Tonari no Seki-kun, or Master of Killing Time, is a series of short sketches based around a simple joke – an ingenious student devises ridiculous ways of entertaining himself in lessons while managing to avoid ever attracting the attention of the teacher. Five episodes in, it has managed to quite avoid becoming repetitive by making its protagonist unpredictable – it has become an absurd comedy that exaggerates what could be a simple premise not through a simple escalation of scale into parody, but through wrong-footing the viewer and engaging far more with the viewpoint character, Seki’s studious classmate Yokoi.
The general lack of interaction between Seki and his watcher is central to the humour; he does what he does, and she panics on his behalf. In this way the core “tension” of the sketch – whether or not Seki will get away with doing what he does as his schemes seem (to an observer) ever-more intrusive and obvious – is divided. His actions occupy his attention but also hers, and so the punchline of episode 4 – when she is accused of wasting time while he is apparently not – feels like one which has been built up over the previous sketches. Indeed, it is foreshadowed with episode 1’s punchline, when it looks like Seki’s trail of dominoes will set off a firework and thus give him away (which turns out to be a false alarm, and Yokoi is in a similar position). Episode 4 really set the tone for the series – the joke is as much on how he will get away with what he does as whether he will get caught doing it – and the way in which his actions invite concern from his neighbour is quite charming. As a result when he does engage more directly with her – for example in episode 3, when in boredom he polishes his desk and her folder – there is a cute sense of immature misunderstanding. They are both schoolchildren, acting as such and while Seki is unruly, he is well-intentioned. Similarly Yokoi is serious about her work – and exasperated with Seki – but her attempts to get him in trouble always fail in comedic style. They too are well-intentioned; Seki wants Yokoi to relax and take life more easily, while Yokoi wants Seki to concentrate (as she claims in episode 1, he puts more effort into his schemes to waste time than it would take to do the work he avoids.) Ultimately this is a very standard serious-and-stupid pairing, the core of much comedy – however, what makes Seki-kun such a good example is that it plays with the predictable and unpredictable.
That Seki will not get caught seems obvious – however, at the same time the joke is not always that Yokoi takes the blame. Here the decision to make 5-minute episodes rather than longer sketch anthologies as a series like Azumanga Daioh, Yuyushiki or Daily Lives of Highschool Boys would use works – there is initially no expansion of the setting beyond two desks and two characters, and thus the focus is entirely on creating variety within the format of a simple joke. Thus when episode 5 does introduce a third character – Uzawa, another student looking to waste time but not possessed of Seki’s ingenuity, it refreshes the formula once again. The interaction between the usually calm and composed Seki, the gormless Uzawa and the now quite surprised Yokoi works well after four sketches setting up the central pair’s initial relationship. Yokoi is more incensed by Uzawa messing around with Seki’s things without permission than Seki’s habitual schemes, in keeping with her professionalism – while Uzawa has none of the imagination that makes the core conceit of the humour work. Thus episode 5 ends with every character undone by the new arrival; Yokoi is once again distracted, and Seki’s carefully-crafted scheme collapses as Uzawa fails to see it and ends up breaking everything.
Where the truly unexpected parts of the series come in, however, is in what Seki actually does in each episode; the first sketch has him building a trail of dominoes to knock over which, while elaborate, is still arguably doing something expected by the episode’s title and premise. However, the next has him apparently playing shogi, a chess-like game – yet immediately he breaks the “rules” and creates his own version of the game to tell a story. Yokoi is at first shocked by this but then finds herself playing along with it – amusingly veering between being completely engrossed in Seki’s narrative and being shocked at his disregard for the game and his messing around. It is this trend – Seki casually disregarding what is “expected” – that continues. Episode 3 has him eschewing school work to do physical work in cleaning a desk, while episode 4 has him making flip-book animations on a go board. What makes these so amusing is Yokoi’s unwilling interest – she, unlike the viewer, is curious against her better interests and in episode 5 is even sympathetic for Seki being annoyed by Uzawa.
What makes Tonari no Seki-kun so consistently entertaining, then, is its ways of developing a simple joke and mixing the predictable with the unexpected. Seki’s first “failure”, in episode 5, sees his scheme undone by another student – a contrast to episode 4’s punchline of Yokoi once again being accused of wasting time. This works because it slightly develops the setting, changing the seating plan of the classroom to introduce a new character and chance the framing of the joke. Its humour is well-timed, following a neat three-act progression of setup, development (its own progression of ridiculousness) and punchline. After four episodes of Yokoi being the punchline, that it is Seki’s turn in episode 5 is a neatly unexpected turn – while Yokoi’s flights of imagination, allegedly suppressed, are in turn making her closer to Seki.