“My boobs rock!” -- Tomo, after her school physical
At its core, Azumanga Daioh is a story about the high school lives of a bunch of teenage girls in Japan. Okay, ALL it is is a story about the high school lives of a bunch of teenage girls in Japan.
Like Seinfeld, this is really a show about nothing. It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have a gripping storyline, a deep message, or even an original concept, either.
What it does have is a hell of a lot of funny.
Azumanga Daioh simply takes a bunch of oddball yet surprisingly three-dimensional characters, throws them together as students in a high school that’s just about as average as its possible to get, and follows them around as they bounce off each other during those magical years from the first day of high school until that bittersweet day when everyone graduates and goes their separate ways.
There are no giant robots, supernatural mysteries, magical conflicts, alternate fantasy worlds, or villainous plots here. Just oddly endearing characters reacting to the normal and the not-so-normal events that everyone experiences in school, like lame teachers, sucky homework assignments, summer jobs, and goofing off with your friends.
And, fortunately for a comedy anime that draws most of its humor from character interactions, the characters in Azumanga Daioh are a delightfully eclectic bunch. There’s Chiyo-chan, the preteen child prodigy who was promoted five grades (skipping all the way to high school); but despite her astounding intellect she’s still a ten-year-old girl in body and mind, and that’s a tough cross for a high school student to bear.
There’s genki-girl Tomo, who is as hyperactive as a crack baby, as enthusiastic as a cheerleader, and as dumb as a box of rocks. There’s Sakaki, the statuesque, quiet girl who everyone thinks is a moody, tough, lone-wolf type, but who is secretly obsessed with cute things like stuffed animals, hair ribbons, and kittens.
There’s Yomi, a bespectacled girl-next-door who is the closest thing this bunch has to a “normal” person, but who has her own share of quirks: she’s got a bit of a cruel streak, and she’s obsessed with dieting. There’s Ayumu, a transfer student who is almost immediately given the nickname of “Osaka” for the city she’s from, and who is... well, not exactly slow, but her brain seems to operate on a slightly different level than everyone else’s.
There’s Kaorin, the quiet Astronomy Club girl who likes Sakaki…really, REALLY likes Sakaki. There’s Kagura, the slightly dim but outgoing, competitive, and athletic girl whose only desire is to beat Sakaki... at ANYTHING.
There’s Yukari-chan, who is petty, selfish, immature, and short-tempered, all things that don’t endear her to the other girls in her class, and which really wouldn‘t be too much of a problem if she weren’t their teacher. And rounding out this cast of academic misfits, there’s literature teacher Mr. Kimura, who isn’t at all reticent about sharing the reason he become a teacher (for the high school girls, of course), and Miss Minamo “Nyamo” Kurosawa, the seemingly lone voice of reason at the entire school and the girls’ PE teacher.
Azumanga Daioh was originally a four-panel comic strip by manga artist Kyohiko Azuma, similar in format to an American daily newspaper comic strip. The anime version emulates the syncopated feel of the original comics by breaking each half-hour episode into three or four five-minute mini-stories (although the stories within each episode are often linked by a single theme, like summer vacation or preparing for and taking a big test). And damn, does it all work brilliantly.
Although the comedic timing seems off in the first few episodes, by the time you get to the second DVD of Azumanga Daioh, things have settled down and meshed into one of the funniest anime ever made. Although it may seem plotless and random, the freeform format of these short, barely-interconnected mini-episodes lets Azumanga Daioh play around with a variety of themes within the overall framework of telling the unadulterated story of average high school girls from first bell to graduation.
There are episodes that are nothing but slapstick humor, such as when the girls go to Chiyo-chan’s family beach house for summer break, and Yukari’s driving nearly traumatizes poor Chiyo-chan for life (“The grandpa... the grandpa... LOOK OUT, MR. GRANDPA!!”). There are episodes that are pure character development, such as when Chiyo-chan gets a little power-happy when entering her second year of high school, making first-year boys call her “senior” despite the fact that they tower over the 11-year-old.
There are episodes that are simply about the characters and their often wildly varying personalities bounce off each other, such as when Yukari and Nyamo decide to go out drinking together. And then there are episodes that have all these elements in them, like the extended story arc featuring Osaka trying to “get it together” at her new school and promptly getting distracted by bizarre dreams about Chiyo-chan’s pigtails or chasing the floaters in her eyes during class, or the alternately hilarious and tearjerking arc about Lucy Lawless-lookalike Sakaki’s quest for cute things to buy at local shops, battling arcade claw machines to obtain a treasured stuffed kitten toy, or continually getting bitten by the neighborhood cat she constantly attempts to pet.
And then there’s just out-and-out weirdness, like Sakaki’s hallucination that Chiyo-chan’s father is a puffy, flat yellow catlike thing, or pretty much anything that Osaka says and does.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this anime is the way it focuses ONLY on the girls. There’s no high school romance hijinks in Azumanga Daioh (well, unless you count Kaorin’s crush on Sakaki). There are barely any boys in this anime at all. Though male students do appear from time to time, they rarely get anything more than a throwaway line or two, and none of them gets so much as a name. Mr. Kimura is actually the only named male character in the entire series.
There’s also a distinct lack of anything resembling fanservice in Azumanga Daioh, again surprising for an anime about a half-dozen cute girls in short-skirted schoolgirl uniforms. Yes, the girls to talk about things like breast sizes and show off their new bikinis at the beach, but it’s all presented in the context of things real high school girls talk about and do, and not something to draw in the horny male otaku audience. Azumanga Daioh stands alone with Escaflowne as an anime about short-skirted schoolgirls that doesn’t have a single panty shot in the entire show.
The music is perfectly suited to this series. The opening and ending themes are poppy, catchy, and filled with utterly nonsensical lyrics. The ending theme sounds an awful lot like a Beatles song as performed by a girl J-pop group. The incidental music that plays during each episode is a mixture of recorders (y’know, those flute-like things we all were forced to play in grade school) and harmonicas, giving everything a childish, nostalgic feel that subtly reinforces the charming atmosphere.
The voice acting is even more perfect than the music. The original Japanese version is goofy and entertaining, especially given the presence of talented veterans like Aya Hisakawa. But it’s the dub that is the real treat here. Producing an English version that sounds good to Western ears while still being faithful to the original can’t have been easy, but ADV managed to pull it off brilliantly. Some fanboys may question the use of a Southern accent for Osaka, but the voice actress not only nicely underplays the accent (giving it a Texan spin), she nails the space-cadet vocal mannerisms of the character dead-on. It makes the character sound like a cute Japanese anime schoolgirl version of Forrest Gump, and her performance alone makes the dub worth listening to.
Actually, all the dub voices for the girls, from cutesy Chiyo-chan to whacked-out Yukari-chan, are spot-on. This is the best English version of an anime that ADV has produced since their original Evangelion dub, and I recommend that you ignore the otaku and give it a listen.
ADV did a pretty nice job with the DVDs themselves, too. Although the discs are pretty light on the extras (just a clean opening and ending and a small art gallery), they contain plenty of episodes. The first and third discs have five episodes each, and the second has four. The real extras, though, are to be found in the packaging. A booklet included with each DVD contains cultural and translation notes, character bios, and even a nice little gallery of character outfits for whoever is featured on that package (Chiyo-chan in the first DVD, Osaka in the second, and Sakaki in the third). The third DVD even comes packed with a little cloisonné pin of Neco Coneco, the cute stuffed toy character that Sakaki obsesses over.
Azumanga Daioh is alternately insanely freaky, laugh-out-loud funny, frighteningly true to life, and bittersweetly nostalgic. It’s about your own high school days as much as it is about Chiyo-chan, Tomo, and the gang, and that’s the root of its appeal. We’ve all gone to school with a Tomo, or a Yomi, or an Osaka, and the joy of the silly humor here is leavened by quieter moments designed to make you remember your own school days, and the sad knowledge that these girls may be best friends now, but they will inevitably separate to go their own ways after graduation, never to share the camaraderie and intimacy of their high school years.
Not everyone will find the nostalgic humor of Azumanga Daioh appealing, but those who enjoy Peanuts, Seinfeld, and Britcoms will undoubtedly enjoy this cute, snappy, often twisted look at life in the classroom.