Reading the premise of Show-ha Shoten!, I was initially worried about whether or not I would be able to appreciate the book on the level that it wanted me to. Yes, comedy is incredibly subjective, but for such a dialogue-heavy story about two high schoolers trying to make it in the world as comedians, I imagined that there would be some puns, punchlines, and implications that might be difficult for a non-Japanese audience to appreciate fully. My fears were not completely unfounded as there were some jokes that I don’t think landed properly based on how they were worded. However, these moments are few and far between, as Stephan Paul’s translation largely carried what ended up being a surprisingly involved and unique underdog story.
The closest comparison to Show-ha Shoten! I can make is Bakuman., with two high-schoolers trying to make it as the top comedians in Japan instead of mangakas in this case. In fact, the parallels to Bakuman. are staggering, especially in the opening chapters. However, while the overall structure is largely similar, Show-Ha is able to stand out with its surprisingly thoughtful reflections on what makes a good comedian, as well as boasting an incredibly tight narrative.
Surprisingly, a majority of the comedy in this book was skit-based. It’s less about overloading references and more about establishing a rhythm for a specific punchline. Even for the jokes that I didn’t find funny, I could at least understand why others might, especially when the book goes out of its way to establish how different approaches to comedy can appeal to specific audiences. In fact, there’s a whole section in the book dedicated to telling in-jokes that only the characters would understand, but the execution still left me with a smile on my face.
It’s clear that Akinari Asakura and Takeshi Obata have done a lot of research into the reasons behind why people find comedy appealing, which comes through in the character dialogue as well as through the manga’s overall presentation. Faces are effectively exaggerated when appropriate, but the timing of having speech bubbles interject at certain moments, the way punch lines are saved for specific panels, and the surprisingly subtle attention to detail all left me with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. By the time I finished the volume, I was compelled to go back and reread it to pick up on details that at the time seemed superfluous but were actually foreshadowing how certain jokes would be executed as well as the overall direction of the story.
However, the book isn’t all about the science of laughter, as there is a surprising amount of heart in here. Our two main leads have a lot of charisma and chemistry on the page with a believable back-and-forth that feels fitting both on the stage and off of it. Shijima is the typical nervous wreck who needs to learn how to be confident in himself and Higashikata is the protégé with the vague backstory, but I was nonetheless cheering for them to succeed in their trials. On top of that, what surprised me was just how much characterization the side and background characters were given. For example, Shijima’s father has an entire section dedicated to him that almost brought me to tears, and what appeared to be one-off rival characters ended up carrying the final moments of the volume.
Show-ha Shoten! was a genuine surprise for me. It is a perfect example of how there are always new ways to reinvent and recontextualize the classic underdog story as long as you have a passion for the subject matter and a proud heart that you’re willing to display. If you’re a fan of modern underdog stories then I definitely think this is worth checking out because even if you don’t get all of the humor, there is a passion here that I think should be appreciated on its own merits. I want to see these adorable boys succeed and I can’t wait till the next volume comes out so I can see the next step on their journey!