Nichijou: Raising the Bar

There has been a fair amount of debate over how to “properly” conduct a holistic anime analysis. I’m admittedly biased towards putting animation at the center of things, but I think this is justified in Nichijou’s case. The show is decidedly visual-oriented. The script, soundtrack, voice acting, etc. are first-rate as well, but Nichijou’s focus on sakuga is what differentiates it from other anime in its genre.

Kyoto Animation (KyoAni) is highly regarded among sakuga fans. It’s not hard to see why—the studio consistently delivers anime with excellent production values and polished, fluid animation. Since 2006, KyoAni has generated a steady stream of hit shows, including Haruhi, K-On!, and Hyōka. Perhaps their most interesting production from a sakuga perspective is Nichijou, an anime about the ordinary lives of a trio of high school girls, an eight-year-old scientist, a robot, and a talking cat.

In 2011, KyoAni was riding high on the success of the K-On! franchise. The second season of K-On! pretty much abandoned the manga’s stale gag template and turned the series into a poignant reflection on high school life, thanks to Reiko Yoshida’s and Naoka Yamada’s thoughtful writing and direction. Their success doubtlessly convinced KyoAni to try a more ambitious project, an adaptation of Keiichi Arawi’s slice-of-life manga Nichijou. Despite its similar genre and setting, Nichijou is very different from K-On!—or any anime KyoAni had produced up to that point. The show has a nuanced and idiosyncratic style of comedy that bears some similarities to Azumanga Daioh: there is very little in the way of a plot, slapstick gags and surreal situations are common, and it has nothing that could be construed as fanservice or otaku appeal. However, Nichijou’s most significant feature is its emphasis on visual humor and action. The manga is full of extreme reaction shots and hyperbolic imagery. Arawi’s character designs have a simplified, expressive quality that naturally suits animation. I’d guess the KyoAni staff had a lot of fun making Nichijou, judging by its richness in detail and casually inventive direction and layouts. Check out the creative framing in the scene where the girls are trapped in an elevator, or the clever choice of playing orchestral music over the sequence where they build a house of cards. You can tell the staff’s level of personal investment from the amount of thought and detail put into the work. It’s a labor of love.

This is one of Nichijou’s famous action sequences, from episode 2. Everything about it is gloriously excessive: backgrounds are fully animated and smears and multiple limbs abound. The character outlines become jagged scribbles to depict speed. The poses are angular and energetic. There’s that absolutely wild cut where Mio (the blue-haired girl) skids around the corner, scrambles on all fours, and somehow runs along a wall. This sequence was animated by Noriyuki Kitanohara, who has been with KyoAni since around the mid-90’s [actually 1990, thanks cjodell12]. He seems to specialize in character shots with crazy perspective work.

Yet not everyone cares for this technical virtuosity. A common complaint about Nichijou is that the action sequences run too long and ruin the pacing of the jokes. Some see the scenes as “random” attempts at forced humor that KyoAni tries to disguise with good animation. This argument misses the point. Nichijou doesn’t always settle for quick and easy punchlines; it often uses visuals as a means of character expression. In this sequence, the hyperbolic action reflects Mio’s desperation. She appears to run along a wall and her pigtails warp and stretch behind her. Only Mio and Yuuko are fully rendered in color for most of the sequence, which suggests Mio’s single-minded fixation on her target. The exaggerated nature of the chase should make it clear that it isn’t meant to be taken literally; it is a representation of her emotions. I would argue that the characterization displayed here is more compelling and funny than a typical gag would have been.

KyoAni has a tendency towards whimsy that sometimes borders on kitsch, but it works well for a whimsical character like Yuuko. This brief sequence from episode 24 effectively illustrates Yuuko’s carefree personality. It isn’t just the act of her leaping; it’s the way she leaps, balancing on the toes of one foot with an absent-minded expression. She swings her arms around in an uninhibited manner. She is clearly a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum.

Note how the frame rate speeds up as Yuuko lands in the second shot. Her motion is steady and deliberate at first, but her action becomes more frantic as she struggles to keep her balance. Also note the intricate shadows cast on Yuuko. You hardly notice it when you first watch it, but it is this attention to detail that makes Nichijou‘s world seem so real.

The animation in the sequence is very naturalistic. KyoAni’s animators bring a realistic sense of weight and timing to the characters’ movements. The cats, birds, and dogs in Nichijou are drawn with a sharp sense of observation of the real animals. Likewise, hair, fabric, and leaves blow in the wind just as they do in nature. This pursuit of realism might seem to be at odds with Nichijou’s hyperbolic gag style, but it actually complements it perfectly. The ridiculousness of the visuals is underlined by the context of a more or less lifelike setting. The series gets much mileage out of the contrast between the strange and mundane.

Animation is a very deliberate art form; a good animator can convey a lot of information with a few well-placed drawings. Each individual frame can potentially communicate something to the audience. Nichijou makes a point of showing that the subtlest actions and details can be just as significant as the most blatant ones. This sequence only lasts for about five seconds, but it tells volumes about Yuuko’s personality.

This is my favorite sequence in the show, from episode 20. The acting is not only intense and exaggerated, but each individual pose is expressive and entertaining. You can feel Mio’s rage building up and being released through her dynamic movements and facial features. Chiyoko Ueno directed the animation in this episode; I wonder if she or a particular animator was responsible for the great character acting here.

Mio’s entire rant is almost four minutes long, but the most exciting stuff happens in the final 20 seconds. In this shot, Mio crosses her fists and bends backwards in anticipation (an “antic”). Next, she throws her fists down with such force that her heels lift off the ground and her upper limbs turn into smears. Her body stretches off the top of the screen for a few frames to accentuate (“accent”) the action. She then reaches a pose that completely contrasts with her antic pose: she leans forwards, her arms, torso, and neck straighten out, and the outlines of her legs bend in the other direction. Note how some of the drawings are held on the screen longer than others, which emphasizes certain poses and helps give the motion extra punch.

After this, Mio recoils from the action and settles into her final position. There’s some subtle movement in her legs and feet as she lands from her little hop. The animator also keeps it interesting by having her shake her head from side to side, with her pigtails following through the action. After some repeated shouting animation, Mio holds still for about half a second to deliver a longer yell, and then there’s a nice bit of motion where she strikes a dramatic pose. Her arm swings up and over her head in an arc, and her legs twist and bend as she shifts her weight. On close inspection the animation in this cut is very calculated and controlled, but its cumulative effect makes Mio seem like a living, spontaneous person.

In this scene, Mio initially holds her pose from the previous shot, then spasms into a new pose when Yuuko tries to get a word in. The spaz animation goes by very quickly, but it’s worth describing. First, Mio antics by dropping her head between her arms. She then starts to stretch upwards, but her head and arms suddenly snap much further, creating an eye-catching visual pop. This almost looks like a mistake when viewed frame-by-frame, but in real time it looks smooth and makes for an effective accent. Her right arm instantly becomes a smear, which appears to phase through her left wrist as it flies down.

At this point Mio reaches her next pose, in which she leans away from Yuuko with a gesture of disgust. She momentarily slides into a more exaggerated version of the pose, and then she convulses a second time. Again, she squashes down for the antic, then stretches out and overshoots before recoiling into her final position. This scene works really well by punctuating Mio’s outbursts with her fast actions. It’s too bad they added digital blur to the frames in between the poses; it doesn’t seem necessary, and it obscures some fun and loose drawings.

This shot is also a lot of fun. The manga panel had Mio facing forward as usual, but the animators opted to animate her from the back, which is considerably more difficult. However, the acting can still be clearly followed. Mio first catches your attention with a basic antic and accent. She then goes into a slower antic, leans further towards Yuuko, and starts to flail her head and shoulders around as she recoils back to her original position. Her hair and arms follow through the flailing action, which adds a lot to the effect.

KyoAni could be called a modern successor of the traditional Disney animation school. Its style can be traced back to Toei Douga, which was heavily influenced by Disney’s emphasis on character acting and smooth, polished motion. KyoAni’s animation frequently alternates between full Disney naturalism and limited anime style. It has a similar tendency towards round shapes, mild poses, and solid drawings. It also shares a proclivity for cuteness and kitsch. I’m all for an anime studio that upholds classic animation principles, but this influence can be somewhat limiting. Disney’s product is a little too conservative and tepid for my liking. I hope KyoAni widens its range in the future, and perhaps takes a cue from other classic Hollywood cartoons—you can have animation that builds on the Disney principles and is still innovative and fresh.

I wish KyoAni did more animation like in the clips here. There’s nothing wrong with their character art per se, but their drawings often feel a little too polished and safe. Their characters consistently look cute and appealing, but not very expressive. The problem is mitigated in Nichijou to some degree because the manga had fun drawings and character designs to begin with. Yet even in this show, it seems like the animators are hesitant to push the manga’s poses further. The scenes where they do get creative really stand out.

Nichijou‘s animation is at a level that deserves serious critical attention. The best scenes set a bar for effects and character acting that is rarely surpassed in the medium. Even KyoAni itself has yet to meet the standards Nichijou set since the show aired in 2011. It is arguably the closest a TV anime has come to exceeding the highest standards of classic full animation.

9 Comments

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  1. I think the reason Nichijou didn’t have much success (and this is coming from someone who very much loved the show) is because it indeed went a little overboard with the amount and length of the crazy scenes (for an anime at least). The show is an absolute fest when one has even a slight appreciation for visual antics or sakuga but SOL animes aren’t particularly known for their animation in the vast majority of the cases, the formula of Nichijou was a bit too hyper for it to achieve mainstream success, or for most of it’s gags to be appreciated by many casual anime viewers. And although the source material and direction taken in Lucky star and nichijou differ wildly, I think the ratio visual gags to normal ones used in lucky star was much more appropriate for it’s case. Nichijou would undoubtedly need a higher ratio but I don’t think it’s to the extent (or length) we were given. But then again while I say all that the attempt (and result) we got in Nichijou are awe-inspiring to say the least, it just wasn’t something for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a meme out in the English-language anime fandom that Nichijou “did not do well” because the discs were expensive and did not sell. That may well be the case but disc sales alone are not the only measure of an anime’s success. Disc sales work for some anime but not for others.

      NHK aired Nichijou in 2012 with the support of more than 4000 requests for the show. Many shows can’t meet the requirements of NHK (too niche, inappropriate content, etc.) so to have a user-requested show pulled onto NHK by fans is something that not too many other anime can claim.

      http://www.nhk.or.jp/e-tele/onegai/detail/142.html#main_section

      Nichijou has been licensed on TV in Japan pretty much continuously since it debuted. Even as of November 2016, it is licensed to and is on regular rotation on cable, AT-X or Kids Station. The regular and continuous licensing fees since the anime’s debut in 2011 have most likely more than made up for poor disc sales. And that’s only for Japan, not including any licensing fees from any ex-Japan streaming platforms.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this show and I really appreciate this text.

    Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. KyoAni could be called a modern successor of the traditional Disney animation school. . . .

    I wish you’d talked more about this because it was the most interesting thread in the article! I thought you got a bit bogged down with your discussions of the individual cuts in Nichijou, but your brief discussion of Disney animation style helped contextualise some of that for me.

    When I think of modern KyoAni’s style of animation, Thomas Lamarre’s use of the term “full limited animation” comes to mind (http://www.lamarre-mediaken.com/Site/Chapter15a.html). I noticed that your favourite cuts in Nichijou encapsulated limited animation at its best, by using creative storyboarding and directing tricks to draw the viewer’s attention to the incredible character acting. Not a single movement is superfluous.

    Btw, I think a discussion of the music and soundtrack is also well-warranted in a discussion of Nichijou. In just the clips embedded in this post, I could sense how the orchestral soundtrack enhances the absurdity of the scenes. Also, Mio’s voice actress is incredible.

    Anyway, really great post! I enjoyed it a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback! I’ll try to expand on those thoughts here in the comments.

      I guess what I was trying to convey with all that technical talk was that Nichijou takes advantage of the freedom that full animation allows. It has all these extra motions and secondary actions that gives the world and characters a richer texture. The odd thing about a lot of anime is that even when they do have full animation, they don’t make full use of it. It seems like when they have more time and money to polish the drawings, they tend to tone them down (Disney had the same problem). Maybe that’s why the animation in older anime seems more lively. It was harder to suck the life out of the drawings before they had digital tools to help them!

      Thanks for linking me to that article. “Full limited animation” definitely applies to KyoAni; their work is very much in the Ghibli vein. I’m not sure what Lamarre means by limited being more “interesting and challenging” than full animation though. Technically full can do whatever limited can do, and more. Limited certainly isn’t more challenging than full, unless he means it’s harder to make it as effective. He observes that Japan’s limited animation resembles the motion of robots, which can work well in some situations, but its applications are, well, limited. It can’t make characters feel like they’re living and thinking moment-to-moment. He admits that it has a hard time creating distinctive or individual personalities, and that the different elements that comprise the characters feel disparate. The thing is, that sort of implies that if you remove all the elements except for the animation, you’re not left with much. How does the animation itself contribute to the characters, or to the medium? It’s great that they’ve found ways to make virtues out of these limitations, but it confirms the western criticism that anime characters are “ciphers” with no uniqueness or originality. The scenes I like most in Nichijou don’t feel that way to me.

      I suppose limited animation is good in that it forces the artists to find creative ways to enliven it. Like you say, Nichijou uses fun storyboarding and directing to keep the sequences interesting. Those same techniques can be used for full animation, but I think western animators usually avoid them because they complicate the staging and make the characters harder to draw. The classic Hollywood “invisible” style probably also has something to do with it. I can see how both techniques make sense for different types of animation. Nichijou is “full limited” so it kind of strikes a balance between the two cinematographic theories.

      Yeah, the music and voice acting are wonderful. Nichijou’s soundtrack is absolutely one of my favorites. I’m not denying that the audio contributes a lot to the show’s success. However, I could name several other anime with great OSTs and voice work (Samurai Champloo, Azumanga Daioh, Lupin, Urusei Yatsura, Bakemonogatari)… Nichijou’s audio does merit discussion, but its animation is what really makes it stand out.

      To sum up my thoughts about KyoAni and Disney: there’s some aspects I wish they emulated more, and other aspects I’d rather they emulated less. I like that they take after Disney’s focus on character acting and detailed motion. The sentimentality I could do without (those Nano and Hakase scenes can be a bit much).

      A big problem is that they misunderstand squash and stretch. It isn’t just a goofy Looney Tunes trick, it’s a core character animation principle that Disney established in the 30’s. In real life, we see subtle distortions in the skin and muscles all the time. This differentiates organic living matter from robots or inanimate objects. It’s a big part of what makes western animated characters look so alive. KyoAni characters may distort, but typically only for smears or gag expressions. Too often the character acting is stiff and doll-like. Limited animation can’t be blamed; you can still have squash and stretch with a low drawing count. My thinking is: if they’re going be influenced by Disney, why not take after all their good aspects? It may be a stylistic choice, but I’ve never heard any satisfying argument as to why its preferable, at least if they’re trying to emulate the western model.

      Liked by 1 person

      • > Maybe that’s why the animation in older anime seems more lively. It was harder to suck the life out of the drawings before they had digital tools to help them!

        That’s an interesting point. It reminds me of an interview with Brian Eno where he talks about how Pro-Tools (the industry standard audio editing suite), and the general copy-paste convenience of digital tools of modern computing made contemporary musicians “lock” their music on a grid, making it all very polished and slick, but a bit predictable and robotic as well, losing the liveliness and visceral impact of the music from 60s and 70s. (Here’s the interview).

        > To sum up my thoughts about KyoAni and Disney: there’s some aspects I wish they emulated more, and other aspects I’d rather they emulated less. I like that they take after Disney’s focus on character acting and detailed motion. The sentimentality I could do without (those Nano and Hakase scenes can be a bit much).

        As a layman I’m a bit lost here: the first point (about character acting and detailed motion) is strictly about animation, yet the second (sentimentality) is not at all, right? Or do you think that sentimentality in some way limits what animation can do? Also, is it obvious that they take that sentimentality from Disney? Personally, I find the sentimentality in Nichijou, the way it was able to produce genuine bathos in such a “random”, free-form, chaotic world, one of the biggest reasons of its triumph (in my eyes). It would be such a shame if it didn’t have that kindness and light at the heart of all that’s going on, and it was just a gags and skits anime.

        Anyways, *wonderful* blog. Thanks!

        Liked by 3 people

      • Thanks for the link! Eno’s critique of modern music could definitely apply to animation. Like it’s smooth and glossy, but locked to an inflexible grid of “on-model.”

        You’re right, what I should have said is that the animation is too cute and conservative. Sentimentality is more of a story problem in KyoAni’s case. I can’t be sure if it comes from Disney, but their shows occasionally feel syrupy to me in a similar way. Nichijou is pretty good about avoiding that though. Yuuko and Mio’s friendship is funny and natural without ever seeming cloying. Nano and Hakase teeter on the edge, but Sakamoto’s presence as a stern adult figure helps balance things out.

        I think sentimentality can limit animation when it feels overly saccharine, or worse, false. A lot of post-golden age Disney animation seems to be built on cliches and contrived overacting (“Hercules’s douche smirk,” as Tamerlane once put it). I doubt KyoAni will ever get that bad, but I hope they maintain that healthy balance between humor and sweetness.

        Like

  4. You mentioned Nichijou’s chase scene from Episode 2 and how Kitanohara animated that sequence. I’m not trying to nitpick here, but you made a small mistake. Kitanohara actually joined KyoAni in 1990 (just 2 years after Ishihara) not the mid-90s, at age 22 or 23 (he was born in 1967). So he’s been at the studio for 26 years at this point.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. By the way, thank you for the shoutout.

    Like

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