Black Lagoon is an anime series following the adventures of a crew of modern-day gangsters/guns for hire/pirates, and one very out-of-place Japanese salaryman, as they battle mob bosses, mercenaries and maniacs. Meanwhile, God Hand is a PS2 brawler about a guy who protects the supernatural power of the titular limb from hordes of mohawked punks, whip-wielding women, and demons who range from corpulent to alluring to plain monstrous. Other than violence, what on earth could these have in common?
The answer is, they are both powered by the same core concept, what I call Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous: if you’re going to tell a story that is ludicrous, over-the-top or plain silly, not only must you be aware of that, you’d better make very sure that the audience knows you’re aware of that.
Note that the Rule of the Ridiculous is not the same as “so bad it’s good”, although it is related to that long and honourable dramatic tradition, hamming it up. “So bad it’s good” is unintentional on the creators’ part, whereas self-awareness is the whole point of the Rule of the Ridiculous. Meanwhile, hamming it up is what happens when the actors, not the writers/directors/creators, are the ones who embrace the ridiculousness.
How does the rule apply to Black Lagoon and God Hand? Both take genres that, by definition, stretch believability – action films for Black Lagoon; video games in general, beat ‘em ups more specifically for God Hand – and drag them through the realm of self-parody. Action movies presented us with zombie pirates, whip-wielding Nazi-fighting archaeologists, and martini-quaffing, laser-defying, hit men; games often rely on endowing us with similar Macho McToughguy powers. Black Lagoon’s characters are even more overpowered, but it doesn’t stop there. Its heroes yell, “We’re being chased by an unstoppable killer robot from the future!” and in one episode, go up against an army of supervillains toting not just pistols, not just rifles, not just swords, but every way to die known to man: flamethrower, chainsaw, minigun, even a kukri-on-a-rope. God Hand, meanwhile, will never have you looking at fight scenes the same way again after the first time you kick a demon in the groin, knock him flat, stomp on his head, and then launch his buddies into the sky, accompanied by an in-game laugh track.
In contrast, I can think of a couple of franchises that would have been improved had they run with the Rule of the Ridiculous:
- Exhibit #1 is Warhammer 40,000, where IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR. And that war includes ten-foot tall superhuman space marines, barely-literate space orcs orks, space elves, space dark elves, 50-metre (150-foot) tall mecha piloted by machine-worshippers, demon-summoning cultists, rifts that can swallow up whole space fleets, and somehow managing to survive in all this, human grunts and tankmen led by sword-waving commissars.
- Exhibit #2 is the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise, which – in the entries I’ve seen – tends to follow a formula. Whiny teenaged heroes miraculously stumble into command of superweapons! Teenaged heroes repeatedly fight off hordes of enemies! Teenaged heroes barely take a scratch even when fighting veteran soldiers!
Are these universes inherently more unbelievable than those of Black Lagoon or God Hand? No. The problem is, they’re presented in so po-faced a fashion that my mind balks at accepting them. And from there, it’s only a short step to dwelling on their flaws. But in God Hand, and in Black Lagoon once it warms up to the Rule, suspension of disbelief never has the chance to become an issue – I’m too busy laughing, exclaiming, “Holy–!” or otherwise being dragged along for the ride.
And that’s the beauty of the Rule of the Ridiculous. It takes unpromising or hackneyed raw material, and transforms it into sheer glee, almost like a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers. It makes Black Lagoon and God Hand memorable rather than generic. It lets creators achieve the cult classic status associated with “so bad it’s good” while skipping the “bad” part. And it can be as simple as exaggerating genre conventions instead of simply playing them straight. Of course, all this is easier said than done. But when the rewards are so great, and the risks (remember, we start with uninspiring source material) so marginal, well, wouldn’t failure to embrace the ham just be a recipe for… ridicule?