Ah, High School. It’s one of the most monumental periods of anybody’s life, and whether it’s for the better or for the worst, we’ll never forget the time we spent there. Who doesn’t remember the friends they made, and the bonds that grew from them? Who could ever forget that one weird teacher who made every day a new experience? Who ever forgets their class clowns, their space cadets, and those really athletic kids who excelled in sports but fell behind in academics? Surely you’ll never forget the ten year old who skipped several grades, the perverted teacher who openly admits to having the hots for young girls, and the weird looking cat deity that showed up in our dreams and threatened to half-decapitate us? Wait, what’s that? None of that last sentence makes sense to you?
Well, it makes perfect sense to the students of Azuma Public highschool(There, someone finally named the damn thing), and it will strike a particular chord with the students in Miss Yukari’s homeroom class, who go through all of that and more as they attempt to support each other through three years at one of the weirdest high schools in Japan. With the power of their friendship, they’ll be ready to withstand intense rivalries, bug-nuts crazy dreams, harrowing exams, tedious study sessions, intricate wordplay jokes, self-destructive diets, and even the reckless driving of a teacher who may just be less mature than they are… But through it all, will they be able to survive each other?
Yep, I just did a plot summary for what has to be the most plotless anime I have ever seen. Azumanga Daioh was released way back in the year 2002, when the playing field was a lot smaller, and standards on anime quality were mercifully low… And yet, visually, it still holds up. Okay, fine, it’s animation style is dated as hell, but the over-all quality was so good even back then that it’s aged surprisingly well. JC Staff has released several rough looking shows in the past, but Azumanga Daioh’s slow pace and dialogue-heavy story was a major boon to them in terms of budget management.
Strictly speaking, it doesn’t take a lot of money to animate a show like this one. Despite being a comedy, there’s little if any action in it, and the little action we get comes from the exaggerated movements of the energetic characters like Tomo Takino and Miss Yukari. Luckily, the money wasn’t all spent there… They had more than enough resources to put intricate detail into every single move the characters make, to the point that they can run, spin around in place, engage in a snowball fight, or even just turn their heads slowly for a delayed awkwardness reaction, and it all comes out just as seamlessly. Hell, at one point the entire student body turns their heads toward one point on the screen, and you can not tell me they didn’t use cleverly integrated CGI to pull it off.
But as I said, these moments are few and far between,. as the show is mostly dominated by static shots of the characters standing around, talking to each other, and over-reacting to the weird or sometimes stupid things that are being said. These cheaper moments, taken straight from the manga, help to save money for the handful of moments where JC Staff decided to go off-script and throw frugality to the wind, with a few examples being the aforementioned snowball fight(and the one matrix moves that Sakaki performs in it) and a bizarre sequence from the early episodes where the girls are out walking together and then out of nowhere, they just start prancing on the clouds. I still haven’t figured out what the hell was going on there, by the way.
I mentioned earlier that the art style behind Azumanga Daioh was dated, but I don’t mean that in a bad way… It’s been a very long time since anything that looked like it has been released into the anime market. The style is very 2-dimensional in nature, and yet the characters move as if they were rendered in 3D instead. Hell, there were certain moments when I could swear I could almost notice some cell-shading(admittedly, I was high). The characters are drawn in a very cartoony, yet still anatomically realistic fashion that’s at least somewhat grounded in reality, as there are plenty of big eyes(this is anime after all), but they’re adorned onto believably sized heads. The character designs are highly distinct, and are just as unique as the art style. You may have trouble remembering who Chihiro is(and who could blame you) but everyone else can and will be burned onto your memory forever.
The music has a very distinctly school-time feel to it, as it’s mostly played with instruments you don’t often hear on anime soundtracks… Recorders, flutes, xylophone and tuba were the ingredients chosen to put together one of the most iconic anime soundtracks of all time. The most instantly recognizable would be the tune Shin Gaki(of which there are several versions that suit a surprisingly versatile list of situations) and the ‘next episode’ tune, segments of which were used for the unforgettable eye-catch music. The opening theme, Soramimi Cake, is like a macrocosm of the series, as it showcases some of the most important running gags and interactions from the series, and is just a cheerful, upbeat joy to listen to. The ending theme, Raspberry Heaven… Defies rational description. Yeah, sorry guys, but all I can really say about it is that there’s a damn good reason people like to jokingly call it a Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds music video.
The English dub was early ADV Films, and all of the old classics are here! Luci Christian shines in what might be her funniest role ever, as the loud, pugnacious teacher Miss Yukari, and Monica Rial plays her more cool, down-to-earth counterpart, Miss Kurosawa(AKA Nyamo). Jessica Boone plays the mascot of the series, the child prodigy Chiyo-Chan, and while she doesn’t quite sound like an actual ten-year-old, she does sound eerily similar to the original Japanese actress. I’m normally not a fan of Nancy Novotny, but I’ve always believed that every voice actor has at least one good role and one bad role, and she is perfect for the role of the cynical straight-man character Yomi.
Kira Vincent Davis plays one of her two most famous roles… The other being Lucy in Elfen Lied… In the role of Ayumu Kasuga, otherwise known as the space cadet Osaka, a nickname she earned for being a transfer student from Osaka. She speaks in a slow, clueless southern drawl, which is much better adaptive choice than what the manga did, having her speak in a clunky and entirely inconsistent Brooklyn accent. Kira plays this off with a lot of lovable charm, always sounding natural with it and never over-the-top. Andy McAvin in the role of scary teacher Mr. Kimura is… Well, perfect for all the wrong reasons, and let’s just leave it at that.
Christine Auten is a little harder to talk about, since her role as Sakaki-san is very strong and silent in nature, but she does a great job. Alison Sumral plays what I consider to be one of the more complex characters in the series, Sakaki’s rival Kagura, and she sounds very much like the sporty yet surprisingly emotionally fragile tomboy she’s supposed to be. There are no really bad actors here, but if I had to pick a couple of duds in the cast, there’s Tiffany Grant, who over-acts hard in the role of Sakaki’s stalker Kaorin(Who thankfully gets phased out throughout the series) and Mandy Clark in the role of Tomo, who does a great job keeping up with the fast-talking pace and loudmouthed volume of her character, but doesn’t really have the acting chops to add anything to it. Suffice to say, there’s a reason she doesn’t work a whole lot anymore.
While the acting in this dub is really good on average, I’m afraid I just can’t really recommend it over the subtitled version, and that’s mostly because of the adaptive writing. Azumanga Daioh is a Japanese comedy, and of course, it uses a lot of really culturally impenetrable Japanese jokes… Jokes that don’t really have an equivalent in English. You might think it would be impossible to change these jokes to make them more serviceable to an English speaking audience, but lo and behold, the official translated manga did just that, swapping out the more traditional Japanese humor with jokes and tongue twisters that are way easier to enjoy while still retaining the general spirit of the original. The dub didn’t even bother trying to do that, instead just translating pretty much every joke word-for-word. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to have to sit through a ton of jokes that make no sense to your own local sensibilities, it just feels a lot less jarring to hear them in their native tongue from people who understand what they’re saying. I still have no idea how a character’s bust size makes them either American, Hawaiian or Japanese.
So, Azumanga Daioh is one of the many anime that I’ve been hesitating to review for a long time. Unlike Heroic Age, I wasn’t hesitating because I didn’t know how to put my anger into words, but to be more accurate, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to express just how mixed my feelings on it are. I do of course consider it to be one of the most important anime ever made, but at the same time, I honestly think it’s a little over-rated. And since the series itself takes such a directionless approach to it’s story, I’ve decided to go into this review without writing out the outline before-hand. I’m going completely off-book with this.
To start with the negative aspects, I feel like it’s kind of a clumsy adaptation. This is one of the few anime that I was able to watch AFTER having completed the manga, and even upon my first viewing, I could tell that it was going through a lot of the vignettes from the series out of order, which you might not think would be noticeable in such a plotless show… But it is noticeable, as several changes had to be made for the sake of preserving continuity. Some scenes that originally contained references to other scenes had to have those references either removed or replaced to compensate the new ordering.
Scenes that were supposed to take place before Kagura joined the main cast are suspiciously absent of her after she joined it, and scenes she was supposed to be involved in later in the series will be shown early on, with other characters acting out of character to replace her. And that’s not even mentioning the flourishes from the manga being added to the anime at random, like pictures detailing the height of Sakaki and Kagura, and one of the characters saying “Oh!” between vignettes apropos of nothing. While most episodes are able to group the vignettes into coherent stories, there are a handful of episodes… Two of which are unfortunately the first two… Where a lot of the scenes feel like they were arbitrarily added in just for the sake of inclusion. It’s not as noticeable when a joke lands, but they don’t always do that.
Another problem I had… And I know a lot of people will argue with me on this… Is the character of Classic Lit teacher Mr. Kimura. People are going to have different reactions to him, but personally, I found him downright unsettling. He’s a paid full time teacher who claims loudly and proudly that he became a teacher because he loves high school girls, he develops a stalker-ish crush on one of his students late in the series, and the story is constantly trying to confuse us about his character by showing how happy his family is, and how generous he is to charity, only to have him barge in on the girls during swimming class and wonder aloud about how much he’d enjoy watching them change their clothes. And the worst thing is that everyone just tolerates this and doesn’t make a big deal about it. I don’t know how Japan handles the idea of ephebophilia, but in America, he’d at least lose his job, and hell, a home investigation might even land him n jail faster than you can say Jared Fogle.
I get why he exists, of course… He’s there to act like a total creep during scenes where the girls are wearing school swimsuits or gym uniforms in order to directly lampoon any viewers who may otherwise be enjoying such scenes for the wrong reasons, which is in service to one of the strongest aspects of this show… It is completely and utterly asexual. Unlike the manga, which contained glamour shots of the characters between stories, the series makes no attempt to sexualize any of them to the audience. None of them ever pursue love interests(aside from Kaorin), nor is dating ever an issue, although a joke about Tomo being undateable does come up.
In terms of fanservice, this may be one of the most squeaky-clean anime out there, and yes, I’m saying that despite the presence of three different beach episodes. During swimsuit-heavy episodes, whether on the beach or in the pool, the art style changes dramatically, either going as cheap as possible to make the characters appear less appealing or converting to bizarre Shaft-esque angles to distract you from them. There’s no manipulative shininess on their skin, no sparkles as the sunlight reflects off of water droplets, and refreshingly, no bath scenes. Yes, it’s sad to say, but even in the hundreds of anime that aren’t allowed to show nudity, they will still put the girls in the bath for extended periods of time, covering them up with steam or convenient censorship so they can have their cake and eat it to. Not only does Azumanga Daioh not resort to that, but the closest it ever comes to nudity is when Yomi’s weighing herself on the scale at home.
While there are a handful of culturally impenetrable jokes to get confused by, there’s still a lot of physical and character driven humor that viewers of any language can enjoy. Characters play jokes on each other that will leave you in stitches, particularly where Tomo is involved, and a lot of it still holds up over the course of multiple viewings. Despite a computer showing up in the later episodes, the stories are entirely timeless, with characters playing outside and hanging out with each other for fun, preferring to engage in activities like going for walks, visiting the wealthy Chiyo’s beach-house, and, at one point, just lain jumping rope together. There really isn’t any drama to speak of, as this show’s highest priority seems to be staying positive and upbeat at all times, but there are still a lot of quiet moments that work on a deeper level than the rest of the material, which leads into what I consider the strongest element of the series by far… The characters.
Azumanga Daioh is plotless, this is true. It has no real goals, and nobody has any serious ambitions that you’re expected to care about… This is a character driven comedy, and while it doesn’t do a perfect job of translating the original manga’s 4-panel Charlie Brown style to film… A tougher task than it sounds… it still does an admirable job, mostly thanks to the outstanding cast of characters that the manga gifted it with. Aside from the predatory lesbian kohai, there’s no character here who can easily fit into an archetype, as there’s a level of duality and nuance to each of them. It doesn’t just have an energetic genki girl, it has a genki girl who pisses everyone off and gets her comeuppance a lot. Every single archetype that you can find is similarly taken in a new direction that no other show will want to take it, and it works so well with how the characters interact with each other. They feel, through and through, like a real group of friends plucked right from life, certain circumstances aside, and they make so many memories that you WILL find yourself crying the first time you see the final episode, and the grand, emotional send-off this series gives to the tightly bonded characters that it’s spent so much time developing, making it a show well worth revisiting.
Azumanga Daioh was at one point available from ADV Films, but not only did Funimation never rescue it, but I’m still not sure if Sentai still owns it under their new name. It’s essentially been out of print since before 2006, and cheap copies aren’t easy to come by. you can generally find the entire series for between 50 and 100 dollars on Ebay, but don’t even bother checking places like Amazon or Rightstuf for it. You might get lucky and find it used in an anime store or an FYE(which is where I got my copy, btw), but if you can’t afford to pay for it third party, the only real option you have left is illegal streaming. The original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma is ridiculously easy to find, and I highly recommend picking it up, either in quarters or in the newer omnibus format. A new supplemental portion of the manga has not been released stateside, neither has the few short OVA films, but you can find both pretty easily online. His follow-up manga, Yotsuba&, will likely never be animated, but try it out. It’s available stateside, and it’s really freaking funny.
I mentioned earlier that I consider Azumanga Daioh to be one of the most important anime ever made, and I don’t say something like that lightly. I say that for two reasons: The first is that word I kept throwing around in this review, ‘unique.’ There has never been, and will never be, another anime like this one. It has, in a very real sense, become a genre of it’s own, which leads me to my other reason: It’s heavily influential, and the amount of anime that have taken their cues and, at some points even characters, directly from Azumanga daioh is staggering. This show is the reason there are so many anime following a group of female friends through high school, powered by personality alone. This show is the reason that so many high school anime make such a big deal out of aging the characters and holding a graduation on the final episode. This is a show that any self-respecting anime fan has to have either watched or read at least once… you don’t have to enjoy it, you just have to experience it, and you may come away from it with a better understanding of slice of life anime and what, if anything, can make them good. It’s the definition of a seminal series, and for that, I’m willing to forgive it’s unfortunate flaws… But not forget them. I give Azumanga Daioh an 8/10.