Cartoons staked this territory out decades ago, when Bugs or Daffy would look at the audience and say, "Here we go again!"—a nod to the essentially predictable (but no less enjoyable) nature of the cartoons they were in.
And yet with such a long history of parody and self-reference, no one has taken it to the limits reached by the Japanese: Project A-ko and the first episode of Gunbuster are both playful assaults on the anime and pop-culture clichés and archetypes. The key, however, is in their delivery. They're absurd, of course, but they flow; the exaggerations of one satire dovetail neatly into those of the next, interlocking to create an end result that speaks for itself, rather than constantly elbowing us in the ribs, reminding us of how clever it is. In short, it works because it's played straight.
The two-part Assemble Insert is, for the most part, played astonishingly straight. When the mask-wearing, bank-robbing, evil-genius–led Demon Seed gang prove too much to handle, the police set up a special task force: five underpaid, under-equipped officers housed in an office above a video store. Desperate to hold on to their jobs, the task force's Chief Hattori decides to hold an audition to find someone who can stop the Demon Seed. They end up with one Maron Namikaze, a slip of a high-school girl who, inexplicably, is strong enough to twist a microphone stand into a pretzel with her fingers.
And no one seems to think that this is odd. In fact, quite the reverse. Rather than just unleash Maron on the Demon Seed, Hattori's men get to work grooming her to be an idol—giving her dance lessons, preparing her debut song and music video—because the public won't accept her (and the destruction her battles will cause) unless she's a mass-marketed celebrity.
Assemble Insert's staging and layout are handled better than the design, which is better than its merely adequate animation. But its real genius is in its concept. Unlike Project A-ko and Gunbuster, Assemble Insert isn't content to just lampoon anime and other movies. It goes after the absurdity of the idol system, the peculiarities of Japanese otaku, and, in a backhanded way, the fickleness of the public.
There's also a repeated jab at commercials and product placement that I particularly enjoy. Assemble Insert is ostensibly sponsored by Supovitan C, a fictitious sports drink. At one point, one of the police officers is sipping a bottle of the stuff when a live-action ad for it cuts in—after which the rest of the squad are suddenly holding Supovitan C bottles. "So, the commercial's over?" asks Hattori, as he downs his. "Seriously, after you see that commercial, you gotta have one."—and no one thinks this is odd.
This is why the deadpan approach works so well; it's not only funny, it helps to make a serious point. The Assemble Insert characters regard shallow commercialism—the sudden appearance of Supovitan C, the packaging of Maron—as perfectly normal. But then, they also take super-powered teens in their stride. Really, which of these is odder behaviour?
Let's be clear. Assemble Insert's creators didn't go into this with ideas of pointed social commentary. The anime in-jokes, sentai (live-action superhero team) show spoofs, and jabs to vaguely lecherous video-store customers leave no room for doubt. But they definitely had a lot of goofy fun making it, and that manages to rub off on just about every frame. By that yardstick, Assemble Insert is a great way to kill an hour.
DVD Extras: Liner notes, live-action Supovitan C commercials.