Where do I even begin with Nichijou.
I could start with its technical merits, I suppose? Because the show certainly is technically meritorious. Where other Kyoto Animation highlights like Hyouka and Sound! Euphonium use their beautiful, well-observed character animation to present an illusion of heightened realism, Nichijou features a cast of simplified character designs and over-the-top motion. And that is the first element of its genius.
Nichijou’s base designs don’t aspire to realism – they aspire to iconography and simplified personality. This isn’t due to “laziness” on the part of the team (clearly Kyoto Animation’s stars aren’t afraid of precisely animating complex designs), but it does make Nichijou an “animation-friendly” show. “Animation-friendly” is generally used to describe designs whose archetypal, somewhat simplified nature allows for clean and creative animation without sacrificing fidelity to their image. This is certainly true of Nichijou, but its designs do far more than that – the simplified nature of its character art facilitates its tone, enables its jokes, and helps establish its very world.
In Nichijou, characters can weave in and out of differing levels of realism without seeming like they’re ever betraying their underlying nature, and gesture work can be just as precise here as it is in any under show. In fact, the contrast between the precision of a character’s expression or gesture work and the simplicity of their design is often core to the show’s jokes. There are even jokes that play with the show’s tendency towards minimalism, like when a crow we’ve met who’s basically just a triangle shares the screen with a few hyper-realistic crows drawn in an entirely different style.
The show’s style also facilitates its principle conceit – the idea that the extraordinary can be mundane, and the mundane extraordinary. Nano, one of the show’s main characters, is a robot. We know this not just because she says she’s a robot, but because she has a giant clockwork key in her back. Characters in Nichijou are blessed with a bizarre iconography that makes them all seem both equally strange, equally normal, and on even footing in both of those qualities. Sometimes there’s a boy whose hair naturally grows into a mohawk. Sometimes there’s a cat who talks. That’s okay.
But let’s get back to the animation, because holy crap do we have a lot to cover here. I said before that sometimes the animation “is” the joke, and though that’s true to an extent, it’s generally more reflective of the fact that Nichijou’s beautiful execution allows it to sell concepts that basically no other show could. Pratfalls in Nichijou aren’t punchlines – they are art.
Humor generally relies heavily on an element of surprise, or more fundamentally a betrayal of expectations. What we assume will happen is tripped up by an unexpected punchline, and the incongruity of this twist sparks humor like flint striking on tinder. Nichijou has plenty of jokes that abuse this basic pattern, and skips happily between wordplay, commentary on wordplay, absurdism, the classic rule of three, visual undercutting, character-based comedy of warmth, and a wide variety of other established schools of comedy. But while the show’s comic invention is remarkable for its own sake, it’s also constantly reflective of how what truly sells any work of art is less its novelty than its power of execution.
Sometimes this comes through in small ways. Kyoto Animation shows from Chuunibyou to Amagi Brilliant Park regularly demonstrate an understanding of comedic timing that seems to go beyond any individual creator, and reflects a studio culture that understands comedy is less reliant on good setups and punchlines than it is reflective of strong pacing. Comedy exists in the distribution of frames and motions across a scene, and in the way a storyboard might cut from an extended setup to a lightning-fast resolution. Many of Nichijou’s jokes embody this understanding – pratfalls will be built up with beautiful solemnity and then resolve in a mere microsecond, leaving the audience first breathless, and then breathless with laughter.
Other jokes lean far, far in the other direction. When Nichijou truly wants to stretch its muscles, slapstick, misunderstandings, genre shifts, and comedies of errors will extend across full minutes, demonstrating such consistent visual invention and tonal congruity that they can sell even the simplest of jokes. At times, Nichijou will dip into other genres entirely, mining humor not just from the incongruous elements they add to those genres, but also in how well they initially embody the styles they’re aping. There are actions scenes in Nichijou that are better than most action anime. There are thoughtful drama sequences that put most actual dramas to shame. Nichijou truly understands that artists are craftsmen, and that much of a work’s beauty comes not from its conception, but from its careful sculpting.
All of that is to say that Nichijou is easily the most formally accomplished and consistently creative comedy I’ve seen in basically any medium. But if Nichijou were just that, it’d be… well, still probably a masterpiece, but certainly not one of my favorite shows. It’s what all those jokes amount to that makes Nichijou something very close to my heart.
Nichijou centers on two initial groups of characters – the relatively normal high school girls Yuuko, Mio, and Mai, and the inhabitants of the Shinonome Lab – the professor, Nano, and Sakamoto. The professor is a little girl who is also a genius scientist and invented Nano. Sakamoto is a cat who has a scarf that lets him talk.
The three high school girls offer a fine example of Nichijou’s dual specialties. The three make for a classic comic trio – Yuuko is the ridiculous, exuberant, kinda stupid one, Mio is the level-headed, sometimes snarky one, and Mai is the wildcard, inscrutable and prone to bizarre one-liners. Nichijou mines infinite comedy out of their fundamental dynamic, but as episodes build up, it’s also clear it respects them as people. Yuuko eventually comes to be the closest thing to an audience avatar, with her poor fortunes and infinite credulity making her feel absolutely relatable. Mio actually grows over time, developing confidence in her creative passions through many tragic mistakes. And Mai, well, Mai eventually makes a friend, and shows herself to be as good a friend as any.
On the other side, the Shinonome Lab trio are essentially the closest thing anime has come to an adaptation of Yotsuba. Despite being her invention, Nano acts as a surrogate mother for the professor, with Sakamoto acting as their generally self-interested roommate. Nichijou’s ability to jump between genres makes the material between the professor and Nano feel as heartfelt and warm as anything in a dedicated drama, in spite of the absurdity of their situation and problems. The greatest element of Shinonome Lab sequences generally isn’t the professor’s wacky inventions, but the ways she and Nano consistently reaffirm their love for each other. The mundane is the magical. The magical is mundane.
Nichijou has one more main character, though. The town where all these characters live, where their “ordinary lives” run across shogi-football clubs and exploding robots and infinitely sticky glue, is as full of life and personality as any other character in the show. The Shinonome Lab in particular develops a real character, but Nichijou is insistent on continuously establishing elements of continuity across its episodes. As we come to know its side characters, their lives expand, and we learn about their siblings, parents, crushes, pets. A character that contributed to a quick gag in one episode will reappear as another character’s sibling, and offer considerate advice on a very grounded personal problem. Characters will run through each others’ skits in progress, and rivalries will be revisited from a variety of personal angles. Even the show’s second ending song emphasizes the congruity of its world, as we pan across all the various stars of Nichijou wandering the same streets home.
The congruity of Nichijou’s world isn’t just established in a physical and character sense. The show also takes care to create a powerfully consistent tone, in spite of jumping haphazardly between constant unrelated skits. This is expressed in obvious ways like specific episodes having unique themes, but is also reflected in how the show uses pillow shots of the town itself to create breathing room between gags, and even has smaller sub-skits that pad the larger sequences with tonal intermissions.
All of these tonal tricks ultimately add up to one emphatic result – making Nichijou’s world a place you’re always happy to return to. From its charming character work to its beautiful scene-setting and gorgeous, hilarious animation, everything about Nichijou beams with its happiness to be here. The absurdity almost feels superfluous, in the end. Nichijou is certain we are all absurd in our own ways, and all the more wonderful and “normal” for it. Offering a madcap town full of delightful weirdos, Nichijou embodies the power of animation to make the mundane magical and then back again. There is great beauty in this show, but then again, there is beauty in everything.
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