Anime Review: Azumanga Daioh

Meet a gang of six teenaged school girls as they go through their high school years. Chiyo is the ten year old genius, Osaka is the dimwit, Yomi is serious, Sakaki is aloof, Tomo is ever hyper, and Kagura is the competitive one. Year after year, they go through their daily rituals, including trying to win athletics festivals (because their teacher can’t afford to be losing bets), hitting up Chiyo’s summer house (and surviving the drive up), and avoiding the eerie Kimura-san, who has a thing for Japanese school girls.

Plot

Azumanga Daioh has no contiguous story to speak of. If you took an episode of The Simpsons and smashed it into five minutes, and ran a string of them in each half hour time slot, you’d pretty much have the equivalent of the series. It does follow a pattern, though, going through the sequence of events that makes up the Japanese school year.

What’s interesting is the way the writers manage to work in all the weird, offbeat humor. You’d have to be pretty educated on Japanese culture before being able to understand half the jokes, and the other half is just universal hilarity (at one point, Osaka brandishes a butcher knife at her teacher, thinking it’s a frying pan). The lack of a coherent story doesn’t detract from it one bit, since the series effectively captures the spirit of the 4-koma manga it is based on. The lightheartedness and energy can be felt throughout, all the way up to the very nicely made graduation episode.

I can’t say the humor ever really gets stale. The understated, minimal presentation conceals some genuine comedic genius and madness. Azumanga Daioh runs the gamut from slapstick to cheezy cultural gags to puns to outright bizarreness. But that isn’t all there is to this series. Azumanga Daioh has that special something which makes it more than just a silly school life comedy.

Think about Peanuts by Charles Schulz. In terms of bust-a-gut funniness, other comic strips have it beat. But Peanuts has been so successful because of its endearing qualities. Like Peanuts, Azumanga Daioh draws upon everyday experiences – pieces of common knowledge – and turns them into points of humor, while at the same time providing its own bit of insight. That way, no matter how absurd each situation gets, it still feels like the show is connected to you in a personal way.

This connection that Azumanga Daioh maintains with its audience is part of what makes a great comedy. The show doesn’t just make you laugh, it lets you find humor in the humorless. That said, it is the humorless part that can make some of the segments run dry. The pacing is lazy, sometimes leaving you to wonder if you missed the payoff. This isn’t enough to seriously damage the viewing experience, but some of the episodes could have used some streamlining.

By the end, though, none of the pacing issues really matter. The series is too likeable for any one flaw to bring it down. Many 4-koma style shows have followed, but I don’t think any of them have reproduced the simple, amiable mood of Azumanga Daioh.

Characters

The series opens with our introduction to Tanizaki Yukari, an English teacher and an extremist in every measure of the word. She takes out her frustrations on those near her, and at times acts very irresponsibly. When put next to her (more sane) friend Kurosawa Minamo (Nyamo), the two generate some of the best laughs in the show. Yukari is excellently acted, consistenly portrayed, and never ever boring. The same could be said about Nyamo, who is genuinely relatable – critical for characters like her to be able to provide balance.

Mihama Chiyo is a new transfer student from an elementary school. She’s bright and cute, though the series thankfully isn’t overbearing in this area. In fact, some characters revel in their ability to torture and be nasty to her. Her ineptness when it comes to physical activity is used for laughs as well, giving the character a down to earth quality even though she is extraordinary when it comes to academics.

Tomo is an energetic teen, but that’s about all she’s got going for her. She mistakenly believes she is the best at everything, though she has no skills to speak of in anything. Her foil is the sensible Yomi, who is there to smack reason into her otherwise thick head. This kind of pairing – a hyperactive, no inhibitions character with a straight-faced counterpart – seems to be a staple in Japanese and Chinese comedy (thought it is found in comedy from all over). It can be seen in Yukari and Nyamo, Tomo and Yumi, and Kaorin and her teacher Kimura. The act can get repetitive, as is the case with Kaorin and Kimura, but generally the show manages to find fresh material for such couplings.

Kasuga Ayumu, labeled Osaka because of her place of origin, is adorably dim, and speaks at a wonderfully plodding pace. Her wit, in the rare occasion it manifests, is surprisingly sharp. Aside from Yukari, I’m especially fond of Osaka and what she brings to the series.

Sakaki assumes the quiet girl role, but she is secretly in love with all cute things. Though seemingly uninteresting at first, the audience really warms up to her once her bond with Chiyo develops. Kagura comes in later, full of athletic ability but lacking in academics. She forms a group with Osaka and Tomo in which they beat other people’s test scores by adding theirs up. She fits in naturally as a member of the cast, but I felt her humor value was slightly below par.

Along with the structure and mood fo the show itself, the cast really makes Azumanga Daioh work. They do so much more than contribute to the jokes; they form the emotional core that gives life to the series. The characters are colorful, memorable, and yet somehow very ordinary and natural at the same time. By striking this balance, the comedy can become all the more versatile – and that’s critical in an essentially plotless anime.

Technical

I could go into depth about how this and that could have looked better, but that’s just nit picking. The character designs are somewhat simplistic, and the animation can look crude at times, but these technical blemishes do not greatly diminish the comedic effect. A bland, forgettable set of background music tracks runs throughout, bookended by catchy opening and ending tunes.

But forget aobut all that when you hear the voice acting. It’s probably the best I’ve ever heard in any anime, period. The seiyuu capture and portray the essence of their characters perfectly. Yukari and Osaka, specifically, have outstanding voice actors. Portraying these characters takes good timing along with nailing the dialects, accents, and expressions. In this field, Matsuoka Yuki (Osaka) and Hiramatsu Akiko (Yukari) do a great job of giving individuality and distinctiveness to their roles.