Nichijou and Comedic Structure

Nichijou is available to stream on Crunchyroll.

Humor is always a particularly tricky genre to translate well – even British comedy can be very hit-or-miss depending on the viewer, and that’s just a gap in dialect and culture rather than a complete transition from a non-Latin language. Naturally, the very many comedy-focused anime we’ve seen can feel even more foreign than action series or even dramas, and they’re probably some of the absolute last series that English-speaking viewers will acclimate to.

And it’s not just the matter of direct translation, which will naturally nullify the beautiful, wholesome well of humor that puns can provide. It’s that cultural tendencies (which I can’t even begin to speak with confidence on) result in as different styles of joke-telling as they do story-telling, which gives it an entire extra level of disconnection from a Western perspective on top of anime’s existing reputation for weirdness. It’s why some of the more broadly-accepted comedic series trend toward hybrids with some other genre, like action-adventures or romantic dramas – there’s that familiar element to latch onto and contextualize things by – or they otherwise ground themselves by picking one topic or central conceit and poking fun at it exhaustively from a thousand different angles (such as Keijo!!!!!!!! or this season’s Kaguya-sama). But something as quick-hitting and disconnected as sketch comedy is in a perfect position to come across as impenetrable from the outside.

Yet Nichijou’s glowing acclaim* proves that a firm enough grasp on the fundamentals of comedy can surmount any of these barriers.

That is, glowing critical acclaim, at least among U.S. fans. Alas, poor sales in Japan mean a second season is but a pipe dream.

From a passing understanding of comedy writing and interviews with professional funny-people, one of the perpetually-mentioned foundations of any good joke is that it sets up an expectation, then subverts it. In fact, that’s the entire basis of the most basic straight-man-funny-man routine, which Japan’s own boke-tsukkomi stand-up routine takes even further by re-enforcing the expectation at the end of the exchange (which is, in essence, explaining the joke – a massive no-no for most Western audiences).

And that subversion informs every single action and line of dialogue in Nichijou’s entire side-splitting repertoire.

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That is, every line aside from in the “Like Love” segments, which are just heartwarming little palette-cleansing vignettes.

Even in the opening credits of the series – aside from clips of and lightning-fast references to various skits yet to come – play with this in the form of little gags like having one a main characters utterly dead and even reading a book in the middle of an upbeat dance routine, or in its very pacing changing regularly but wildly like a routine full of measured setups and quick punchlines.

The show’s meta-structure even pulls the rug out from under the viewer in a way, with its characters designed and written such that we naturally expect mild-mannered Mio to be the closest thing to a “main” character, but instead over time we more often land on lackadaisical prankster Yuko as a viewpoint character, reinforced by her being the first to bridge the gap between the show’s two groups of main characters (who stay relatively siloed-off into their own contexts until the series’ halfway point).

Even its selective focus on high-quality animation is used to the same humorous effect. Producing animation is intense from a human resource perspective, (even with Nichijou’s simpler and more malleable character designs), so most series will dedicate their attention and capacity toward underscoring scenes that mark emotional highs or especially intense action sequences. Here, that same richness in detail and wildly excessive expression are dedicated to the high-stakes matters of… getting your math notebook back, or yelling at your friend for messing up one of your drawings. It doesn’t sound especially exciting without visual reference, but in practice it’s incredibly amusing to see an embarrassing hobby painted with the same visual intensity as a tragic third-act betrayal in a more serious show.

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This show is utterly incapable of doing things halfway.

Speaking of which, one of those instances sets off another shining example of even the very shape of Nichijou’s script being a jokester, in that it triggers a shouting tantrum (as seen above) which goes on for nearly four minutes. It carries itself as wonderful, hyper-exaggerated tirade for the first half-minute or so, made doubly hilarious when you notice that the subject of her venom has hardly moved a single frame the entire time or changed her expression in the slightest. Around the minute-mark, the fact that the scene is still stuck on this one gag becomes a bit tiresome; give it another thirty seconds, and it circles back around to the point where the scene’s length is its own joke. The further the show overshoots that while using its knack for expressive animation to keep your attention, the more times the show gets to underscore that the joke’s length is itself a joke… it’s as funny at two and three minutes as it is when it’s still going at the four-minute mark. The utterly flat reaction at its conclusion is just a capper on a situation that’s already made itself ridiculous several times over, all within a single gag.

And that’s kind of emblematic of one of this show’s two main modes of direct humor as a whole.

In one, the show is whip-fast with a visual setup, a smart reversal, and one last poke in the ribs to drive the whole thing home – the kind of thing that can be captured entirely in the span of a ten-second gif, and that’s strong enough to stand even without sound. For example, the only joke that I’ll directly recount here:

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Pure, distilled bait-and-switch.

In the other, it takes one situation and milks it for all the differing takes it can get inside of a single scene. The first joke turns a situation on its side, the second puts it squarely on its head, and the third upends it yet again. Usually a forth gag will upturn it into yet another context, and in many cases the characters will pull out a fifth switcheroo. This results in variations on the structure where two opposing understandings will have the verbal-comedy equivalent of a tennis match, flipping contexts on the viewer so fast it’d make your head spin.

But as fun and utterly absurd as a lot of the individual sequences get – and the show still has some of the most absurd scenes I’ve ever seen in an anime, full stop – it’s much more satisfying to step back and take a look at a show packed-full of jokes that is, in and of itself, built like a joke. From the Helvetica Standard shorts that are so out-of-place with the surrounding show and with themselves as to catch the viewer off-guard, to how its more soundtrack bounces between quaint ambience, orchestral interludes, and elevator music, all providing a cheeky contrast against whatever is happening on-screen. It’s all part of one big, long, thoughtfully-constructed gag.

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