MY NEIGHBOR SEKI (Tonari no Seki-kun), by Takuma Morishige. First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2015.
Rumi Yayoi wants to be a good service, but it's hard for her to focus on her schoolwork when her classmate Seki keeps coming up with new ways to avoid paying attention to classwork. These are no mere distractions - what Seki comes up with are elaborate games and scenarios all taking place around Seki's desk, and Rumi seems to be the only one who notices them. Will Rumi ever be able to focus or will she always end up distracted by Seki's fun and games?
I reviewed the animated version of this series a while back, so I was excited to see what the original material looked like and was excited when Vertical picked it up. I'm happy to say that much of what I liked about the TV show was in fact a carryover from the manga.
Comedy manga is a hard thing to pull off. It's easy to drive a promising premise into the ground through sheer repetition. It's equally easy to ruin a good premise by adding too many rules and complications to otherwise simple ideas and characters. My Neighbor Seki does not have a problem with either. Morishige shakes up the basic formula of the story in each chapter, whether it's with the setting, Seki's choice of game, or how it affects the ongoing power struggle between Seki and Rumi, and thus things can never get too stale. He also puts a lot of imagination into Seki's schemes. It's not just enough for Seki to polish his desk, he has to bring out all sorts of putties, resins, and solvents to polish it to a mirror shine. It's not enough for him to pass notes, he has to set up a classroom post office complete with stamps, standardized forms, and a dropbox. He even finds a way to liven up otherwise innocuous board games like go and chess by turning them into these violent conflicts. That imagination is infection in-story, as some of the best chapters are the ones where Rumi gets hopelessly caught up in Seki's games, be it his shogi-based feudal conflict or the toy robots that go through the class disaster drill like a perfect family.
It's impressive that Morishige gets so much material out of what is essentially a very limited cast. Aside from the odd cameo from random classmates, My Neighbor Seki is a two-person story. For an even greater challenge, only one of those people gets to talk. Seki is a silent protagonist; while others mention talking to him, we never see him say or think a single word. Rumi is thus the one who sets the story forward and sets the tone through her own inner monologue. It would have been easy to make her nothing but a shrill scold, but she's just curious enough that she can let her guard down and get caught up in Seki's games, and thus the two become a surprisingly well-balanced comedic duo. She even occasionally gets a few moments where she can get back at Seki, be it by choice or by accident.
Much like Seki himself, this manga shows just how much you can do with a limited premise and cast along with plenty of imagination. It's well-paced and laugh out loud funny, taking familliar schoolroom premises and using them as the launching point for good comedy.
Morishige's artstyle is deceptively simple and cute, but it's more skillful that you would presume at first glance. Good comedy manga lives and dies on the quality of its artwork, as a good joke can fall completely flat without the right expression or a good sense of timing. This is not a problem for My Neighbor Seki, as Morishige's expressions for both Seki and Rumi are just brilliant. They are broad and varied and simply priceless and they help sell the jokes in a major way. They also help to elevate what are otherwise fairly simple, rounded character designs and the perfectly well-done if ordinary backgrounds. He also knows how to frame his gags, with plenty of small, snappily-paced paneling.
My Neighbor Seki makes the most of its limited premise with a lot of imagination and plenty of expressive art, and that's enough to make it one of the better comedy manga to come out this year.
This series is published by Vertical. This series is ongoing in Japan with 8 volumes available. 5 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
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