Anime Reviews: Azumanga Daioh
Quirky characters and a surreal brand of humor have made Azumanga Daioh one of the most beloved high school anime, and its many clones stand as proof.
Title: Azumanga Daioh
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 4/8/2002 to 10/1/2002
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: Ten-year-old Chiyo Mihama, rather than finishing grade school, is elevated straight to her first year of high school due to her immense intellect. While skipping so many grades poses a challenge by itself, Chiyo's greatest challenge is fitting in with her classmates...or so she thinks--in fact, it doesn't take long at all for Chiyo to blend right in. From the quiet and intimidating Sakaki, to hyperactive class clown Tomo, to their easygoing and lazy homeroom teacher Yukari, she meets and befriends all kinds of people. Not long after, the class gets another new student: a spacy girl from Osaka named Ayumu (whom the class simply calls Osaka). With their new school lives ahead of them, Chiyo and her friends must now buckle down and face the trials of high school or die trying!
The Good: Simplistic art style replicates feel of original manga; great characters that grow on you; consistently hilarious; high replay value; moments of absurdity will please many
The Bad: Some jokes go on for too long or are beaten to death; second half places many characters on back-burner; moments of absurdity will puzzle everyone else
The Ugly: Realizing that being a high school teacher will never be as fun as Yukari leads us to believe it is
Most anime comedies do it wrong. You have unrealistic scenarios with unrealistic payoffs (Oh boy, the main character just fell into that beautiful lady's bosom! That's positively wacky! Now he's getting thrown into orbit LOLOL!) or you've got someone doing something absurd (Super Serious Guy, what are you doing with that microphone? A song, you say? Why, it's a happy and upbeat song! I will hilariously fall to the floor to express my incredulity!). It's funny every now and again, but really, these comprise nearly 90% of the jokes in most anime, and it gets painful to watch. I'm not sure how to segue into this, but Azumanga Daioh doesn't fall for any of those traps. Rather than focusing on the unrealistic, this series looks at the everyday, mundane things and finds the humor within. I...guess this was new ground for anime, because, ever since Azumanga became a big success, many series like it have cropped up, with results both good (Astro Fighter Sunred) and bad (Lucky Star). How did Azumanga Daioh make this new genre of 4-panel-comic style anime so popular? Let's find out.
One of the most important things Azumanga did was staying true to its original aesthetic. While the artwork was improved upon a little bit for the anime, the character designs are still simple and appealing, staying consistent with their original designs. The backgrounds also add to the comic-like atmosphere--sometimes extremely detailed to the point of insanity, sometimes fuzzy blobs of color and patterns. The animation may not always be very smooth, but, rather than looking cheap, it enhances the manga style and feel of the show. The best way to look at Azumanga Daioh is as a manga put onto the screen with voice acting and music, rather than a work of animation. Now, this does not mean the animation is bad by any stretch of the imagination; it just means that, when you see a still shot or a loop of two frames of animation, that was an intentional decision, not the result of laziness or lack of funds (I'm looking at you, GAINAX).
The next important thing revolves around character-driven comedy, as opposed to situation-driven comedy. For this, you need a diverse cast of likable and somewhat realistic characters. Well, wouldn'cha know it, Azumanga Daioh has just that! Each character has a personality broad enough for you to say, "Oh yeah, I know/knew someone just like that," but also unique enough to be a person instead of an abstract. For example, we all know a Tomo--someone so wound up and overflowing with energy that they routinely give everyone around them a headache--but she has traits and quirks that are hers and hers alone, like spending her entire last year of middle school studying just to get into the same high school as her childhood friend, Yomi...for the sole purpose of continuing to copy her homework. That's just one example from one character, and each one of them has their own. So you've got a cast of relatable characters, but how's the comedy? They say comedy is subjective, but Azumanga is very funny and that's scientific fact. I am presented with the universal problem of writing about why this show is so funny, though, so all I can really say is I found it hilarious almost all the time.
Another very important facet of making this kind of series is to make it highly rewatchable. It's one thing to go through a comedy anime and have a good time, and it's an entirely other thing to have moments you can go back to at any time and enjoy without having to remember what the context of the scene is. To facilitate this, each episode is presented in four separate 5-minute vignettes, usually with very little relation to each other. One minute, you'll be hearing some rather...unique insights and ideas from Osaka regarding a school activity, and then the next, you're following Sakaki at a shopping arcade. Since the main storyline is simply the main characters progressing through high school with only passing references to specific times of year, you can either rewatch the series in full once again, or you can tune in, find the vignette you want, have a laugh, and move on with your life. There really is no wrong way to enjoy Azumanga Daioh.
But, as I've mentioned before in past reviews, nothing is perfect. No one is safe. Not even this innocent and unassuming anime. "What's the catch," you ask? Well...it's partially the result of translating a 4-panel comic strip into a 23-minute episode. You see, when a vignette hits the 4-minute-30-second mark, and there's no jokes left to make until the next segment starts, the directors decide to either rehash an old joke or sustain the current joke for the last 30 seconds, which is just long enough to turn a funny joke into an "Oh God, make it stop!" joke (for example, at least in the Japanese version, the phrase "nande ya nen" will destroy your soul every time you hear it after one such scene). There are also recurring nonsensical scenes, like the ones involving Chiyo's father being a strange catlike creature, peppered throughout the series. These are often very funny, but many people might feel alienated or just plain confused, almost as if they missed something and weren't let in on what the joke is.
The final sin of which Azumanga Daioh is guilty: neglect. For much of the first half, we get each of the characters in roughly equal shares (though Chiyo is still the focus), but as we approach the two-thirds point, something is amiss. We see Tomo, Yomi, Kagura, Kaorin, Yukari, and Nyamo occasionally, and there are still many laughs to be had with them, but the slices of airtime pie they get are mere slivers compared to the humongous wedges Chiyo, Osaka, and Sakaki get. Every scene without the other characters, I consider to be a missed opportunity. To put it into perspective: there are dozens of scenes where Chiyo and Osaka are alone and outside of school, while Tomo and Yomi only get one? Two?
At this point, I'm probably just nitpicking, but Azumanga is my favorite straight-comedy anime of all time, but when you love something, you have.to identify and cope with all the flaws at the same time as you fawn over its virtues. There are just so many funny moments in this series, and I love all the characters to death--even the extremely minor ones! If you're a fan of comedy, then I can't recommend this series enough. Azumanga Daioh has become a legendary title within the anime community, and it'd be a damn shame if you missed out on it.
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Despite a few rough patches in formatting a gag comic into a half-hour TV series, Azumanga Daioh delivers some of the best characters and funniest scenes you'll ever see in an anime of this kind.