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.