The beauty of the “slice of life” genre is that a multitude of content can be contained within a simple premise. If I tell you that Azumanga Daioh and Lucky Star are each about a small group of high school girls and their everyday routines, that summary is accurate for both, but it leaves out a great deal of nuance. Likewise, when I tell you that My Neighbor Seki is about dutiful student Rumi and masterful time-waster Seki, please know that these two kids have much more personality than their cover gag suggests—though the gags are great as well.
Each chapter of the book features a class period in which the teacher isn’t paying attention to the students and Rumi notices Seki messing with a pet project. For example, he might arrange an impressively complex set of dominoes or shine his desk with a professional kit of tools. They both sit in the back of the classroom, generally beyond the notice of any other classmates, and they hardly speak to each other. Nonetheless, they often trade glances, glares, and cocked eyebrows as Rumi gets caught up in Seki’s projects and ends up becoming just as distracted.
The artwork throughout the book is clean and relatively simple, especially the faces, although the objects and props unique to each chapter are drawn in detail. This level of detail is most effective when it builds up to a gag, as when Seki pulls out a few chess pieces on his desk, keeps pulling out more and more pieces, and finally assembles a single huge piece from them all to play his own version of Chess Godzilla. The panels are arranged for maximum laughs including each gag’s buildup and climax, a routine that doesn’t get old over the course of this opening volume.
As the chapters progress, Rumi tries to second-guess Seki’s antics, only to be surprised at every turn. Though she recognizes how inattentive he is, Rumi can’t peel her eyes from his latest game. In one chapter, Rumi’s curiosity gives way to a superiority complex as Seki begins knitting during class and she harshly judges his technique. “And here I am, a 2nd-rank licensee of the Knitting Society!” she gloats in her head, temporarily betraying her prior image as a charmed and playful girl. Outdoors during physical education, Seki arranges gym equipment into an obstacle course for Rumi, never saying a word but clearly engaged with her experience—until she ends up playing in front of the teacher’s lounge, that is.
These minor turns of character add a lot to episodic jokes that would be funny enough on their own, but that become something special as the reader sees more sides to each student. I hope the series continues to develop their likes and dislikes, and that they slowly become playmates in addition to their performer/audience dynamic. Invite readers of all ages to pull up a desk and eavesdrop on Seki, too.
Bonus plug: the anime version of this series is available on Crunchyroll as a series of seven-minute videos in which each episode corresponds to a chapter of the manga. Highly recommended!
My Neighbor Seki, vol. 1
by Takuma Morishige