Unlicensed Spotlight – Sket Dance

Sket Dance Volume 1

Sket Dance
SHINOHARA Kenta
Shounen – Comedy, drama
32 Volumes (complete)
Shueisha (Shuukan Shounen Jump)

Summary:

Bossun is the leader, Himeko is the brawn, and Switch is the brains. Together, these three misfits form the Sket Dan, a group dedicated to helping out around the school. Chasing animals, turning into kids, training for a new sport, testing out new inventions… it’s all in a day’s work for the Sket Dan!

Review:

When I started the Unlicensed Spotlight section, it was my goal to focus on more under-the-radar manga. Sket Dance really doesn’t fit that category, but I decided it needed to be highlighted for two reasons.

First, it’s starting to get older. Sket Dance (the actual series, not the prototypes) debuted on this day 10 years ago and finished its serialization four years ago now. Unfortunately, with the high demand for simulcasts and simulpubs, the older the series, the less likely it is to be licensed.

Second, as I will discuss later in this post, if Kodansha Comics can pick up the joke-heavy Princess Jellyfish and the long-running josei sports series Chihayafuru, I don’t see how Sket Dance shouldn’t be given a chance.

Sket Dance centers around the three members of a school club, the Sket Dan. The Sket Dan was formed in order to help out around the school, and they end up doing activities like temporarily joining sports teams, baby- (or pet-) sitting, searching for missing items, and giving advice. Despite all the oddball students and teachers and their even more oddball requests, the group often goes for long periods without any jobs. This causes a lot of tension with the school’s student council, as the Sket Dan often looks like they’re slacking off; that or they end up causing mischief in their efforts to pass time.

The greatest strength of Sket Dance is the incredible comedy-drama blend. It’s a gag manga with both slice-of-life and sci-fi elements. Take the members of the Sket Dan for instance. There’s Bossun, the leader, Himeko, the brawn, and Switch, the brains. (These are all nicknames by the way.) Himeko and Switch greatly appreciate how Bossun found a place for them in the world, but this doesn’t mean they always respect him! If there was a job that only required one of them, Switch and Himeko would gladly “volunteer” Bossun… or he will lose in the first round of paper, rock, scissors anyway. Bossun is gifted with the power of concentration, but he also gets nervous very easily. Very, very easily. Luckily, he hides it well:

Sket Dance SampleHimeko, meanwhile, is a Osaka accent-speaking yankee who feels insecure without her trusty hockey stick ready for the K.O. She also serves as the group’s main tsukkomi, ready to point out how illogical everything is. And she certainly needs to be on full-time duty as the straight man with Switch around. He’s always ready to just observe — for his amusement data of course!  Thanks to his computer, which he uses to talk, he is never short on information. Or weird gadgets. Or the best trolling methods.

Meanwhile, take a look at some of their friends and clients:

  • A samurai who loves electronics
  • A twin-tailed tsundere girl who definitely didn’t want to talk to you or anything, baka!!
  • A visual kei singer who speaks in short, abstract phrases
  • A teacher with a penchant for creating amazing potions with less-than-helpful effects

The Sket Dan’s main rivals, the student council, aren’t any less eccentric. One is a stickler for the rules, another uses short abbreviations like D.O.S. to insult others, and a slacker president with a sister complex. With friends and enemies like these, no wonder the Sket Dan gets mixed up in situations like entering a quiz battle or playing a sport where General Generator Generation to Lovin’ is a valid score. Or, you know, wear deer heads and afros.

The types of humor also rotate in and out. There are also some non-canon chapters where the characters reveal the results of popularity contests or are the crew of a spaceship. The fourth wall is also broken on a regular basis, and the manga references everything from Jump manga to Dragon Quest to Barack Obama.

Still, one of the pitfalls of writing a comedy is the risk of jokes getting old. Gags upon gags upon gags: one girl imagines herself in a classic shoujo manga, characters break the fourth wall and the laws of physics, references to other manga are inserted everywhere. But author Shinohara deftly weaves some heavier subject matter into the story. Bossun, Himeko, and Switch are all given a backstory to help explain how the Sket Dan was formed, and Switch’s in particular stands out as one of my favorites of all time. (The presentation is just excellent, but I won’t go into it for spoiler reasons.) Despite all the sci-fi elements, the comic exaggerations, and even the fanservice, the characters themselves bear scars of their past and the knowledge that they can’t stay happy-go-lucky high schoolers forever. There is a bit of mood whiplash if you get used to the comedy for dozens of chapters in a row, but the scattered drama arcs lead to a richer experience.

Now, an aside: the parallels to Gintama are impossible to ignore. But while Sket Dance is often referred to as a Gintama knockoff. (Even the characters themselves say that!) I do think Sket Dance has the edge for a general audience, as I will discuss below.

Regardless, Sket Dance is very episodic, with lots of one-shot chapters and short arcs. “Moving forward” seems to be the major theme of the story, but Bossun and the others don’t have clear-cut goals like most Jump protagonists. Characters and plotlines are revisited from time to time (some more than others), but it may take 20, 30+ chapters before they’re seen again. So if you find yourself loving the budding relationship between two teachers or want to see more of the girl with the shoujo manga filter, you could end up waiting a long time before you see them again. At least most of those show progression, though. Shinohara adds adds a lot of shipteasing, but the final results will probably disappoint many readers who wanted more solid resolutions.

Like a lot of comedy manga, the manga is quite fast-paced. Pages tend to be dialogue-heavy, as the series relies a lot on puns and references to other classic titles. Himeko can go on long rants, and some of the game explanations are paragraphs long. While this may seem like Sket Dance is geared toward puns, just as much — if not more — of the humor falls under the category of visual gags. You’ve already seen Bossun’s face and the Sket Dan’s disguises, but a lot of the chapters end on a traditional parting joke.

Sket Dance SampleDespite Sket Dance being Shinohara’s first serialization, the art is quite crisp and goes through little change over the course of the six years it ran. Sure, girls like Himeko have sharper expressions compared to their moe-styled final looks, but the transformations are hardly dramatic. It’s especially notable considering the large range in character designs and plenty of jokes centering around characters’ drawing abilities. The samurai has stubble and a topknot, one girl is… robust but is proud of her figure, and a couple others bare striking resemblance to horror movie characters. But no matter if the humor lies in the text or the art, the page to whitespace ratio is pretty good. Fanservice and violence are shown, but they aren’t a major aspect.

Chance of License:

Of course, this would almost certainly need to be picked up by Viz Media. Sket Dance is hardly unknown since it won the Shogakukan Manga Award in 2009, received an anime adaptation, and has been featured in the video game J-STARS Victory VS. However, the series suffers from two big obstacles.

First is its length. Thirty-two volumes isn’t absurdly long for a Jump manga, but it is on the long side for a comedy. Fans in the U.S. just don’t seem to invest in comedies as much as adventures or dramas. The incredibly popular manga Gin Tama, written by Shinohara’s mentor, actually ceased its English publication due to poor sales.

The second issue is the content. Sket Dance relies heavily on puns, references, and speech quirks, all aspects that would require a dedicated team to translate and adapt. Heck, Switch’s speech would need to be done in its own font. Since he’s a main character, a letterer would have to spend time switching back and forth between fonts. That alone adds production costs.

However, as I mentioned before, if Princess Jellyfish and Chihayafuru can be licensed (although by rival Kodansha Comics), Viz Media surely could give Sket Dance a digital-only release at minimum. Yes, these three are completely different types of manga, but the two josei series were also thought to be DOA in the West. And Princess Jellyfish in particular is doing well, so why can’t Viz Media license Sket Dance? Yes, Gin Tama sold poorly, but I think Sket Dance has wider appeal. The comedy is more family-friendly, the manga is shorter, and it has a bit more focus on characterization rather than all-out gags. However, it’s also not a good sign that the Sket Dance anime hasn’t been licensed for a home video release either. The manga would probably be best in a 2-in-1 omnibus format, but that also puts more pressure on the translation team.

Final Comments:

It’s not Nichijou: My Ordinary Life level randomness, but we get to really know the characters in Sket Dance in exchange. Pure comedies don’t seem to sell well in English, but Sket Dance has enough to rise above its roots as “just” a gag manga.

The anime is available on Crunchyroll. The adaptation covers about two-thirds of the manga. Shinohara’s Astra Lost in Space is currently being released by as a simulpub from Viz Media.

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2 Comments

  1. The Otaku Judge

    Shame that it hasn’t been licensed given that it has won an award and was popular for so many years. Oh well, in this digital age there’s always hope that it will be picked up for download, even if it doesn’t get a printed release. If someone picked up the rights to the anime that would also increase its chances of getting a Western release.

    Reply
    1. Krystallina (Post author)

      It really is a fun series that needs more attention.

      Reply

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