Written and Illustrated by Takuma Morishige
Translated by Yoshito Hinton
Published by Vertical Comics
Sometimes a comic comes along and steals your heart away because it's just so sweet, cute, and adorable. My Neighbor Seki is just such a comic.
In My Neighbor Seki, Morishige uses broad farce, slow burn comedy, and an amazing straight man figure in Rumi Yokoi to create a series that grabbed me almost from page one and kept me reading all through the end of the first volume. Morishige's timing on the page is top-notch, knowing just when to accelerate the gag and, better yet--when to end it. It's a combination that just gets better and better as the set pieces grow ever more absurd with each school "period" (i.e. chapter).
If you read any manga at all, especially the stuff translated and brought over legally via an English Language publisher, you know that there's a ton of Japanese comics set in schools. After awhile, some of them tend to blend, so much that even a good new one might not register with me, because I've been reading similar stories for over a decade now. But this one is pretty much unlike anything else I've seen.
The premise starts off ordinarily enough. Rumi Yaoki is a student who's trying to pay attention, and her classmate Toshinari Seki is doing his best not to pay attention. What starts off as playing with dominoes builds to ever more complex set-ups, including trap doors in his desk, turning chess into a mecha-battle, and other antics that are positively ludicrous. There's no way that Seki could possibly do these things without gaining the attention of the teachers--or at least the rest of the class--which is part of the fun. Morishige is asking you to take your disbelief and not only suspend it--you may as well ship it off to Mars for the duration of the book.
If you can't buy into the premise, it's probably a tough sell. The whole thing is a broad comedy, like watching Curly from the 3 Stooges eat eggshells or accepting that Deadpool talks to the reader, fully self-aware that he's a comic. It's a tricky balance to get right, but Morishige pulls it off. What's really impressive to me is that he does so in such a cute manner, too. Most comedies in this vein tend to be as over-the-top as possible. My Neighbor Seki by contrast, plays it far more subtly, with only slight amounts of physical comedy. Yaoki sometimes gets very animated, but there's almost no violence. There's definitely a bit of Yotsuba&! in this series, with a sense of wonder and possibility, but it's less the wonder of a child and more the "that's ridiculous!" kind of reaction that's going to keep you going back for more.
Artistically, Morishige is pretty standard stuff. We get just enough backgrounds to know we're in a school, but if you're reading for intricate background details, you're in the wrong book. The focus is squarely on the various distractions created by Seki, and the further we go along, the more that's true. Personal favorites are the chess mecha I referenced above, the "keep out" signs around a sand dune holding a flag, and the intricate dance of "go" pieces formed into shapes that mirror each other. We also get cats, but man, I can't just go around saying I love cat drawings, that would ruin my credibility as a comics reviewer.
Part of what makes this series work are the human figures, however. There's nothing complex about them, but Morishige does a great job showing just how hard Seki is concentrating, and his reactions to Yokoi's observation of his work often made me actually laugh out loud while I was reading. I may have missed a dialogue balloon, but I don't think Seki actually speaks. That means he's got to emote everything, and Morishige is more than up to having him look serious, demented, concerned, and happy, depending on the type of distraction he's working on. Meanwhile, Yokoi has to be the talker and do all the reaction shots for the reader. There's definitely a solid use of the exasperated face trope from school-set manga, and the adults we do see are often as oblivious as the old, unseen figures used by Charles Schulz.
My Neighbor Seki is a bit of an odd duck, concentrating almost entirely on two characters only, yet feeling like it contains more than other manga manage with a large cast. Seki and Yokoi are immediately engaging, lovable, and just a pure joy to read about. Plus, any manga that has a entire sequence of puns on clubs (including "Hair Club for Men") is not only highly recommended in my book, but a tribute to the translator (Yoshito Hinton) as well for keeping the humor intact across the language barrier.
I had a ton of fun reading My Neighbor Seki, yet another great title from one of my favorite manga publishers, Vertical, and I can't wait for April to read volume two. If you want a little more joy in your life, grab this one right away. You won't regret it.