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Monday, March 26, 2018

Anime Hajime Review: Azumanga Daioh

***Warning, the following may contain spoilers for Azumanga Daioh. Reader discretion is advised.***

Series Synopsis

Chiyo Mihama (voiced by Tomoko Kaneda) is what you would call a prodigy. Only ten-years-old, her academic skills have allowed her to jump straight to high school. While this is no doubt a daunting task for the former grade schooler, Chiyo takes on the challenge with a smile.

Little did she know, she was about to start on an unforgettable three-year journey.

From the first day of school, Chiyo becomes an instant celebrity. Despite her young age, she finds it easy to fit in with her new class. As it turns out, she is not the most incredible person around. She is, in fact, one of many unique and unforgettable parts of this story.

What comes next for Chiyo is her trying to live a normal, happy life. And mixed into that are healthy doses of randomness.

While things will never be easy, they can at least be fun. In that respect, Chiyo has nothing to worry about. For always at her side are her beloved friends and teachers. With them to look after her, perhaps it’s not so strange to have someone as young as Chiyo succeed in this world.

Series Positives

When preparing for this Pre-Blog Month, I tried to keep things balanced. If I spent the entire event showcasing series I liked, that wouldn’t be right. And if I only looked at series I hated, that would have been a massive headache. Plus, there was always the chance, good or bad, I could change my mind on something.

I didn’t expect that to happen with Azumanga Daioh.

This was a series I wanted to cover last year. As it happened though, there were too many shows I felt I needed to get to first. Thus I knew for this second round, Azumanga Daioh was a must. This site has gone on too long without me discussing a show that I have referenced in many of my past reviews. Should you be a long time reader, my thoughts on this one are no secret.

Or you could look at my Top 10 Anime Comedies list. This show made it on. Also, this review is a follow-up to something I said back on that list.

I have nothing but praise to give this show…Hell, I’m tempted to do a full review of the series. But I think its place on this list says more than enough.

That may have been a suitable answer before, it isn't one now. Actually, since then, a full Azumanga Daioh review has become necessary in my eyes. My Top Comedies list came out almost exactly two years ago as of the posting of this return. In that time, I have become a fan of the series’ creator, Kiyohiko Azuma’s, most recent work, Yotsuba-to.

For those out there that would like some Japanese reading practice, I cannot recommend Yotsuba any higher. It uses simple language, has a relaxing story, and an outstanding cast of characters. And coming back to Azumanga Daioh, it is easy to see the foundations for Yotsuba.

I am not in a position to claim which series, Azumanga or Yotsuba, I like more. I enjoy them both, but I have enjoyed them through two different mediums. I have never read the Azumanga comic strips, and there isn’t an anime adaptation of Yotsuba.

By the by, I am aware of the show Nyanbo which is a spin-off production for one of Yotsuba’s “characters.” I won’t comment here, but I have a few things I can say concerning this. I’ll save those things for when I eventually get to the series.

Regardless of what I am currently reading and what is coming in the future, this is a discussion about Azumanga.

This is a show I didn’t need to re-watch to review. It has been many years since I first saw the series, but that had little bearing on anything. Characters, jokes, atmosphere, so many different aspects of Azumanga have never faded from my memory.

Don’t believe me? The way I split apart disposable chopsticks is something I picked up after watching this series. Hold each stick from the ends and pull slowly. A rather insignificant detail if I do say so myself. Except given how I sometimes have trouble remembering entire plot points from some shows, magical girls in Kore wa Zombie Desu ka, for instance, this is nothing short of impressive.

Azumanga Daioh isn’t short. It was always going to take at least half a day to get through it. To lighten the burden of my schedule, the thought of skipping the rewatch entered my mind for the briefest of seconds. I silenced that way of thinking. One of the two reasons I sat through the series again was to refresh myself on some of the smaller details.

The other reason was me just wanting to watch it.

Azumanga Daioh was my most anticipated series of Pre-Blog Month 2. Don’t get me wrong; it was great to return to Toradora and Minami-ke. But those were the appetizer to this, the main course.

Also, as I am writing this review, I am acutely aware of what I am watching next. Azumanga may have been twenty-six episodes and it is going to be the easier show to get through. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it though.

This entire setup has been an overcomplicated way for me to say something simple and straightforward. Azumanga Daioh is great. I would even go so far as to label it a classic of the medium. This goes beyond the fact the series celebrated its fifteenth anniversary back in 2017. As a pillar of the slice-of-life genre, this show has stood firm. If the past decade and a half is any indication, it will continue to do so, well into the future.

And yes, this does have something to do with the show’s brand of comedy. The series is hilarious. Azumanga’s longevity ties itself to its relaxed, grounded atmosphere. Aside from a few, well explained moments of surrealism, things never strayed too far from a more reality-based tone. Plus, it helps that this was consistent. There weren't segments of outstanding quality followed by moments of meh. From beginning to end, everything ran on high.

But Azumanga’s success came from a single source. Its mastery in this area explains everything that is good about the series. I could go on and on about the intricacies of what worked and why. Except everything would loop back to this one point. So why not cut out the middleman?

The Characters

There weren’t any weak links. While there are things I can nitpick, and I will do that later, I would still be stretching.

Azumanga Daioh wasn’t short on characters. The cast was quite large. But thanks to the longer runtime, everyone felt important.

That’s an excellent place to start.

The series was well-balanced. There were segments where one character had more focus than the others. And yet nothing ever became too much. While I would argue Chiyo is the de facto protagonist, she didn’t hog the spotlight.

Azumanga knew how far to take a joke. The show wouldn’t do that annoying thing of driving a setup into the ground. The series allowed its characters to react to what was going on around them. That was where the comedy came from. It never felt the need to explain a joke.

For instance, in another show that was also very funny, Minami-ke, it had the character of Makoto. Makoto was irritating. His shtick was screaming the punchline after it had already been delivered. In Azumanga, there was someone who could have been this, Kaori a.k.a. Kaorin (voiced by Sakura Nogawa).

Kaorin was infatuated with Sakaki (voiced by Yu Asakawa), who we will talk about more in a second. Usually, Kaorin was quiet and timid. She didn’t try to make a big fuss over anything or anyone unless that person was Sakaki. 

Whenever her hero got involved, Kaorin turned jealous and even a little violent. What could have transformed her into a precursor to Makoto was the number of instances where she would react to something.

What separated Kaorin from Makoto was how she reacted. She was much more expressive and never said many words when in this state. She was able to do this because of how much she looked up to Sakaki. It was a massive change from her more typical reserved self.

As a result, Kaorin was always funny. Although she wasn’t in the show that often, whenever she was, she was on point.

That said, its hard to list Kaorin as part of the essential cast. The other characters of Azumanga overshadowed her, but that’s not a bad thing. Kaorin filled the role that was best for her. And that was the key that allowed this show to work.

For these next three, I’m going to mention; they didn’t have much screentime dedicated to only them. Nevertheless, it was possible to get a detailed look at their personalities.

These three characters are Tomo Takino, Koyomi “Yomi” Mizuhara, and Kagura (voiced by Chieko Higuchi, Rie Tanaka, and Hoko Kuwashima).

Of the main group, Tomo was the bombastic one. There was nothing that could calm her down. She was loud, energetic, and impulsive. She would challenge anyone and everyone over the smallest competition.

Too bad Tomo never considered how much effort it would require her to do anything. As such, she was lazy and often unmotivated. She was much happier relying on others to solve her problems which got on the nerves of Yomi.

Having known Tomo since grade school, Yomi was the exact opposite of her loud mouth friend. She was serious and mature. She studied hard and was diligent in her school work. She also had a bit of a temper which would often go off thanks to Tomo’s foolishness.

In addition, it didn’t help Yomi’s predicament given how Tomo knew what it took to get under her skin. While the two girls were close, that meant when they went at it, which was often, they didn’t hold anything back.

Where does Kagura fit in with this dynamic? Hear me out on this, but she was the combination of both Tomo and Yomi.

Like Tomo, Kagura was energetic. It was never a surprise when the two would work together in some scheme. And in academics, they were pretty much equal. But where Kagura was like Yomi, Kagura was level headed and aware of her shortcomings. Something that doesn't describe Tomo in the slightest.

There was no filter on Tomo. Kagura, on the other hand, knew when she went too far. When she realized she was becoming something of a nuisance, she would pull back. Such a change allowed someone like Tomo to go balls to the wall nonstop.

But what these three characters illustrated was the diversity in this cast. There were a lot of similarities between everyone. Except no one was ever the same person. They all had their different sides to them.

Nowhere did the show better communicate this than with the teachers, Yukari Tanizaki and Minamo Kurosawa (voiced by Akiko Hiramatsu and Aya Hisakawa).

Yukari and Kurosawa-sensei were one of the best things about Azumanga. Let that sink in for a second. This next thought is nothing except a fantastical never-going-to-happen scenario, but I would love to see a series with these two as high schoolers. Then again, that wouldn’t be necessary since you got a decent idea of what they would have been like from how they acted in this show.

These two women weren’t that many years removed from their students. They were still adults, but they couldn’t have been more different in their outlook on life.

Yukari-sensei was immature and selfish. On a good day, she was a lot of fun and silly. Too bad the smallest, childish thing was enough to turn her into a little brat. She got away with this blatant character flaw because she never got what she wanted. Things tended to blow up in her face. It was hard to tell if she even enjoyed teaching.

Plus, Yukari-sensei is the person responsible for one of the funniest jokes of the entire series. Watching the show now, I find it hilarious that she was the English teacher. I can vouch that many, not all, Japanese people who are good at English tend to have a more energetic, outgoing personality. Yukari-sensei is the exaggerated version.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had Kurosawa-sensei. She was an example of why teachers deserve much more respect and a much higher salary. She loved her job. She loved her students. She didn’t want to only be an instructor to them. She wanted to be a role-model. She was calm, kind, and was more than happy to go out of her way for her kids. As a result, she was an excellent straight man in her comedy routine with Yukari-sensei. These two never had a non-funny scene together.

And can you believe it, I’m still going. This was a big cast, and everyone is worth mentioning. There are only three left for me to talk about in detail. Except these three are my absolute favorite aspects about Azumanga Daioh.

The first is Sakaki.

If it weren’t for Chiyo, I would say Sakaki was the lead character. She was the only one with an actual story arc. That’s not me exaggerating. She went on a journey throughout the series. A journey that had an incredible, not to mention sweet, ending.

Much like Kaorin, Sakaki was in a position that could have turned problematic. It would have been easy for her to become the "misunderstood character". Due to her natural quietness, Sakaki didn’t have much of a volume to her voice. To an outsider, at best this made her come off as mysterious and cool. At worst, she seemed hard to approach. The "misunderstandings" could have come from people not being brave enough to get to know her. Those who did learned she wasn’t that kind of person. The reality was, there wasn’t much that got her excited. What did though, made her a great character.

Sakaki was weak to all things cute, particularly cats. She loved animals and would lose herself whenever they were around. The problem, animals, especially cats, didn’t like Sakaki. One of the show’s best running jokes was her always getting bit by the local felines.

Due to her quiet nature, Sakaki was more than okay with listening to others. She was the person her friends went to whenever they needed to vent. The one who would do this the most often was Chiyo. Thus, the two formed an almost older sister-little sister relationship. It was always Sakaki who was able to cheer the young genius up when she was at her lowest.

And speaking of Chiyo, she is my second favorite character of the show. And do I have to explain why? She was so cute. Big surprise, the small, chibi-like ten-year-old was adorable. And this had almost nothing to do with her actual size. Azumanga Daioh was brilliant in how it handled Chiyo’s two most prominent traits.

Chiyo was a prodigy. She was very smart. There is no denying the gimmicky nature of having such a young kid attend high school. What this series did was have it so this wasn’t just a simple gimmick. Chiyo demonstrated her intelligence. She was the smartest person in her class. She had a maturity to her which indicated she was indeed at a much higher level for a child.

But what was important was the fact that Chiyo was a child. The series took into account it couldn’t say one thing and then do something different. There were subjects that Chiyo wasn’t old enough to understand. These topics had nothing to do with how smart she was. They were things every ten-year-old should have no business knowing.

Along with that, the other characters knew when to treat Chiyo as a kid. For example, Chiyo wasn’t a strong swimmer. Therefore, going into a high school pool brought about some dangers. Even the shallow end would have been too deep for her. Also, she was physically incapable of staying up late. Her body would start shutting down around nine o’clock.

These tiny details went a long way in elevating Azumanga Daioh. Despite its goofy, silly nature, there was a lot more thought behind this series. The willingness to take that extra step is something a lot of shows don’t see the value in doing. That is why they will never become as medium-defining as this one has been.

And after this talk of “thought,” who is my favorite character of Azumanga Daioh. Without question, its Osaka (voiced by Yuki Matsuoka). I know her actual name is Ayumu Kasuga, but no. She has always been and will always be Osaka.

I don’t know what to say about her. Osaka’s level of airheadedness is unrivaled. She has one of the quintessential derp faces in all of anime. Even recalling her scenes makes me start to chuckle. Everything she did was gold. Her finding enjoyment out of the most mundane things would be enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Although she may be my favorite character, how do you describe someone like Osaka? She is someone you need to see to understand. Although I can give you several reasons why you should watch Azumanga Daioh, Osaka will be my opening argument.

With the size and quality of this cast, there was no scenario where the show was at a disadvantage. Azumanga Daioh had all the right tools, and it knew how to use them. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you create one of the most memorable anime of all time.

Series Negatives

I said it earlier. I can nitpick like the best of them. Except with something like Azumanga Daioh, I am stretching.

To begin with, I want to point out a reality. I’m not confident this show had a big budget. On occasion, the animation looked cheap. Not only that, the show employed many money saving tactics.

Certain shots would get used more than once. Backgrounds weren’t that detailed. Background characters felt almost nonexistent and were as simple as possible. Even higher energy aspects, such as Tomo, didn’t move much unless necessary. And even then this was beyond simple.

Yes, this is noticeable. But this would have been a much bigger problem when the series first aired. More than a decade later, this has turned into part of Azumanga Daioh's charm. The show’s age does exist and it wears it well.

Working in the series’ favor is all its other positive points. The animation and the art style weren’t the focus. The characters, the comedy, the writing, those were the things that were important. They are what you pay attention to.

The visuals were merely the vehicle you rode. The show didn’t drive anything special, but it worked. That and what we were looking at wasn’t crap.

If you want an actual negative, that's one I suppose.

Another thing and this is even less of a problem, was the first episode. This was the time when the show was at its most heavy-handed. But to be clear, even this wasn’t anything awful. Think of what needed to happen.

Azumanga Diaoh had to introduce a large cast that filled itself with nothing but personality. How do you ease into that? Doing this is a difficult thing to accomplish, and the series didn’t fail at the attempt.

The only thing that was missing was something that couldn’t have been there. That thing was the time spent getting to know the characters.

While the show was a touch overbearing in the beginning, by the final episode, everything paid off.

Azumanga Daioh was the story of a group of friends as they went through high school. When the finale arrived, it was sad. When the moment came to say goodbye, I know I couldn't help but to want a little bit more.

This is the extent of my nitpicking. Even when I am trying to bring up something negative about this show I end up praising it. I can’t remember the last time I wrote such a short section. But that is more credit to this series.

Azumanga Daioh is something special.

Final Thoughts

I liked this, and you should watch it.

In fact, this would be the series I would show to people who have never watched anime. It’s nothing too crazy, but it does not lack in any substance either. If someone can’t get into this one, that lowers the chances of them enjoying anything out of this medium.

With great comedy, smart writing, and an outstanding cast of characters, it's hard to think this show is closer to twenty years old than it is to ten. I don’t know when I am going to stop watching anime. But I can promise you this. That day will come long before I stop coming back to this series.

I didn’t need a review to say this. Azumanga Daioh is one you must see if you haven’t. It is the definition of a classic.

But these are just my thoughts. What are yours? Have you seen this show? How would you advise Azumanga Daioh? Leave a comment down below because I would love to hear what you have to say.

And if you liked what you read, be sure to follow me on my social media sites so that you never miss a post or update. Also, please share this review across the internet to help add to the discussion.

I’m LofZOdyssey, and I’ll see you next time.

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