Don't go outside the cage... just... don't...
I see the potential for misunderstandings to arise right off the bat here, so let me clarify something before we go any further. I don't believe Konosuba is funny because its characters fail (sometimes outright, sometimes accompanying success). Konosuba is funny because it fundamentally understands that failure itself is humorous. That's right, this little anime has mastered the secret to surviving out in the real world: failure, as awkward or uncomfortable or ignoble or unglamorous as it might be, is something we can—and, many times, should—laugh at.
I don't mean to be overly flippant about this; after all, there are certainly kinds of failure that are decidedly not funny—mistakes that we make that deeply hurt ourselves or others, occasions where our best isn't good enough. I don't think Konosuba is trying to be about that kind of failure, nor do I think it's really equipped to tackle such a weighty topic. And so, it's good that Konosuba sticks with what it's good at: the kind of incidental, lowkey failure that permeates the state of just being alive and the kind we like to blow up in our heads and hearts. That's not to say the failures the show trades in don't have any significance or that they're limited solely to the safe space of a fantasy world—the challenges Aqua, Kazuma, Megumin, and Darkness face are, at times, terrifyingly relatable. The constant pressures of debt or a harsh awakening at a job that was supposed to be “perfect” for you or trying to take on a task far above your level are almost uncomfortably realistic, despite the cozy trappings of the show’s RPG influences, as are the party’s hapless attempts to push themselves beyond their current situation.
While Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, another show airing this season set in a game-like fantasy world, takes on the struggles of being at the bottom of the totem pole of life in a grounded, reflective way, Konosuba plays with the pains of fighting against an unforgiving and unkind world with a sense of levity that belies a sort of semi-seriousness in terms of its themes. If Grimgar is about fighting to live because there’s no other option, Konosuba is about flopping your way towards survival through failure while having the most fun possible. Or something like that.
Why is Konosuba’s brand of failure funny? Because it recognizes the ridiculousness of the world’s unfairness. Particularly in Kazuma’s case, thanks to his dreadfully average stats and the band of rowdy misfits that’s appeared around him, that such misfortune would come upon him is, frankly, laughable. Likewise for Aqua, who can’t succeed at anything without failing in epic fashion at the same time; the alignment of the universe against her is absurd in its unfairness. Megumin and Darkness aren’t plagued in the same incredible ways the former two are, but each of them still embody the idea of success and failure inescapably intertwined. A beautiful explosion is followed by a literal faceplant; masochistic glee is joined to general incompetence. It’s not right! People deserve to succeed, right? Just because they’re weirdos with highly specialized talents doesn’t mean they should be doomed to fail, right?
The unfairness of it all is both what makes Konosuba funny and sympathetic. When you give it your best shot and fail magnificently (“It was a splendid slice,” Aqua says of Kazuma’s beheading), you deserve better. Maybe you’re a bit of a jerk or basically a child who wants constant validation or someone who pursues what you love best at the expense of all else, but dammit you’re giving it your best shot to be alive and do so in a way that makes you reasonably happy. That’s the impulse Konosuba portrays and that’s the appeal of watching its cast slowly bumble through meaningless quest after meaningless quest just to have enough money to eat and sleep. It’s impossible not to root for them to succeed because we know they’re most definitely going to muck things up themselves or get slapped by the universe on the way to the goal. Kazuma and co. are underdogs against fate, the world, and everything else—but even if they get eaten by frogs they’re gonna keep fighting.
Perhaps the key element in all of this is the back-at-’em mentality that Konosuba brings to every failure the party experiences. Seeing people get beat down again and again is no fun if it leads to despair, but every member of Kazuma’s team seems possessed by an impossibly resilient spirit that takes getting back up and trying again for granted with the hope for future success. And so, we can laugh at their failures not because they’ve failed, but because we know no failure—even one traumatic enough to cause Aqua to lock herself in a cage away from the world—will ever be enough to break them. It’s the twin absurdities of being alive: life’s ridiculous unfairness and the crazy fact that we humans keep moving forward despite it all.
The most inspiring part of Konosuba, then, is the fact that there’s really not much logic in the party’s ability to bounce back. Given the dire contrast between his hoped-for life and his current reality, it would make sense for Kazuma to despair. Faced with her own incompetence and her sad fall from the heavens, it would make sense for Aqua to just give up and sit in a cage forever. Explosions shouldn’t be enough to sustain Megumin. Darkness… well, yeah. But, for their various reasons, each of them have at least one reason—nonsensical though they may be—to live out another day doing what they have to do. Whether it’s Kazuma finding gruding joy in adventuring with his companions, Aqua’s limitless capacity to maintain her self-confidence, Megumin’s love for explosions, or Darkness’s love for humiliation, each of them takes their illogical reason and faces life head on. There’s a kind of dignity in all that, a sort of strange kindness, an irrational triumph in the middle of constant failure. And so we can laugh at failure, and at its failed attempts to keep us down.
It really is a wonderful world, after all.
Isaac eases his compulsive need to write about anime on his blog, Mage in a Barrel. He also contributes to the Fandom Post and sometimes hangs out on Tumblr. You can follow him on Twitter at @iblessall or on Facebook.