Tonari no Seki-kun: The Master of Killing Time

Anime shorts don't get a lot of respect from American anime fans. After all, they're mostly meant to fill the time between full-length shows. They tend to be left out of many seasonal previews and reviews. Very often they're lucky to be licensed anywhere outside of Crunchyroll, and a physical release outside of Japan is exceedingly rare. In the last few years, only two short series have been released to DVD - the fangirl favorite Hetalia and the kitty-centric Chi's Sweet Home. It's a shame that these sorts of shows tend to fly under the fandom's radar, because in doing so people miss out on great shows like Tonari no Seki-kun (My Neighbor Seki).

Tonari no Seki-kun is a twenty-one episode series of seven minute shorts, based on a gag manga by Takuma Morishige. On the surface, it is a simple story about a couple of students in a seemingly ordinary homeroom. One of them is the titular Seki-kun, a boy who is committed to finding new and original ways to amuse himself during class through the ever-changing variety of games and activities he sets for himself. The other person is Rumi Yakoi, a conscientious young girl who wants to focus on her schoolwork, but almost inevitably gets caught up in whatever Seki is up to that day, much to her despair.

This sounds like a premise that would get old fast, but the series manages to shake things up often enough to keep the episode formula from getting too stale. Seki manages to find a way to distract himself through all sorts of classes - English, science, art, and so on. He even plays around during disaster drills, instructional videos, and even lunchtime. The show gets a lot of humor from the sheer complexity of Seki's games, as well as the intense focus he brings to each one. It's not enough for him to play with a RC car, but instead puts himself through a written driving test, a miniature obstacle course, and even makes himself his own fake driver's license. He takes in the class's notes and becomes the classroom post master, complete with stamps, complex delivery forms, and a post box for mail inside and outside the classroom.  He even takes something as seemingly simple as polishing his desk to the extreme, breaking out resins, chisels and buffers to give his desk a mirror-like sheen, all while evading the notice of his fellow classmates and his teachers. He seems to have a talent for everything from magic to knitting to carving, so it's not that Seki is stupid. It's just that he has no interest in applying that effort anywhere except upon his games.

Of course, you can't have a comedy series without someone to react to the jokes, but Rumi is here to do more than just scold and overreact to things. More often than not, she finds herself getting caught up in the little dramas that Seki creates for himself, and ends up crafting a mental narrative of her own.  Thus, Seki's games of shogi become epic medieval battles between good and evil in her mind. His game of fukawarai (think of a cross between blindman's bluff and Mr. Potato Head) becomes the story of a growing family nearly torn apart by rebellion. The robot toys that Seki brings along to earthquake drills and CPR class become a model family who dutifully go through the proper steps, much to Rumi's delight. These episodes were some of my favorites, if simply for the fact that this imaginary robot family gets its own little insert song, a throwback to 1970s robot show themes talking about the tired father and his energetic son.  It's her imagination that turns Seki's games into epic endeavors, and it's her voice that dictates the action and tone of the show, right down to the point where she intones the title in whatever mood she finds herself in by the end of the episode.

The closest she ever gets to making Seki's games known to others is with Goto-san, an eager young girl who befriends Rumi. She only shows up a few times over the course of the show, but she too helps to keep the show from getting in a rut. She ends up convincing herself that Rumi is in love with Seki, and more than once she interprets Seki's games as metaphor for their imaginary relationship. Rumi's efforts to stop Seki's desktop golf game are in her mind their attempts to act upon their clandestine affair.  When Seki starts playing paper sumo when Rumi is out with a cold, Goto turns it into the
complex expression of their relationship troubles, because no one would be foolish enough to play a game during class time!  Her imagination ends up adding another angle to the show and another pool from which the writers can fish more jokes.

What was most interesting about this show is that despite being centered on two characters, vocally this is a one-woman show. Seki never says a word, making himself understood only through expressions, grunts, gasps, and muttering. Thus the show is driven mostly by Rumi's seiyuu Kana Hanazawa, best known to American audiences as Oreimo's Kuroneko, Steins;Gate's Mayuri, and Nadeko in the various Monogataris. Rumi's inner monologue tends to cycle through a lot of broad emotion in a short amount of time and in the wrong hands it could have come off as shrill and overbearing. Hanazawa's performance keeps Rumi's emotions relatively grounded and sincere, which helps keep the character relatable and the sincerity helps to enhance the humor in Rumi getting so involved in Seki's various games. 

The animation was done by Shin-Ei Animation, a studio mostly known for family fare like Doreamon and a lot of in-betweening for various other studios. The animation itself is competent, if nothing all that special.  Seeing as this is set mostly in classrooms, the backgrounds are muted in a municipal sort of way. The character designs are simple and pleasant looking. The expressions are broad and simply drawn, but effective enough to communicate what goes on Seki's mind without a word. The most notable bits of animation are the opening and the ending. In the opening, Seki is animating his own show's opening, complete with storyboards, digital coloring, and voice acting. They even keep up the same sense of variety found in show, as what piece of animation Seki works on changes halfway, and his reaction to Rumi's final word changes randomly. In the closing, Seki sets up an impromptu percussion set so that he can drum along with the jazzy little instrumental piece, and even Rumi can't help but bop her head along with the beat. 

Tonari no Seki-kun shows that sometimes comedy works best in short form.  The short running time keeps the pacing snappy, and the show squeezes the most comedy from each moment thanks to Seki's neverending supply of visual gags and Rumi's running commentary on them.  That same short episode length also makes this an easy show to marathon, and the quality of the writing keeps the jokes fresh over the course of the series.  This show is something of a hidden gem from the Winter 2014 season, and watching this has me eager to see what the manga is like, since Vertical will be releasing it starting in January 2015.  This show, much like one of Seki's games, is a wonderful and surprisingly compelling way to kill some time and enjoy some laughs in between longer and more serious fare, and I highly recommend it.

Tonari no Seki-kun is currently available in full on Crunchyroll.


Popular Posts