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Nichijou: Fall Down Seven Times, Laugh It Up Eight

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When circumventing the conventions of genre, it’s important to either tread carefully, or avoid it altogether. Tropes and standards keep us safe: they provide a sense of unified human experience. A story may hold different perspectives from different authors, but thanks to genre conventions these stories also maintain a kind of universal cohesion. Then, an anarchist comes along, someone who believes this uniformity to be an impediment towards unbridled chaos and insanity. Keiichi Arawi’s Nichijou is just such a rabble-rouser. Under the guise of humor, Arawi engineers a narrative that mercilessly frays the toupee of comedy, wet willies the ear of generic standards, and blares peaceful classical music over the well-timed fart joke of genre itself. At the same time, it refuses adherence to even a standard format, shifting from a 4-panel gag style, to long form narrative style, sometimes mid-story. Through genre defiance, through format defiance, Nichijou perpetuates a consistent sensation of imbalance designed to not only enhance punchline delivery and comedic timing, it leaves a lingering uncertainty as to when the funny will happen, or if it will happen at all. To make matters worse, a number of duplicitous, potential metaphorically deep elements weasel into chapters, ready to greet critical minds with a warm smile only to soliloquize villainous cackling shortly thereafter.

One of the most unsettling elements is a strict refusal in staying true to steady timing methodologies. Depending on the format at hand, punchlines arrive at any time; maybe after the setup, but often not. Altering this formula means jokes altogether redefine comedy itself to work within Nichijou’s parameters. In order to properly explain this phenomena, I’m going to do something that’s a critical taboo: paraphrase and generalize. Let’s say the standard formula for jokes is setup times timing plus punchline ((setup x timing) + punchline). Jokes following this formula provide comfort and reassurance. Since the end result is the punchline, most of the work involved in getting to that end point is a matter of the setup and timing flowing harmoniously, based on the nature of the delivery. Sometimes a simple punchline requires a more complicated setup; sometimes the dagger of irony must twist a few times before the release of laughter arrives. Regardless of variance, conventional joke-telling maintains a certain level of conformity, and subsequently, some measure of security.

While Arawi doesn’t abandon the above formula entirely, the uncertainty of his comedic storytelling keeps expectations dangling over a cliff. What’s expected from a setup more frequently than not is utterly absent from the delivery. A joke may lead towards a particular direction, heavily implying an expected outcome, and out of the blue, the situation changes to something only a comedy anarchist would come up with. To an extent, these diversions carry a certain randomness to them, however, more often than not they start or add to an existing running gag, or otherwise disfigure the setup into some kind of mutant. Yet instantaneous diversions add another element to the standard joke formula, sometimes serving as the punchline, sometimes a means of misdirection, and sometimes even acting as a hard stop to the joke itself. But sometimes the punchline appears and the strip continues, even to the point of introducing a second, third, or even fourth, punchline into a single gag.

Generally these gags unfold over the course of several chapters or volumes. The above page is not only the funniest joke that will ever joke, but a condensed version of the process. This particular gag illustrates Arawi’s process and the dilemma his comedy presents in four panels. Two different processes are at work here: a forward visual gag, and a nuanced subtlety gag, combining to create something that relies on an overt visual cue alongside a stark genre juxtaposition. Haruna represents the literal interpretation of “nichijou” (日常) as an ordinary person preparing to partake in an ordinary activity, as the unnecessarily elongated strip title suggests. An expectation here is some form of ironic twist in line with ordinary circumstances around being interrupted before reading a book. While benign, it’s a fairly basic setup for an easy pun or something of that nature. Then, out of nowhere, Haruna opens the door to an army pulled straight from a dystopian martial arts comic. These dangerous characters are apparently going door to door looking for newspaper subscribers, amidst a sudden deluge initiated within the span of two panels, or during the time between walking from the living room to the front door. Beyond whiplash from the initial sight gag, this page is a mess. Getting ready to read a book acts as the setup, walking from living room to front door the timing, and an army pulled from a completely unrelated comic the punchline, to sell newspapers, a secondary punchline. Alternatively, the army’s presence in the middle of a comic about high school students itself is the setup, and a mission to sell newspapers, immediately following their appearance, is both a rapid fire timing and punchline.

Independent of analytical perspective, this page is a singular example Arawi systematically manipulating standard comedic intentions. Embedded inside an outwardly simple double take exists a complex, process heavy lark utterly devoid of social commentary or even purpose. If I were a true deconstructionist, I might offer a connection between a visually evil empire manifesting as malicious leisure-time thieves. The mere act of depriving Haruna from her excitement suggests a latent anger towards door-to-door salespeople, and the sudden onset of foreboding weather foreshadows doom for a book that would otherwise have its pages exercised. Although this impulse is tempting, instances of analytical prospects popping up in the middle of each volume, it’s almost assuredly a misdirection trap. A harmony between pictures, words, and substance is almost always fertile ground for critical expeditions. In this case, and throughout Nichijou, it becomes a gag on the critic. Circumventing any attempts at critical methodology, in the end the conclusion is always a request to pull Arawi’s finger. In other words, the act of applying academic insight can yield interesting results, but the process itself is ultimately futile, resulting in an embarrassing OVERTHINKER forehead stamp. And it’s thoroughly maddening.

In the first volume, a perfect example of this process pops up. To soothe Mai’s perceived anger, Aioi attempts to confess and atone for transgressions committed on a previous day. Her goal is to regain Mai’s friendship, dissolve misconstrued nonchalance as anger, and engage in her pun of the day. Suddenly, a wooden statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya appears. Now, random entries are quite common in this comic. On its own, the statue and religious figure of Maitreya seemed innocent enough, until it became a recurring theme throughout the volume, not just randomly, but as a recurring signal or symbol of something deeper. The figure of Maitreya is the direct successor to the present Buddha, and will appear some time in the future to reinvigorate or purify the Buddha’s teachings. Immediately this becomes a perfect place for an overthinker to start connecting dots. Ink up that forehead stamp; here we go.

Here, Aioi attempts coercing Mai into a game of rock paper scissors. As is her character, Mai willfully abandons the rules of the game, instead opting for pandemonium in the name of comedy. After delivering a losing hand, Mai casts the follow-up head whack using her statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya to land a critical hit. Now, my inner critic looks at this development as a symbol of attempting to reach the purity of fun, the underlying intent of a game, through a meditative practice of disregarding rules as restrictions or constraints inhibiting true enjoyment. Maitreya serves as a symbol for the return to the absolute essence of pleasure; the literal hit to Aioi’s head an imposition of a need to abandon corporeal or physical barriers diluting that goal. Deep, right? Then the next page happens.

Immediately following a moment of religious enlightenment, and before another hand is thrown, Mai smacks Aioi in the head with a Japanese literature textbook while Aioi cites the infamous Nietzsche revelation, “God is dead.” Right as Mai imparts a moment of clarity through enlightenment, Aioi doubles down on symbolic acuity. Where Mai’s attitude towards games requires a purity of fun, Aioi rejects religious ideals as governing principles as opposed to irrational emotional doctrines. The rules to rock, paper, scissors represents comprehension of the world within the constraints of human understanding, and because Mai refuses compliance with this order the game ends. (I’m intentionally leaving George Gascoigne out of this since I’ve plunged deep enough into the rabbit hole as it is).

Despite being overt signals, these moments are only bits of mid-joke punchline punctuation tacked onto the greater conflict of Mai refusing to play rock, paper, scissors in a proper manner. And for that reason, reading Nichijou is a tortuously enjoyable experience. Every single volume contains moments of philosophical or introspective insight to entrap critical minds into thinking there’s something deeper and more profound at work. These crumbs materialize from thin air, and while tempting to follow, they’re only enhancements to the overarching comedic narrative. When I was compelled to research Maitreya in search of some deeper meaning, I was looking for a raw symbolic hypothesis to satisfy my curiosity. But maybe I was looking in the wrong place. His repeated presence could merely be a nudge towards embracing unconditional absurdity. Without the burden of socio-political satire, Arawi is free to indulge pure fun, getting back to the foundational premise of comedy, even at the expense of form and convention.

Honestly, Nichijou is some of the most fun I’ve had reading comics, the evil newspaper salesmen gag brought me to the brink of tears. It forces me to forsake critical biases, at least while actively reading, and embrace jokes for the exclusive sake of humor. Of course the best jokes require extensive explanations, and I’ve likely killed some of the charm by flashing my fresh overthinker forehead tattoo. But something this unique deserves elevation outside of disposable entertainment. Arawi’s anarchism is good for the mind, soul, and, most importantly, the funny bone.

Nichijou is available from Vertical Comics.

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