This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. Growing up, I saw a lot of flicks from the famous American media providers Nickelodeon: Hey Arnold, Drake And Josh, and Back At The Barnyard. All of these had one thing in common: if you really think about it, they’re basically the Western equivalent of what is known in anime as a slice-of-life show, which was nothing more than characters going about everyday routines that most of us are somewhat familiar with. Consider – Hey Arnold featured a football-headed kid’s suburban life, Drake And Josh was all about two siblings trying to live normal teenage lives, and Back At The Barnyard was all about talking farm animals doing borderline human things. The thought came to my mind while I was re-watching some Lucky Star episodes last winter, and as I analyzed the characters and the stuff they did, I realized that, story aside, it shared some similar mannerisms to one of the most famous shows produced by Nickelodeon: none other than the long-running animated sitcom, Spongebob Squarepants.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #9: LUCKY STAR
I’ve written about Lucky Star before, as of recently in my revisit of it on 29 March 2021, but for the sake of this blog post I guess it doesn’t hurt to rehash what it’s about. The show chronicles four Saitama-area friends – Konata Izumi, an extroverted, easygoing otaku whose daily habits of online gaming lead her to fail epically in class; Kagami Hiiragi, her short-tempered, pigtail-wearing best friend who’s always trying to keep her out of trouble; Tsukasa Hiiragi, the former’s younger sister who serves as the family klutz, and Miyuki Takara, an intelligent, soft-spoken girl whose sole personality is not being willing to hurt a fly under any circumstance. Each episode is divided into various segments involving one or more of the girls and exploring either their at-home lives of gaming and homework, their school break discussions which range from mature topics such as future career possibilities to – I hate to say it – the downright absurd ones like how to eat a cornet, and some escapades they go through like beach sleepovers and Konata’s anime store trips. At the end of the very non-linear episode structure, we’re treated to the Lucky Channel segment featuring fledgling idol Akira and her assistant Minoru to explore the show’s behind-the-scenes elements, usually ending up in the former getting needlessly triggered.
Lucky Star did not win any major accolades, unlike some of KyoAni‘s other productions such as K-On! or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, but its cultural impact was strong enough to garner a high level of show-related merchandise sales and even helping boost the local economy of a Japanese town whose visuals were depicted on the show’s famous opening sequence. To this day, one only needs to display a still from the show and it’ll be enough for them to neurally recognize it as coming from this venerable slice-of-life flick.
WESTERN COMPETITOR #9: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
If you’ve never heard the opening lines “Are you ready kids? Aye-aye, captain! I can’t hear you! Aye-aye, captain!” followed by the crooning down to the underwater, chances are you’ve been living as a hermit in a monastery secluded far from civilization all these years. Spongebob Squarepants, the magnum opus of director and marine biology enthusiast, the late Stephen Hillenburg. Set in the underwater metropolis of Bikini Bottom, the show explores the everyday musings of Spongebob Squarepants, a full-of-life sea sponge, along with his close buddies Patrick Star, a dimwitted starfish; Squidward Tentacles, an aspiring artist and musician who is frequently annoyed by his chatter; Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who plays as his karate sparring partner and part-time scientist. Various episodes depict Spongebob’s various undersea murmurings, whether it’s working as a fry cook for his boss, Mr. Krabs’ restaurant, The Krusty Krab, engaging in some absurd daily experiences, adventures in different parts of his world, or simply goofing off in Jellyfish Fields. Although geared towards children, older episodes have also managed to find enjoyment from an adult audience due to some subtle humor which only the older generation can truly grasp.
Across its long run that has expanded since 1999, it has received 73 awards and 127 nominations from various film societies such as the Annie and the Emmy Awards, and has released three movies starting with the nostalgic Spongebob Squarepants Movie in 2004. In addition, the extent of his cultural impact is far-reaching; Spongebob’s one of the most recognizable animated characters in the world, clips from his episodes have made their way into some Hollywood flicks like War Of The Worlds, and even scientific discoveries have been named after him. If it were an anime, it would truly be one of the most quintessential slice-of-life shows out there.
Seeing how Lucky Star and Spongebob Squarepants are slice-of-life flicks that to a certain extent operate differently, this week’s showdown will compare and contrast the two shows from the lens of categories which include:
- Best Storytelling Format
- Best Characters
- Best Comedy
- Best Soundtrack
- Best “Best Episode“
- Best Live Action Sketches
- Best Slice-Of-Life Interpretation
CATEGORY #1: BEST STORYTELLING FORMAT
One does not need to view an entire season of either of these shows to fully comprehend what the storytelling format is like for each episode; in fact, they don’t radically change from episode to episode save for details like the who/what/where/when/why of things. With regards to Lucky Star, each episode contains multiple non-sequitur instances of the main quartet in either various diatribes, checking out local events such as festivals, conventions, concerts or shopping mall hangouts; in other words simply enjoying the finer side of life. Be prepared to flip the switch at least once every five minutes because, true to its genre specifics, there’s no standard start, middle, or end to the story. The complete opposite is done with Spongebob Squarepants episodes, since, like most Western cartoons they tend to follow a specific premise, and stick to it for the whole episode’s duration. The format of a Spongebob episode usually goes about with one or more of the characters, namely Spongebob, Patrick, or Squidward trying to perform a particular task, getting into sticky situations and working their way through the ultimate resolution.
Obviously, there’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Spongebob Squarepants’ linear storyline makes it easy to identify what it’s about and gives substance to the episode. However, this rigid format means that there’s very little room for variation as to running gags and how they can shake it up; its value is ultimately dependent on story alone. If it stinks, it will sink – and this has happened with several episodes, most infamously those made in 2008 and beyond. Lucky Star avoids this by being flexible with its no-plot sequences, casually throwing in whatever it wants for the sake of airtime, so as a result there’s no visible resolution. Episodes usually end abruptly with a transition to the Lucky Channel segment, or are completely forgotten and never referenced afterwards. It sacrifices coherence of plot in the process for variation.
I appreciate the direction that KyoAni took with their approach to each of Konata, Kagami, Tsukasa, and Miyuki’s adventures. Broadening their horizon by breaking up the story into small segments rather than condensing it into one static plotline gives the episode value and diversity. Nickelodeon also maintains the standard of tradition by keeping things fresh with one story for each episode, and in consequence this has also turned out well because I can just look at an episode title and say, “Oh yeah! This is what happened in that episode!” without going through specific details. But honestly, it’s nice to have a show which breaks personal boundaries to what I’m used to, and overlay the different parts of life without a rigid set of things to fulfill. In that, Lucky Star takes the cake in this place.
LUCKY STAR 1, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 0
CATEGORY #2: BEST CHARACTERS
There’s a good amount of similarities between the characters in Lucky Star and Spongebob Squarepants. Allow me to point them out to you:
- Konata and Spongebob are similar in that they are carefree individuals who are passionate about the things they enjoy the most – anime/gaming for Konata, and fry cooking for Spongebob. They have an idyllic view of life and aren’t ashamed to color their personalities towards everyone, be it friend or foe.
- Kagami, Konata’s best friend, is practically an equivalent of Squidward. Both of them are no-nonsense, realistic individuals who try to keep a level-headed view on things and have a set of principles to adhere to – a personality which often leads to minor clashes against other different-minded individuals like Tsukasa/Konata and Patrick/Spongebob. They’re not privy to share their sensitive side with others as well.
- Tsukasa and Patrick as aforementioned previously are also alike in terms of their aloof, dimwitted personalities, and unsurprisingly gets along well with the group leader because of this.
- Although far apart in terms of personality or physical characteristics, I would say that Miyuki and Sandy are alike in that they’re the most intelligent members of the group.
- Mr. Krabs, Spongebob’s greedy boss at The Krusty Krab, reminds me of Meito, the owner of the anime shop Konata frequents, who’s always trying to get her to fall unwittingly into his money-making schemes, but fails.
In addition to these main characters, there also exists plenty of supporting cast members whose roles vary based on the show. In Lucky Star they’re treated as interacting with the main characters and their environment surrounding them, and as a result we see especially in the second half how they get their own mini-segments exploring their own friendship group in a deeper level. Even Akira and Minoru, the end-credits showfolk make cameo appearances in the episode – the latter especially, which he alludes to. This treatment is also seen for some Spongebob characters, be it Mr. Krabs’ archenemy Plankton and his computer wife Karen, Spongebob’s driving school instructor Mrs. Puff, and resident human heroes Mermaidman and Barnacleboy. Some episodes will focus on them and their plights, which give deeper insight to their personal life, philosophies, and give them screen time with Spongebob and his friends.
The main characters are by far the more memorable bunch of the list, and in a show where there’s no underlying plot, they do most of the episodic heavy-lifting, whether it’s Konata’s lazy musings, much to Kagami’s annoyance or Spongebob mentally trolling Squidward from having a nice day off. But overall, if there’s one thing that separates the two shows from each other it’s their dimensionality, which Spongebob has a definite advantage over – having more to its hand when it comes to exploring character backstories, giving them ample time in the spotlight, and enhancing their likability, none of which Lucky Star can really say it has. Put it this way – Spongebob has segments which put them in different situations, happy/sad/infuriating with different reactions and results, while Lucky Star basically rehashes scenario after scenario to enforce the character tropes.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 1, LUCKY STAR 1
CATEGORY #3: BEST COMEDY
Comedy plays an integral role in both shows – and it becomes apparent ever since the first episode of their series. Spongebob overlays its comedy through significant use of slapstick (in episodes like Chocolate With Nuts, The Great Snail Race, Krusty Towers, Pranks A Lot, etc), irony posting (Imitation Krabs, The Bully with Flatts The Flounder’s demise at Spongebob’s hands without a single punch, and Club Spongebob‘s infallible magic conch), real-world motifs (usage of a realistic fish head, a live sailor’s hand, actor cameos), and the occasional slide of adult humor (“Mrs. Puff needs to remember what life outside prison is like” – before transitioning to an office worker’s mundane life). The humor doesn’t really go that far with Lucky Star, which at its worst will be the characters getting on each others’ nerves, and in their best be direct references to Japanese culture, namely anime like Haruhi Suzumiya, Initial D or Evangelion, which usually ends up in them having overexaggerated reactions. Very little slapstick or irony posting is incorporated to the show.
Suffice to say, Lucky Star‘s frequent use of third-party anime references is enough to hearten up fans like me, and proves time and time again that you don’t need to resort to pain and suffering to make one laugh; sometimes all it takes is a snarky remark to get the ball rolling. I might not be able to understand every anime reference, but when it pops up, I can at least recognize it and chuckle at how cleverly it was inserted. Certain times, the intended consequence of the humor in Spongebob can end up going too far – which is what post-2008 episodes have tried to do, and ended up causing it to decline in quality.
LUCKY STAR 2, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 1
CATEGORY #4: BEST SOUNDTRACK
If there’s one thing these shows are easily remembered for, it’s their music. First, there’s the iconic opening theme songs which are still fondly remembered by their respective fanbases. Anime fans of the past can relate to Lucky Star and its fast-paced, completely random opening scene highlighted by the transliterated lines, “I buy sausage”, and the spastic dance sequences which have little relation to the actual lyrics. And let’s not forget that a generation of kids grew up with hearing a talking painting singing the catchy, easy-to-memorize lyrics of the Spongebob franchise. Then, there’s the characters occasionally breaking into show-specific songs; Spongebob does this when he’s singing about how he wants to fly, the true meaning of fun, and in the case of the first movie, a heavy metal rendition of the Goofy Goober parlor theme, complete with lyrics, and one can expect at the end of each Lucky Star episode to have either Konata, Kagami, Tsukasa or Miyuki in a karaoke bar singing classical Japanese love songs or even old anime themes – like the famous Dragon Ball opening.
The OST from both shows also have their own share of distinct styles and good bits. Spongebob music attempts to recreate a pirate-like or tropical theme, fitting in well with its undersea/marine theme. Hearing sound bites like this one instantly remind me of being a customer at the Krusty Krab; this one of Spongebob’s house, and let’s not forget this classic tune, among many others. Lucky Star has more of a goofy, lazy tone: Konata’s theme, the driving theme, and my personal favorite, Karoyaka Dayo reflect this facet, which remind me of what it feels like to enjoy a summer day in the city. They’re iconic and highly recommended to listen to along with other tracks from the show. But if you had to ask me which one I enjoyed the most, Lucky Star definitely wins. Sure, I’ve grown up with the Spongebob themes longer and they’re very relatable to certain sequences, but it can’t beat the simplistic, happy-go-lucky, general atmosphere that the former provides.
LUCKY STAR 3, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 1
CATEGORY #5: BEST “BEST EPISODE”
A show’s memorability also depends on the quality of the types of episodes we enjoyed from it. For Lucky Star, episode 12 comes into mind, which features the girls doing one my favorite activities of the year: going to an anime convention. Namely, the famous Comiket in Tokyo. Aided by the seasoned con-goer Konata, she goes completely overboard with the planning and the details of who to see, what to buy, and where to go across the vast halls and over 500,000 people packed within. Naturally, for Kagami and her sister Tsukasa, this causes problems and scandalous situations like the latter getting lost or stumbling upon embarrassing manga issues, but nevertheless I found it relatable as someone who enjoys cosplaying, visiting anime-related events, and meeting new people. Konata’s expertise, Kagami’s displays of shock, and Tsukasa’s getting lost are all things which I’ve gone through at Anime North and Fan Expo myself, and I hope to do once again.
BUT… this is NOTHING compared to one of the most legendary Spongebob episodes out there, one which made headlines two years ago for being included in the Super Bowl and a Dallas Stars hockey game: Band Geeks from season 2. Here, Squidward is dared by his well-off college rival Squilliam to form a band and perform at a major football game known as the Bubble Bowl. He recruits Spongebob, Patrick, Sandy, Plankton, Mrs. Puff, Mr. Krabs, Larry, basically the entire cast to accomplish this goal, only to watch their inexperience brill through and culminate in a fight which ruins everything and fails to get nowhere near his goal. However, at the last minute it’s thanks to SpongeBob’s leadership that he turns things around, surprises an unexpecting Squidward on the day of, and wows the whole stadium with a rendition of David Glen Eisley’s 1997 single, Sweet Victory. Hands down one of the best, if not GREATEST moments in the show’s history – a feat which will never, in my opinion, be replicated again.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 2, LUCKY STAR 3
CATEGORY #6: BEST LIVE ACTION SKETCHES
Even though live action sketches are not a mandatory part of slice-of-life shows, Lucky Star and Spongebob Squarepants do contain these, so it’s only fair to assess them as being part of the show. To their credit, both of them manage to make use of the voice actors from their respective shows to fulfill this role. In the first case, this is done through the end credits from episode 13 onwards showing Minoru Shiraishi, who voices an animated version of himself, singing along to parodies of songs from The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya, while gazing off on the seaside or doing goofy stuff, like imitating The Karate Kid in episode 14 while singing to the memetic Haruhi song Hare Hare Yukai or engaging in goofy antics like a full on katana-lightsaber duel with Hiromi Konno, who voices Akira Kogami from the Lucky Channel segment, in episode 23.
This is done, albeit differently as well in Spongebob, through opening segments involving Patchy The Pirate, a character played by Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob, in episodes like The Sponge Who Could Fly (which shows him going into a rage upon discovering a lost Spongebob episode which is nothing but walking stills), Ugh (where he and Bill Fagerbakke, Patrick Star’s voice actor appear in a caveman-themed setup), and Shanghaied (which he bills as his “favourite episode”). Billing himself as the franchise’s #1 superfan, his seemingly inconspicuous residence in Encino, California is stocked up with merchandise involving characters from the show which fill up rooms in his house, and often he can be found clashing with his roomate, a low-budget puppet parrot named Potty, who torments him with pranks or witty remarks like shooting him out of a cannon, giving him dynamite as “fan mail” and calling him out on his statements.
Altogether, the segments involving Minoru are mostly hit-or-miss, and in my experience I usually find myself skipping the majority of them outside of the first two, which were actually sensible to a certain extent. Otherwise, his singing was monotonous, the humor was dry, and the whole thing felt detached from both the relaxed nature of the series and his on-screen animated depiction. Patchy The Pirate on the other hand, while chock full of irony and slapstick (such as getting shot out of a cannon), has segments which make for a good transition to prepare the viewers for the episode that follows. Being the guy that provides the main character’s voice, his performance and the choice of background is on-touch with the Spongebob atmosphere as opposed to being in the middle of nowhere in Minoru’s case, and the incorporation of the animated characters make for entertaining, funny sideshow that isn’t worth skipping over – while you’d be asking yourself “Am I watching the same show” after the abrupt transition from colorful visuals to reality in the latter case.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 3, LUCKY STAR 3
CATEGORY #7: BEST TAKE ON SLICE-OF-LIFE
Both shows do very well using up the elements of this very genre; no underlying plot, a surplus of everyday scenarios, plenty of comic relief situations, and many characters. The settings are also similar enough that you could exchange either Bikini Bottom or Saitama with one another and it still wouldn’t make an integral difference to the show’s nature, and the character personalities can be so similar to one another it’s almost like they’re shared tropes of one another. As an anime fan, Lucky Star appeals to me because of its relaxed nature, its intuitive throwbacks to other franchises, and the simplicity of its characters and various motives. Everything they do is like a mirror to reality as reflected through their strong bond of friendship, no matter how weird things may get. With Spongebob you basically get the slice-of-life package with scenarios relating to the dregs of work, encounters with strangers, pet troubles, neighbor issues, etc. However more often than not the reactions come off as silly instead of realistic, sometimes distancing the gap between what’s real and what’s not in some episodes. It’s absurd, but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with a Nickelodeon production in comedy, I guess.
So, who’s the better slice-of-life interpretation? Putting everything together, I’d say that Spongebob Squarepants trumps Lucky Star. Well, at least the pre-2007 episodes certainly did. The main reason being that whereas Lucky Star seems oriented towards high schoolers with its setting, lifestyle choices and the carefree nature of it all, Spongebob is a slice-of-life that attempts to cater itself to everyone. Kids can fancy themselves with the primitive humor brought on by the characters, while adults can find solace in empathizing with the double-whammy of inside jokes, character personalities and the hidden lessons that come with it. Lucky Star is a show that’s made just for fun, while Spongebob in a way has deeper meanings ingrained beneath the Bikini Bottom dwellers’ shenanigans. Compare yourself, for example, someone like Konata who spends her days fiddling away with games and with no future in mind, versus a person like Squidward or Spongebob who’s trying to make their own mark in the world in their own way. There’s a big difference to that – again, which is clearly seen in at least in the pre-2007 episodes.
Therefore, to clean up this week, the West will take the match as the undersea adventures of the world’s most famous sea sponge proves itself as the better slice-of-life in my opinion.
FINAL SCORE: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS 4, LUCKY STAR 3
So, there you have it. The things that made Spongebob Squarepants after all these years appealing to memory are enough to cement it as, in this case, a superior form of the slice-of-life flick. While most certainly not perfect, and I’d happily say that it either falls flat or doesn’t do as well in certain aspects that Lucky Star didn’t, it’s charisma is quite appealing and I will always associate it with good, nostalgic feelings. With all that said however, I do enjoy a good clip from either one of these shows from time to time; Konata talking to her friends in her lazy-eyed mode, or Spongebob bowing down before a Krabby Patty is worth making a smile to the face.