This year didn't bring quite the onslaught of comedy manga as last year did, but it did bring the unexpected license of what was already becoming something of a cult classic in anime circles. With its animated counterpart on the horizon, now's as good of a time as any to check out its source material.
NICHIJOU: MY ORDINARY LIFE (Nichijou), by Keiichi Arawi. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2016.
Yuuko, Mio, Mai and Nino would be ordinary girls leading ordinary lives...were it not for the comic misunderstandings, forgotten assignments, random falling objects, life-or-death battles with stray deer, and a mad scientist who is also a little girl who like to keep hiding new features and spare food in her robot.
Like a lot of comedies, Nichijou doesn't really have an overarching story. It's not all that big on continuity either. What it does have is a lot of sketch-like chapters and luckily for us the sketches are universally quite good.
Too many comedy manga coast by on the old manzai routine of people doing wacky things while straightmen yell at them for doing wacky things. Others try to rip off Azumanga Daioh by just holding on reactions until that onto itself is the joke, a skill that no one other than Kiyohiko Azuma has mastered. Nichijou wisely avoids both those methods of humor, going instead for something a little more traditional in structure but with a healthy dose of absurdism.
Sometimes it takes an ordinary premise (like cramming before a test) and taking that to farcical heights. Other times it just throws in something completely random. It could be a nonsense phrase, a nonsensical person, or one of those random falling objects, but it's always brought in at just the right time to be truly funny. The craziest it gets is when the chapter focuses on Nino. She's a robot girl with a wind-up key in her back, and her chapters tend to go in two directions. Either she is trying to pass as a normal girl (despite the fact that her friends can see the obvious) or she's trying to plead with her wee little 'professor' to stop adding silly modifications. They're the most removed from reality (at least as far as reality goes in Nichijou), but they also feature some of the best gags.
Nichijou isn't ordinary, but instead extraordinary. It manages to find its own unique voice and rhythm and turn that into a really consistently funny read. That's something that's all too rare in this day and age and it's something that should be experienced first-hand.
At first glance, Nichijou's art is deceptively simple. The character designs would certainly suggest that, as they look almost like someone's caricatures of early 2000s-style moeblobs. In many case, their faces are so simple that any less effort would leave them looking like emojis. It doesn't take long to see that there's a lot more effort going onto the page than you might expect. Arawi turns those simple faces into some of the best over-the-top reaction I've seen in manga. It's not your standard super-deformed sort of reaction. Face blanche and turn to stone. The linework becomes harsh and jagged or turns into wacky silhouettes. Even when they're not being silly, Arawi gets a lot of emotion out of those simple, noseless little faces.
The backgrounds are shockingly well-drawn as well. This isn't just the same old schoolroom pasted in; these are lovingly drawn and diverse. They feel like real rooms and it helps to further ground the story in something resembling our own reality. It's also not often that I find a comedy manga where the paneling works so well to deliver the material. Arawi really knows how to make the most of a page. He uses sequences of zoom-ins, shifting perspectives, sudden cuts to a gag, dramatic hatching and halos, even how to draw something simulating time-lapse photography. What is most amazing of all is that he makes them all fit together visually. The designs and composition seem like they would clash, but he's got enough skill to make it all blend together harmoniously and thus serve as the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of humor.
There's nothing here to speak of as far as extras go, but I do have to give some serious props to translator Jenny McKeon. Comedy manga are some of the hardest ones to translate since so much Japanese humor tends to ride on puns and similar forms of wordplay that don't translate well into English. That's not a problem for Nichijou, though. All of the jokes translate seamlessly. Having not read this in Japanese (nor watched the animated version), I don't know how easy Arawi made her job, but she deserves credit nonetheless.
Good comedy manga are uncommon, but something as fresh and unique as Nichijou is rarer still. The jokes are well-grounded but throw in just enough weirdness to keep things interesting. Best of all, it's all supported by some shockingly good art. Those of you looking for modern schoolroom comedy manga that go beyond the Azumanga Daioh model would do well to start here.
This series is published by Vertical. This series is complete in Japan with 10 volumes available. 5 volumes have been published and are currently in print.
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