Spring shines outside as a new school year begins. Yukko Aioi, a schoolgirl of fourteen or so, is resting over her desk, groaning and grumbling. She has no motivation to do anything, she says. So Mio Naganohara, her best friend, suggests that she finds one. “But I lack motivation to do even that!” Yukko complains. Mio thinks for a moment, and then, closing her fist, shouts: “Just do it anyway!” And her friend, instantly pumped up, fire in her eyes, gets up and shouts, “Yeah!” The cherry tree suddenly blooms outside the window, and Mio reflects, somehow ironically: “I wish I were a simpleton…” And so it begins.
Nichijou, literally “my ordinary life,” is a strange gem. Along with Alice in Wonderland and M. Night Shyamalan´s mostly forgotten Wide Awake, it is maybe my favorite comedy in any genre. It shares, I would contend, thematic concerns and techniques with both. This is a comedy that Our Lord probably likes, that we reviewed some years ago, and that is in our list of recommendations for Christian viewers. And, perhaps oddly, one that has been very helpful for me and my spiritual life. I´ll try to explain why today, ahem, on my first day of work after vacation this year, while August shines outside and I´m trying to find motivation for what is to come.
The review I just linked does, I think, a good job in presenting the most striking accomplishments of Nichijou. There is this, too, for a more technical analysis. The director of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzimiya. The clever dialogue. The character-driven, brilliant, rambling narrative. The beauty and small moments of Kyoto Animation. The wit of the whokly subjective approach in which the show cleverly and crazily piles metaphors, different levels of realism, beautiful art, poetic solemnity, pure craziness, and a sense of wonder to deliver clever yet absurd joke one after another. And the deepening relationships, the real warmth beneath. All at the service of a philosophy of joy, wonder, healthy realism, and deep hope which informs every scene in some form, and gives beauty and unity to all.
Seriously, just a quick look:
Or this one. The movement, the characters, the beautiful absurdity of it all:
“What I found was a show that significantly changed the way I look at entertainment, and perhaps even changed my perspective on life,” says the reviewer in conclusion, which then links this to St. Therese de Lisieux and her way of simplicity before God, of making an offering of every moment, grand or small, good or bad, embarrassing or glorious, boring or exciting. I must say I understand the connection. It feels natural, even. After all, as a goat rider named Sasahara reflectively states in response to an unrelated question, our ordinary life may be, in fact, a series of miracles.
Or perhaps not? Given that for a Christian, a miracle is, technically, an extraordinary action performed by God that suspends the ordinary laws and functioning of nature, cause and effect, the human body, etc., that statement is kind of a paradox. And yet, there is something truthful about it. But what? In reflection, one must add that little moments are often the hardest to bear with. Not the first day, but the interruption, the routine, the self-distracted realization that is going to be like this for a long time. These have been hard times for me, full of intensity, not unlike the Advent when I first rewatched Nichijou, four or five years ago.
But I bet it´s been a crazy year for everyone. As for me, I had to confront a new kind of case, full of maddening bureaucratic stuff, under my sole responsibility and with a tight deadline. It was a sink-or-swim situation, and while I ultimately made it, it could have gone the other way. And, as in Nichijou, this is just one of the disconcerting parallel storylines of my own ordinary life, some of which are either bizarre, quite challenging, beautiful but draining, somewhat boring, or very dumb. And sometimes it is hard to get motivated, to “do it anyway!” when you are still tired or hurting from the last time.
But that´s part of it, isn’t it? As our simpleton hero says, life is like baseball. We are living the moment, and you never know what will happen next. This is terrifying, inconvenient and…hopeful? And I think this is as far as I can go speaking in generalities, so, from here, spoilers ahead.
I just called Yukko a hero. Her teachers, friends and mother would probably describe her more aptly as “a moron,” “Yukko wa Honto ni Baka Danaa,” but is this contradictory? As I said here and here (JeskaiAngel defended the same idea here), heroism is very important for me as an icon of a hopeful, meaningful human life oriented to grow, to live and to save, in harmony with the wish of God for each and every one of us. After all, the jokes require the constant subverting of the expectations of the public, which in turn implies that the dramatic, heroic, or tragic actions of the hero and their previsible results will keep being cancelled or changed by error, stupidity, or chance, and he will end up looking ridiculous—to the public at least.
And nobody likes that. Some people want to be terrible, villains even, but never a joke. Nobody likes to be the punchline, or discover that he has been dumb, or have his actions being frustrated or his intimacy exposed by chance. Yet, it happens to us all, doesn’t it? And we can’t help it most of the time. Get into this show and you will find, first of all, a seemingly endless parade of these kind of moments.
Nichijou is, on one level, a constant succession of masterfully depicted accidents and errors, and while she has very good qualities (she is “a warrior”, as she says at a point), our Yukko is without dispute very, very dumb, and prone to all sorts of ridiculous incidents. She is not always reliable, diligent, or helpful, or even good-intentioned, either, with the aggravating circumstance that all she gets is to be stupidly evil when she chooses that path (as when lying about Sasahara and Nano). Her plans are, more often than not, just ridiculous. She would probably have a hard time watching the show. And yet, I contend, there is an openness, a fundamental trust, a simplicity in her approach to all these absurdities, again and again, that makes her relatable, admirable, and immensely helpful, to herself and to other characters in subtle but very real ways.
There is a second paradox in Nichijou, this time as regards to comedy as a genre. As with miracles, the point of the jokes is that they are exceptions to what usually happens, to which we would expect to occur in a given context. And thus, you cannot truly have a comedy make of completely ordinary, everyday moments. These are, instead, jokes centered around things which happen everyday, full of a strange overcharge of meaning, beauty, wonder, absurdity, comedy, drama, and meaning that we tend to ignore. And in which, to complete the circle, God intervenes in a way that we tend to ignore, because they escape our narrative framing of our own lives.
I said that I like and admire Yukko Aioi (full disclosure: she is my second favorite anime character ever, second only to Shuzo Matsutani), so why do I enjoy watching a show in which she has the worst luck ever? And, more generally, how may it be that the non-sequiturs,, frustrations, and cracks of our own meaningful narrative, even a heroic one, may be a good, enjoyable thing? And the answer is this: Because something unexpected could come through them, and that may just be an instrument of God, Who loves us, looks at us with kindness and tenderness, and has a good sense of humor, to expand our world, teach us something, bring us where we cannot reach by our own strength, or help others in ways that would be impossible for us with the resources and knowledge we have.
The great virtue of Yukko, then, is that she somehow senses this in the world of the show, and lives according to it, or tries to. In other words, she is hopeful, even if she is often not so much in control. So we can laugh at her, and at our own absurdities and dumb actions, opinions, and decisions, and yet hope that God may use them for fostering our growth, our good, and our life, or that of others. And this allows us to become a different sort of hero, one that is always trying to cooperate with God while living his projects and contributions to the world with both enthusiasm and devotion and a dose of healthy, freeing conscience of our own limits.
Lest someone thinks I am making this up merely to feel better whenever I remember I tripped on the stairs or engaged in bureaucratic talk without a very good idea of what I was saying, let’s go to the final chapter, in which all this is pretty much spelled out. There we have our Yukko making a fuss about a surprise birthday party for Nano Shinonome, her robot classmate. For all she knows, it’s not even her birthday, but whatever. Mio—now a mangaka, as she hoped—lets herself be convinced: It may be fun. The bond between the Shinonome household and the schoolgirl trio, so enriching for all the involved, is now that strengthened. Mio fears (with reason) that Yukko will spoil the surprise, but she has to let her go anyway. And Yukko runs clumsily thorough the school to see Nano.
And we begin to see (but the characters themselves do not see) that, by chance, Yukko has prevented Mio and Mai from suffering all sorts of pranks and inconveniences just by madly fooling around as usual. In her run, she inadvertently gives her chance to Misato Tachibana, maybe the most extreme tsundere ever, who definitively can’t talk to Sasahara without such help. She gives a moment of wonder to Miss Sakurai, to whom she has previously (and randomly) affirmed as a teacher, the goal towards which she was fighting, haunted by her insecurity and shyness. She even saves a group of ants from being crushed, and does not realize that either!
And lastly, by not paying attention to the robot arm of Nano, she makes the satisfying conclusion of the show possible, even if all the rest cooperate in it too: That moment in which, in the midst of all the small and the big problems of life, she stops considering herself a defective imitation of a teenage girl and accepts herself as someone who can be accepted and loved for what she is, with her oddities and imperfections. This act of love, acceptance, and confidence, the underlying purpose of the show—or, to make an analogy, what both her human creator and God intended her to learn through her own story, so as to live more happily and more fully, as she hoped and wanted—is achieved. And, well, it happens to, in truth, be her birthday, the day Nano Shinonome started to exist.
If you start to look at it from that perspective, everything in Nichijou starts to make more sense (well, except for Helvetica Standard, I guess). Yukko does something similar for Mio and her artistic aspirations, also (mostly) unintentionally and by chance. Their friendship is what inspires Nano to become a friend too, and opens her up, while her friendship with Professor Shinonome inspires Mai to try her best to make a friend. As an agent of hope and Providence, this warrior is behind almost every significant character development in the show. She brings hope. And that´s what heroes do. I want my own life to be like that: I am often dumb, distracted, unaware, in construction, ignorant, a disaster, and thus I want to be a comedy hero, too, and grow in hope.
I previously explained how an “ordinary miracle” is a paradox, given the technical definition of a miracle. But if you look to the purpose of a miracle, it is not so. A miracle is a “sign,” a signal of hope, a manifestation of the power and the goodness of God which He gives His people to help them trust in Him and His salvation plan, even when it´s hard. The miracles of Christ identified Him as the Savior, and He used them to express Who He is and lead us to the Redemption of every particular person, if they will accept.
And there are such signs even aside from the exceptions to the laws of Nature which happen by Divine command. In fact, the world, our lives, the entire Creation is full of them, full of wonder, beauty, and humor, full of precious, enriching, personal gifts. As St. Paul and St Therese de Lisieux taught, every act which is not a sin can be a part of our spiritual offering to God, which is to say, a loving response. As St. John Paul II said, the visible world is like a map of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our ordinary life is truly full of miracles, in the sense of signs of hope. The everyday scenes of Nichijou, in which the action ceases and we look to whatever random thing for a while, are too.
And, as the plan of God is much beyond our plans, even if He takes them into account, in cooperating with Him, the Church and its members will always be sort of like the not-so-sure Yukko in the picture below. Which is a good thing.
There is a recurring, mysterious element in Nichijou that I have been more and more conscious of in every rewatch. I´m referring to Buddy, the sandy brown dog who comes to Yukko when she is in comical, but still intense suffering, and the identical, smaller dog which comes by if Yukko is in the company of another person. He comes after the misfortunes of the camping trip. When a car goes away with her shoe on it. When she is bitten by one of Mai´s dogs. Buddy runs from whenever he is to Yukko, and places his paw in her hand, on her shoulder, on her lower back, in a protecting, comforting way. Just that. Then, the scene ends.
Aside from any other meaning the scene could have, it seems to me that it reflects the eyes with which the show sees Yukko, a comic hero who, nevertheless, endures a lot of trouble and has her dark moments. And he looks at her with kind, clear, hopeful, humorous, caring, loving eyes, like God looks at us, His children, fighting the good, messy fight in this world or maybe finding our own limits, sins and stupidities and hoping for something different. Or both.
While this last month has been quite hard at times, I must confess that it has not been dry or boring either. It has been funny, intense, challenging, with some amount of suffering and hopelessness, but also had moments of joy and hope, deeply felt. When I prayed about my bureaucratic affair, this scene of the Gospel, Matthew 17: 24, a favorite of mine, kept coming up during meditation. You see, the collectors of the Temple tax come to Capernaum and asked St. Peter, the head of the Apostles, if his teacher will pay the tax. He will, says St. Peter, and comes to the house where they are living. But before he can speak, Our Lord says: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
Now, the consequences of not paying the tax were even harsher than they are now, for sure. It was a huge deal, especially for a teacher, as proved by the fact that the Pharisees accused Christ falsely of teaching that paying the tax to Caesar was not licit as a way to have him convicted and killed. So we may presume that St. Peter had all the reasons to be sweating when he answered, “From others.” “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus replied. “But so that we may not cause scandal, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
I cannot quite imagine the face of Peter when this unlikely, private, matter-of-factly announced miracle came to be, paying the tax as in a dream, returning home, or the face of the Lord then, but it must have be something, don´t you agree? I´d say that, whatever happens at work, now and in the future, I will know I’m watched the same way. I find that hopeful.
Nichijou can be streamed at Crunchyroll.