Robot-maid comedy manga draws laughs with kindness, subtlety

© Shuhei Miyazaki/SHUEISHA
Boku to Roboco (Me & Roboco) by Shuhei Miyazaki (Shueisha)

I’m not very familiar with manzai (a genre of Japanese comedy often performed by a duo), but the manzai pair Pekopa was impactful even to a layman like me when I saw them on TV in December 2019. The two men were finalists in the M-1 Grand Prix, an annual competition to decide the best young manzai acts in Japan,

Duo manzai usually consists of a funny person (boke) who says something stupid, and a straight person (tsukkomi) who mockingly chides their partner, sometimes with a reproving punch.

In Pekopa’s performances, however, the tsukkomi does not reject statements by the boke. Instead, the tsukkomi gently and completely accepts everything the boke utters, saying things like, “Not bad,” “To each their own,” or “You can say anything you like.” And when all this turns out to be entertaining, you must agree that they’ve invented something eye-opening.

Pekopa ultimately did not win the M-1 Grand Prix, but one senior manzai performer understandably praised them, saying, “I just became a witness to a turning point in history.”

Perhaps because Pekopa’s style is too unusual, it seems no one else in the manzai world is following in their footsteps at the moment. Will they end up as the only one of their kind? Just as I was pondering this question, I came across the manga “Boku to Roboco” in the Weekly Shonen Jump manga magazine, and it gave me quite a surprise.

The story is set in the future, when most homes have an order-made robot maid (OM) that looks like a beautiful young girl. The protagonist is Bondo Taira (the kanji characters in the name can also be read as “heibonjin,” meaning an ordinary guy). Bondo is looking forward to the arrival of an OM at his house at long last. When the OM shows up, however, he is let down because it looks nothing like the pretty robot in the catalogue and has zero housekeeping skills.

“This isn’t what I expected,” thinks disappointed Bondo. Nevertheless, the new OM, which is called Roboco, has incredible power and a playful personality, and eventually becomes an irreplaceable partner for Bondo.

On the surface, the story is obviously a “Doraemon” parody. The main characters — a mediocre boy in glasses, a naughty boy and a snobbish boy — are like Nobita, Gian and Suneo in “Doraemon.” There’s even a sought-after girl like Shizuka-chan. That said, the impression I had after reading “Boku to Roboco” was completely different. The laughter it evokes is definitely reminiscent of a gentle, Pekopa-style tsukkomi.

The massive Gachigorira appears to be a bully but is actually a nice guy true to his friends. So is Motsuo, though he appears snobbish. In the usual “Doraemon” story pattern, bully Gian oppresses Nobita, who gets back at Gian using secret tools from the future. “Roboco” offers no cathartic revenge, since there is no bullying to start with. In this light, it is clear that the “Doraemon” series, which started in late 1960s, utilizes a pattern packed with violence and double payback as a basis of its stories.

Everyone is nice in “Boku to Roboco,” which is still entertaining because the laughter is spurred by subtle miscommunications that happen in good faith. This is surely the essence of the manzai comedy devised by Pekopa. Maybe everyone is getting tired of laughing at someone being attacked, ridiculed or hurt.

Author Shuhei Miyazaki intentionally draws the pictures in an old-fashioned style, but the dialogue is delicately and carefully composed, and I admire his taste. I believe that “Boku to Roboco” is currently the most advanced gag-comedy manga in Japan.