Anime that are pure comedies, through and through, are rarer than you might think. Many series will have comedy (whether it lands or not), and many more many even be predominantly comedy, but you really don’t often come across a show that is nothing but comedy, practically every scene a setup for a punchline, and any chance at a proper “storyline” never seriously entertained.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
I usually find such series, these so-called pure comedies, among the most difficult anime to write about, because they’ll often lack an engaging narrative, deep characters or even a particularly memorable aesthetic. If something’s sole purpose is just to make you laugh, aside from things like joke construction, how much is there to really analyze out of it?
But of course, that brings us to the topic of today’s review: Nichijou - My Ordinary Life. Nichijou is, in many ways, exactly like the series I just described. You shouldn’t expect real depth of character or any significant story progression. Each episode of Nichijou is split into several skits that may share some continuity, but aside from the occasional running gag, tell entirely self-contained jokes. Therefore, I would say that, yes, Nichijou’s sole purpose is indeed just to make you laugh… but perhaps that might not be such a bad thing after all.
The title Nichijou roughly translates to the English release’s subtitle, “My Ordinary Life”, which is quite a blatant attempt at irony, because anyone even remotely familiar with the series is well-aware that this life is anything but ordinary. Sure, you have teenagers going to school, forgetting their homework, pining for crushes, playing games, joining clubs, but then you have lifelike robots and talking cats and ancient weapons and child professors and bazooka tsunderes and goats and dogs and cubes and love and hate and jumps and death and ghosts and... you get the idea.
To grossly simplify things, the major jokes of Nichijou come in one of two forms: either presenting an absurd situation, or absurdly overreacting to a normal situation. The first is hopefully fairly self-explanatory; “Look at this! It is unusual and therefore humorous” being the train of thought. These odd situations will often come out of nowhere, with little rhyme or reason, before you could even hope to expect them. That’s a very particular brand of comedy, absurdist comedy, that in all fairness isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t find a principal wrestling a deer funny for the sake of it, then Nichijou might not be for you, but if, like myself, you find that hilarious, then there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest too.
In the case of the latter circumstance, “absurdly overreacting to a normal situation”, often the joke is not so much in the situation or the punchline, but in how characters react to it, and the key is the element of surprise and timing. The usual setup goes something like this. A character is met with an everyday situation that they find unfavorable, like losing their wallet at an amusement park or being confused by a restaurant’s menu. The afflicted character will then display a reaction, and the show plays around with a wide spectrum of these reactions, utilizing them as appropriate for both the character and scene. Sometimes it’s a shouting fit, sometimes a dropped jaw, sometimes a blank, distant expression.
What makes a mere reaction payoff into an actual punchline is chiefly the presentation. Nichijou goes all-in, on everything it does. All of these reactions are taken to either an artistically absurd or outright absurd degree. When I say “artistically absurd”, I mean that, say, when a character screams in pain, they won’t just scream. Their screams will be represented as a laser, shooting up into the sky, piercing the atmosphere and impacting every planet in the solar system. On the other hand, when I say “outright absurd”, well, I mean exactly that. When a character’s embarrassing manga drawings are about to be discovered, she won’t just yelp and hide her eyes, blushing in embarrassment. She viciously and immediately attacks the would-be offender, sailing them into unconsciousness, leaping up to grab the manga pages, and taking out everyone else in the immediate vicinity for good measure.
You know, that makes me realize that, no matter what, to like Nichijou, you have to appreciate absurdity. When it’s not the scenario that is absurd, it’s the reactions, and if it’s not the reactions, it’s the scenario. This is not a series whose humor I would call “low-key”.
Whether or not that is for you, one thing I do greatly welcome about Nichijou is how often it will let a punchline breathe or simply speak for itself. I’ve chronicled my own issues with anime’s typical manzai comedy many times in the past, so I won’t repeat myself at length, but Nichijou is blissfully divorced from those tired Japanese comedy tropes. There may be some straight man quips on the occasion, and even one entire skit that is predicated on subverting them, but just as often the “straight man” response to the events at hand is no more than a stunned expression, rather than an annoying yell retorting everything that is odd about the situation and why you should find it funny.
The series knows the power of restraint; it knows you can’t deliver every beat of a joke, or even every joke, as if it’s gut busting. Sometimes, a chuckle, or a smirk, is all that you want. You won’t make it if you shoot for the moon every time, but if you cycle between the small gags and the big punchlines, it’s easier for the audience to settle into a fun, comfortable rhythm. Often, these smaller jokes take the form of super short clips, less than a minute, slotted in between the larger skits of the episode. They not only provide a breather from the otherwise constant laughter, but also let the show shift from one scenario to another without seeming too abrupt.
However, I’d of course be lying if I said that Nichijou is 100% hysterical 100% of the time. With 26 full episodes, nearly 10 straight hours of comedy, it’s almost impossible for there not to be at least a couple bumps in the road. That’s normal, and the best we can hope for is that these bumps are few and far between. In Nichijou, they absolutely are. In fact, when a joke fell flat for me, it often wasn’t even due to the direct content of the joke, but the difficulty of translating it into English, or properly communicating it to members of a non-Japanese society. Pun-based humor is obviously going to go nowhere, and the significance of certain objects, like a Daruma, may be lost on a Western audience. Likewise, the show occasionally has these “Word-Time” moments, wherein an average situation is attached to some deep-sounding quote, and even I don’t understand what they were attempting to do there.
Being a Kyoto Animation production, Nichijou’s absurd situations are matched only by absurd animation. Everyday movements are smooth and plentiful, as you’d expect, but where the show really flexes its muscle and has most of its visual fun is when the material veers into the ridiculous. There are some simple techniques, like a liberal use of minimal color or pure white to illustrate shock and distress (which are… common emotions in Nichijou), but also a little more advanced ones like ultra-thick, scratchy lines or occasional bizarre changes to color and motion design, and then of course the top of the line, crazy outrageous attacks and sprints and lasers and explosions, the likes of which you hardly ever in see in an adaptation of what is just a gag manga (that is, unless you are also produced by Kyoto Animation.)
But even when things are relatively reserved, and not really moving, the show can boast of a striking visual style, and no, I don’t mean the lack of noses. The best way I can describe it is that Nichijou looks like a storybook. Usually I don’t love when a show intentionally looks flat, and prefer more realistic, three-dimensional expanses, but the bright and childlike aesthetic of Nichijou not only perfectly fits the material, but is a great extension on the original artwork of the manga. For that matter, even the shot composition is above average, which is exceptionally rare for comedy anime. Rather than my trying and failing to verbally explain it to you, pay closer attention to the video as I read this sentence to see a number of interesting shots that the show uses at one point or another, in a super successful attempt to distinguish itself from the typical genre schlock (er, usually I try and edit the text versions of my reviews to remove references to the video version, but there’s really no helping that one).
Often, the show will use such imposing shots to sharpen and accentuate its skits’ faux drama and overblown excitement, which is taken even a step further by the grand and exuberant soundtrack. While the soundtrack is adorned with many lighter, easy going pieces to play over the lighter, easy going moments, as well as some real oddities like the Helvetica Standard theme, it also has a penchant for the loud and the dramatic, perfectly mirroring the often loud and dramatic animation. I wouldn’t necessarily say the soundtrack makes or breaks most of the scenes, but it definitely enhances them, which is exactly its job in the first place.
Oh ho ho, but then, but then, there’s one facet of the music that it nails even better than the BGM: the openings. Both openings are fantastic, not only full of stupidly good visual ideas but delivered with a playful, manic energy that is but a perfect fit for such a zany, hilarious show. Back in the day I might’ve said that the first opening is just a little bit better, but now, I’m just not sure. Both are a delight.
The first ending theme is good too, but I think the second really nails the series, in a very different way than the openings. The openings are all about Nichijou’s hyperactive, wacky side, but the second ending details a different angle, and one I have yet to touch on. As much as there are these certain characters we see and like more than the rest, the show at large is a communal effort. It centers on a town, not a person.
There are a lot of different characters in Nichijou, with varying degrees of screentime, and I suppose the biggest complaint you could make about the series is that these characters aren’t so much “characters” as “personalities”, vehicles for jokes and punchlines moreso than fully fleshed out “people”... but I think that’s alright. I feel that while, sure, I couldn’t hold up anyone in the show among my favorite characters of all time, they all feel at least well-realized and consistent enough to be believable individuals. Honestly, I do believe that wanting a deep, resonant cast is asking the series to be something entirely different than it is. There may be chronological connections within and across episodes, but it’s not trying to tell a singular cohesive “story”. It’s telling snippets of multiple stories, starting with isolated cliques and individuals that cross and mix into what is truly a living, breathing community.
The show goes a long way in creating this image by knowing when not to tell a joke. It’s rare, it’s very rare, but every so often, there are these heartwarming asides; real small moments of compassion or understanding that make you feel good, and realize that, despite it all, these people are all friends, or at least acquaintances. It’s never a blatant focus of the show (except for maybe in the finale), but these tiny acts of camaraderie really ground and balance out the otherwise entirely insane attitude of the series. Rewatching the show for this review, I noticed they cohere the setting in some subtler ways too, incorporating innocuous background details that are easy to miss, but tie everything into the same consistent world, like a poster for a club that appears later on or the bedroom of a character that won’t properly reveal herself for at least another ten episodes.
Before I wrap up, I’d like to call out one final aspect of the series, and one I don’t usually devote an entire section to: the voice acting. For Funimation’s recent Blu-Ray release, they opted not to produce an English dub, and I feel this is the wisest decision they could have made. The Japanese casting for Nichijou is spot-on. A boring principal has an equally boring drawl, a reserved and eccentric girl speaks with a floaty, distant air that amplifies her eccentricity, the school’s resident pretty boy has the suave, booming voice that his stature and popularity would imply; it’s all there. Every voice fits, and fits well, even if one or two might first come off as a little odd just by virtue of not neatly fitting into anime’s generic voice tropes.
And with that, it’s time for the verdict. After taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… part of me went into this determined not to go above an A because, no matter how great Nichijou is, it’s “just” a comedy, right? But if it’s so much fun, and so effective at what it wants to be, and I loved almost every minute of it, why should that matter? S. Nichijou is an S, and my favorite anime comedy of all-time. As I mentioned, I can’t guarantee everyone will find it hilarious, but speaking to my own experience, I certainly did.
Unfortunately, there is currently no way to legally stream Nichijou. You may purchase the Blu-ray release from Funimation, at a price which thankfully isn’t outrageous, but if you want to watch it right now, this minute, I’m afraid that, like Hyouka, you’re on your own.
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.