Ordinary life gets a bad rap. So much media is specifically designed to gloss over, escape from, or outright ignore the minutiae and marginalia of day-to-day existence that nevertheless make up the vast majority of our experiences. And I guess, in general, thank goodness for that. But credit is due to someone like Keiichi Arawi, who has built a career off of the notion that the most epic pain arises from incorrect use of office supplies, or that the experience of sucking tapioca pearls with bubble tea is the height of sensual pleasure.
Elevating the world’s seasonings to the status of main dish has been the driving principle of Arawi’s various works. Most notably, Nichijou (literally translated as “Everyday,” but sometimes called My Ordinary Life in English) was a 2006-2015 manga adapted into a largely faithful anime in 2011. There’s also CITY, a still-running manga that serves as its quasi-sequel. Although low-stakes arcs gently emerge, in general Arawi’s work presents sketch comedy-like glimpses at the daily pleasures, disappointments, embarrassments, and minor victories that make up the lives of his ensemble cast.
While the slice-of-life genre is common in Japan, Arawi has created a niche for himself by populating his works — particularly CITY, which amassed over 40 recurring characters by its fourth volume — with entire communities of flawed, endearing citizens. “Writing stories with such a large cast makes the process very hard and very fun at the same time,” Arawi tells Fanbyte. “I sometimes come up with an idea quickly, and sometimes I don’t have anything after three days of working on one.”
Further distinguishing his work is his tendency for his scenes to begin at an ordinary and relatable place, until everything gets swept away in a current of surrealism. Rarely do his stories start from fantastic, high-concept wish fulfillment — it’s instead a backwards sort of surrealism not used to escape reality, but instead depict the emotional, comic truth of what it can feel like.
In Arawi’s worlds, a dog bite does not give just a sudden twinge of pain, it’s an agony so intense that lasers shoot out of your mouth. Ordering coffee from a confusing menu isn’t just a minor inconvenience, it’s a battle for your own sanity. Denying your feelings for a classmate is not done with barely-suppressed annoyance, but with military grade weaponry. Scenes like these tend to be absurdly well-animated by Kyoto Animation, which is either an added layer of irony, or how these moments always deserved to be rendered, depending on your point of view. It’s a good engine for comedy to run on, especially when so many Arawi characters are teenagers. It’s the age group perhaps most acquainted with the universe’s random cruelties.
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With its deceptively low-concept premises, sprawling casts, and flexible reality, the western corollary to his work might be The Simpsons’ off-format seventh season episode “22 Short Films About Springfield.” That installment dispensed with the traditional 22-minute narrative in favor of interconnected vignettes involving Springfield residents. According to Arawi, though, these similarities are coincidental.
“I haven’t seen much international animation… All I know about The Simpsons is that it’s the animated series with the yellow characters,” he explains.
Instead, Arawi has cited Azumanga Daioh (no stranger to observational humor and occasional dreamy surrealism itself), and Kurt Vonnegut as some influences. “I liked the way Vonnegut took the important things in life and made them smaller, and how he would take an ordinary thing and make it bigger.” But perhaps the most surprising piece of “overseas media that influenced [him]” is the movie Four Rooms.
Let’s not mince words: Four Rooms is pretty bad. The 1995 anthology film was directed by rising independent filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell, and Alison Anders. And it’s maybe only notable among insufferable folk who want to “well, actually” anyone saying Death Proof is the worst thing Tarantino ever made. On a budget of $4 million, the film netted just $4.2 million in the U.S., as well some of the worst reviews any of the directors involved would ever receive. (Richard Linklater, perhaps waiting for Fast Food Nation to give him the worst reviews of his career in 2001, dropped out before production began.)
Taking place in an antiquated Hollywood hotel on New Year’s Eve, Four Rooms is largely divided into four different segments set in different suites, with each director helming one section apiece. Tim Roth, in a broad performance best described as “really going for it,” stars as newly-hired bellboy Ted and appears in all four vignettes. His rapidly eroding patience as he deals with a supernatural tryst, deadly marital dispute, tense babysitting, a friendly wager over a lost appendage, and (most chillingly?) a phone call with Kathy Griffin is the closest thing the movie has to an arc.
Four Rooms aims for a dark, comedic tone and surreal quality that it only rarely hits. Anders’ segment about a coven of witches completing a ritual to summon their goddess was heavily edited down, resulting in a story that fizzles out after some half-hearted, ill-defined kinkiness. Rockwell’s section does very little with its premise besides from inserting homophobia in place of punchlines. Tarantino’s part — though featuring a technically impressive (and impossible to edit down) long take — is like watching an auteur on autopilot, which is compelling in its own right. Though that doesn’t make it entertaining. Only Rodriguez’s piece about two children left to their own devices in the absence of domineering parents succeeds. It’s a well-constructed slice of madness that builds to a steady sequence of unexpected punchlines. Ultimately, though, the film stands as a failed victory lap for all involved: a sloppily assembled product that prompted Rodriguez to later admit “We didn’t realize what we were making until it was done.”
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how Arawi took influence from it. The structure is quite similar, with segments that are self-contained yet suggest a larger community along the edges that occasionally bleed into each other. “I’m not good at writing long stories,” Arawi explains. “However, I learned that if I make many short stories and put them together, it creates a larger whole. It’s a style that fits my personality since I get bored easily.”
Perhaps even more striking is how Tim Roth’s lead performance (originally written for Steve Buscemi), in all its mugging and wild flailing, is not far from any number of stretchy Arawi-verse characters — most notably Yuuko Aioi, Nichijou’s ostensible lead character.
But while Roth’s misfortunes reveal him to be pitiable, annoying, and only interested in self-preservation, Yuuko fights to maintain her sunny spirit through a barrage of setbacks as if it’s her duty to spread happiness no matter how ill-equipped she is to actually achieve it. It’s hard to root for anyone in Four Rooms… As the film’s bag of tricks and stylistic showboating are exhausted, its centerless nature reveals itself. Yuuko, for all of her general idiocy, continues to persevere against all hindrances. She accepts those she encounters for who they are, and winds up a heroic character in the small, understated way that life produces actual heroes.
So much of what Four Rooms is proved to be too weird, too broad, too inconsequential, and too aimless for general audiences to grab onto. Yet it was ultimately these elements that Arawi seemed to cherish. Once filtered through his off-kilter, bighearted style, they became so much more than his influence. No one can know for sure if Nichijou or CITY would be completely different works if he hadn’t seen Four Rooms, but it’s not hard to imagine that Arawi watched what is for all intents and purposes a failed film and still found a beauty to latch onto. There is, after all, value to be found in any overlooked part of life.