A handful of schoolgirls, three of their teachers, and assorted animals have various misadventures in everyday life in modern Japan. That's it.
And yet that's not it.
Interestingly, Azumanga Daioh really doesn't have all that much of a plot. It's even more episodic than Urusei Yatsura, and there's no big overarching storyline or pressing matter to save Tokyo or anything like that. It's not even a soap opera - there's almost no male cast, and only an inkling of romance (but only as a one-sided crush played for laughs).
Azumanga Daioh is not about conflict - it's about mood. The director, Nishikiori Hiroshi, and the creator, Azuma Kiyohiko, intended this show to bring the viewers back to a period in their lives when everything revolved around hanging out with friends: the transition between childhood and adulthood. They also intended the show to depict high school girls as they really are. Not magical super heroines, not romance-obsessed angst bunnies, and not violence-magnet gangster girls. They're just everyday girls with everyday problems.
Instead of being an escapist fantasy like most another anime, Azumanga Daioh thrives on nostalgia and a stellar cast of quirky, but very true-to-life characters played by the best ensemble ever assembled in anime, period. This is a character showcase, and each character gets her time in the sun.
If anyone can be considered the star of the show, it's Mihama Chiyo, Child Genius. Most characters like her are cloying, precocious, and too perfect for their own good. What makes Chiyo-chan so cool is that, while she's incredibly intelligent, she's also downtrodden, a bit obsessive-compulsive, and terrible at athletics (even worse than most girls her age). She is an optimist to a fault, but often foiled by the antics of her teacher and her classmates. She also has mysterious ponytails and purposely messes with people's reality using the Power of Cute. She can be snide, but by and large, she is genuinely likable, and believably her age without being the slightest bit bratty.
On the other side of the spectrum is Sakaki. Tall, athletic, beautiful, and insanely well proportioned, she is the idol of the school. Everybody assumes she's a lone wolf bad-girl who gets into gang fights. Well, no. She might be quiet and withdrawn, but that's just because she's painfully shy; and the bandages on her hands aren't from gang fights, but the result of trying to pet the neighborhood cat. Sakaki can't resist cute things - even ones with lots of sharp, pointy teeth - and her personality is actually close to what people would expect of Chiyo. But it's hard to be cutesy when you're six feet tall, even if you're hallucinating about cute cat creatures.
Then there's Sakaki's athletic rival, Kagura, who is heavily involved in the swim team (which explains those tan lines rather conveniently). She at first assumes Sakaki is wild about athletics just like her, but grows to realize Sakaki has her interests elsewhere. Despite seeming like a total jock, Kagura is actually the sweetest out of the group, trying to help total strangers whenever possible. She's a Girl Scout who just happens to talk like a tomboy.
There are the two childhood friends, polar opposites Takino Tomo and Mizuhara Koyomi (Yomi). Tomo is "uselessly energetic" and incredibly obnoxious, and Yomi is the put-upon voice of reason who secretly obsesses over her weight. Tomo generally instigates all sorts of wacky hijinks, and Yomi is always there to control the damage. While they bicker constantly, there is no question that these two are spiritually sisters and more alike than they'd ever admit.
To round out the main cast...there's the oddest character in the entire lot. Her name's Kasuga Ayumu, but no one ever calls her that. To the other girls, she's "Osaka". Yeah, that's where she's from, and she does speak in that distinct Osaka accent. But instead of being brash, brassy, and obnoxious (no, that's Tomo's job!), Osaka is quiet, demure, air-headed, and psychotic. (And probably autistic.) If her huge, hypnotically vapid eyes do not suck you in, then her slow, tranquilizing drawl will definitely send you into another dimension. She steals every scene in the show by being her weird self - she doesn't see things quite the same way everyone else does, and she's a real punster.
There are a host of other characters, too, like the teachers Yukari-chan and Nyamo-chan (note the suffixes!), who have not let go of their youth, reveling in immaturity and silliness; and the crazed Kimura-sensei, who chases schoolgirls with reckless abandon in the name of comedy. Then there's Kaorin, who has an ill-fated crush on the oblivious Sakaki, which plays out like a parody of the oneesama complex.
All of these characters interact so naturally, it really is like going to back to your own high school and remembering spending time with your friends and teachers. Azumanga Daioh is pure fun. This series is incredibly popular in Japan, but many in America's younger fan base may simply not care about this show. We've heard younger fans here in the States ask, "What's the big deal?" Since Azumanga Daioh is about everyday high school life (no big soap opera situations at all), everyday high schoolers aren't going to care. They can't appreciate this show just yet.
Azumanga Daioh is really for those of us who are a few years out of high school and wanting to reminisce about days when we didn't have to worry about bills, insurance, and the daily grind of work. No, high school wasn't perfect. But when you watch the episodes about school festivals and field trips, you remember the mood of specific events in your own high school life.
For many guys, this series is a bit of an eye-opener, because this shows how high school girls are in their most private of times: when they with their friends. Life as a high school girl is not always about fashion or dating or (God forbid) sex - especially when your friends are a bunch of geeks who don't fit into any of the clubs or cliques.
The animation for Azumanga Daioh is beautifully rendered, yet very simple. The character designs are adorable, and the girls dress in very fashionable, but practical and current clothes that make sense for everyday teens. The music is unique, with unconventional instrumentation (was that really a recorder, a tuba, an accordion, and a mouth-harp playing bouncy ska just now?), but instead of just being weird, it highlights the mood of every scene, and it is easily one of the most memorable soundtracks in the last decade. Each episode is prefaced by what is probably the catchiest and most innovative opening sequence ever made. The visuals look like complete nonsense, but they're actually a minute-and-a-half summary of the entire series! The song ("Sora Mimi Cake") sounds like nonsense, too, but you start to wonder after a while. The ending ("Raspberry Heaven") is suitably trippy.
The shorts (Azumanga Daioh: The Very Short Movie and Azumanga Daioh Web Special) are mini-episodes. The first is a brief retelling of the first episode, albeit very well animated. The second is sort of a video memorial, with Chiyo bringing in a camcorder to record a day at school. Predictably, it goes horribly wrong. Each short contains a fully fleshed story, rather than random vignettes like most promotional specials (like Time Stranger Kyoko).
But all this characterization, animation, and musical work would be all for nothing if the actual story wasn't told well. We did mention earlier that Azumanga Daioh has no plot. The last time we said this about a slice-of-life schoolgirl anime, we ended up with To Heart, and if you read that review, you'll see how we felt about that.
Azumanga Daioh does what To Heart couldn't have possibly hoped to do. It captures your attention and holds it. It's very fast-paced, telling three or four short stories in the course of an episode that are integrated seamlessly with each other - and have bearing on future stories. There is a definite sense of continuity, but only in the sense of time passing and a few instances of cause-and-effect. Unlike many American series that deal with this subject matter (comic strips like Luann and Peanuts come to mind), Azumanga Daioh is not melodramatic, and the characters grow in both personality and age.
We're having a hard time writing down the words to give this show the credit it deserves. Azumanga Daioh is like nothing in anime that has come before it. While it is based on a four-panel gag manga, it tells an extensive, seamless, and very realistic story with engaging, lovable characters. It also doesn't wear out its welcome - it tells everything it wants to during the span of a 26-episode season.
Unfortunately, most younger anime fans really can't appreciate just how entertaining this series is - because they would rather not see their everyday lives repeated for them on the television. Really, if you're eighteen and under, and don't like this series the first time around, put it away and come back to it in about five years. Those of you who have already been out of high school for a while, though, may just fall in love with it.
Azumanga Daioh is all about mood. THEM will always be in the mood to watch it.
A nostalgic character piece that succeeds in what it sets out to do. Those of you too young for nostalgia (or who don't really understand where high school girls are coming from) can drop the rating a star or two. — Carlos Ross, Christi and Eric Gaede
Recommended Audience: No sex, no violence (other than a slapstick uppercut here or there played for laughs), and some puerile innuendo from Tomo (because she's obnoxious like that). Yukari and Nyamo do get sloshed off-duty a couple times, if you're worried about alcohol use. Okay for children and up, but the audience that would best appreciate are high schoolers and older who have lived these sorts of situations.
Version(s) Viewed: digital source; R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Azumanga Daioh © 2002 Kiyohiko Azuma / Media Works / Genco / JC Staff
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