Curve

Keijo!!!!!!!! is available on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Keijo!!!!!!!! (hereafter referred to without the exclamation points, because they are silly) gives off a very strong impression from the word “go” – despite the back-of-the-cover synopsis painting it as one protracted, shallow joke (insofar as its titular attraction revolves around T & A), the first episode makes a case to convince us that its ideas will be played straight. And it’s mostly successful; in fact, that’s one of the most common defenses of the show. Through its characters’ conviction and in how closely it sticks to the formulas we associate with rise-to-the-top sports stories, you could reasonably assume early on that Keijo just coated it an unfortunate flavoring used to get people in on an otherwise-rounded sports-action show.

If only that same front lasted throughout the entire series.

It’s very possible that taking things so seriously from the get-go worked against it in the long run. That is to say, we don’t really see Keijo progress in the mold it sets up for itself. Even toward the end, we’re seeing variations on the same few points of interest we’ve seen in the premiere, but even long before that, we begin to see the proliferation of shonen-style “super moves” that escalate in a way more at home in the Dragonball playbook than in even the most hot-blooded of shows that pretend at sports strategies. That it bothers to make the alternate case up front – building the facade of a sports show with an odd sense of humor – makes finding out that the cover was the right way to judge this book to begin with feel almost like a betrayal of the audience’s willingness to take a chance on its premise, and makes any attempts at tension or personal struggle later on ring hollow.

It even fails to make good on its premise of goofy-concept-played straight after its establishing story beats. The opening sequence, as noted, sets up Keijo (the sport, not the show) as a properly-regulated competition with defined rules, a standardized structure, and even an associated gambling market. Yet before it’s through, Keijo (the show, not the sport) violates all three of the things that supposedly define it. The longer the show goes on, the harder the players’ strategies are to swallow as valid (surely there must be some limitation vis-à-vis public undress?). From the relatively normal Olympic-size pool hosting the show’s inaugural match, things slide until we see an inter-school match take place atop sinking castles and a mock-up of a downed plane. And the supposed gambling aspect used in the sport’s description from various advertising blurbs and even the opening narration? It apparently shows up again in the source material, but I can’t recall it ever resurfacing in the show.

So that leaves one fallback for the show’s appeal; its evergreen stream of lewd gags.

Or, I’d argue, its evergreen stream of variations on a single gag.

For comparison, I’d offer up another show closer to the spirit actually at the heart of Keijo: the wild-spirited, giant-mech darling Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. While Keijo waffles on whether it wants its audience to take it seriously, Gurren Lagann sends a uniform message in its very first episode that manages to stay true until the show’s last moments: the world has very soft rules and boundaries, but these characters still have to live in it. While Gurren Lagann may be famous for its radical escalation of scale – and it’s forthcoming about this from the very first scene, even before our protagonists are on-screen – perhaps a greater strength is more in how uniformly everything grows.

Gurren Lagann’s gags change and evolve along with the characters and their circumstances. We go from physical humor in its early, action-heavy beginning to emotional jabs when the characters are down on their luck to sitcom-like hijinks in that brief stretch in the story when everyone has settled and the script can afford to breathe. They never really go away until the proper finale of the season, but they do naturally fade in and out in-step with the gravity episode-by-episode and have a knack for falling in line with the current tone, even signaling by the sensibility of its humor whether the action or drama is set to ramp up next.

Circling back to Keijo, we see our protagonists go from aspiring students of the sport in to… aspiring students in the sport, who have won an early competition. The emotional and situational context has not changed, so why should anything else about it change, including the comedic beats? But even in the small chances it gives itself for variation – moving between a training camp, competitions, and the short stint where it deals in school life – it never goes more than two jokes in a row before falling back on body humor.

It’s all the same, end to end.

This isn’t to say that Gurren Lagann is a perfect model for every show that wants humor to play a major factor – Nijichou’s largely-interchangeable episodes and unchanging sense of humor are a perfect fit for a light show so long as it has enough variation to keep that afloat. But for something that wants to balance its drama and a comedy, Gurren Lagann hit a balance that respects its characters’ growth and emotional arcs. Where it moves forward and changes in meaningful ways, Keijo dares nothing and changes only insofar as it’s telling us a joke about a different butt shaking in a slightly different way.

And so, for all the curves it lavishes in showing off, Keijo ultimately falls flat.

(I promise, I only wrote ~80% of this article as a lead-in to that joke. No regrets.)

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