A Wall-top View on Reference Humor

So, in Watamote ep2, there’s an elaborate Whisper of the Heart reference. You can see some of it here. I want to look closer at it.


The scene starts at around the 13:10 mark. For the unfamiliar let’s just say that our naive protagonist had a run in with a strange boy and she suddenly got into the frame of thought, a frame that becomes possible after several repeated viewings of Whisper of the Heart. The trigger is that Tomoko mouthed off a chain of “jerks” not unlike when Mr. Concrete Road sang along earlier on in Whisper and threw its female protagonist in a similar fit of consternation.

Suddenly, Tomoko realizes that she can make a Whisper of the Heart reference.


Please bear with me if this is obvious to you (in fact, please tell me so in the comments if this is the case). The joke, here, is not so much that Watamote makes a reference to a classic Ghibli flick. Well, that is a big part of it–the animation reproduces the lampoon accordingly. That in itself is humorous. The fact that it is a reference is also humorous, much like those Genshiken Nidaime viewers feel about Sue, assuming they enjoyed Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari. Or insert whichever reference of reference humor you prefer.

The funniest thing about this scene, for some, is that how Tomoko is self-aware about the reference in a way similar to how the audience finds such a reference coming across something they’re watching. In reality she is just daydreaming about some idealistic romantic encounter (thanks Ghibli) because of her own disposition. She isn’t actually making a joke (like Sue, again). However the joke-ish daydream Tomoko makes is natural, and the one Sue makes is superfluous to the plot and story.

So to diagram it–you have the joke/reference, you have the level of actualization of the reference, and you have the degree of self-awareness of the reference. It’s rather complicated once you take a serious look. We know reference humor runs the gamut from chalk drawings on a blackboard to shaping an entire episode to match, so in 2013 terms there is a wealth of things we can draw from analyzing these sorts of references. In Watamote’s case, it clearly speaks something about people like Tomoko. But what does it say about people who watch Tomoko enjoy herself? Do I (or anyone) want to think about this?

PS. If you haven’t seen Whisper of the Heart yet, do make time. It’s probably my favorite Ghibli movie, although 18 years might not be long enough of a test of time  yet? It’s neck and neck with Porco, which is my default answer when asked about my favorite Hayao Miyazaki movie. Here goes hoping that Kaze Tachinu topples Porco.

5 Responses to “A Wall-top View on Reference Humor”

  • Hogart

    Agreed. Context is everything. You can BS about stuff until the cows come home, but if the jokes, references and wordplay are actually relevant to the scene then they can actually add to it, rather than distract from it. A lot of referential comedy forgets whether it wants to add or distract and you end up with a momentarily silly thing you won’t care enough to even mention in a blog post, let alone write an entire post devoted to it.

    • omo

      Well, that’s one way to look at it. I feel much more neutral about the whole thing, in that here’s a gag about Whisper of the Heart, which really becomes a short hand to express that kind of fantasy attitude Tomoko has. But they could have done it a lot of different ways. Ultimately it seems the reference humor is still mainly just to make a big joke (or three).

      That isn’t so different than most application of reference humor. It’s just that there are other effects different application of humor (reference or not) can achieve.

  • jpmeyer

    It’s also the way I feel about the way that the references work in something like Abenobashi as opposed to like Buzzfeed-level “HEY THIS IS A THING DO YOU REMEMBER IT EXISTS” references.

    • omo

      Kind of like the Tokikake reference in Denpa Onna, to point out a SHAFT extreme.

      I think sometimes it is used as a form of texture, to give some kind of reference in terms of attitude and what not.

      It also feels like talking to a nerd. This is kind of something I forgot to reference in the post so maybe I’ll add it in a bit…

  • Since I’m not popular, I’ll use my imagination. | atelier emily

    […] use reference humor to signify when their otaku heroines are entering a daydream, although the latter’s use of it is far more interesting, as the Whisper of the Heart reference could have been replaced with any romantic daydream. […]

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