Azumanga Daioh Anime Review
US Release By
High School Slice-of-life Comedy
26 episodes, 25 minutes each
2002-04-08 - 2002-09-30
Azumanga Daioh is about the lives and adventures of a group of girls and a few of their teachers dealing with normal, everyday life at an unnamed high school in Japan.
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Azumanga Daioh is nothing more than it seems; it's simply a series about girls going to school. Sports events, summer vacations, and homework, may not sound thrilling, but oddly enough, the normalcy is what makes this show work so well. The colorful cast of friends (and a couple of teachers), and their great chemistry, is what makes this series so entertaining, from the adorable, picked-on child-prodigy Chiyo to the spacey dreamer Osaka. If the show has a downside, it's the lack of any central plot or even major life changes through the three years of high school it chronicles, but the ability to throw the characters into normal events and lets them go to work walks the perfect line between serious and absurd. It's also over all too quickly. The animation is much like the series itself: Beautiful and creative, yet simple. The English dub is fairly good, without too much Americanization of the Japanese themes and a top-notch cast.
Azumanga Daioh takes the simple premise of quirky, fun characters at a semi-normal high school dealing with real world issues and problems and turns it into a refreshing and very entertaining show. It's a shame that there isn't more continuity between episodes, an identifiable central plot, or a better conclusion, but the final result is something anime fans of most ages can enjoy.
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As soon as you read the plot description, you probably started thinking, "Man this guy is a lazy writer. There's got to be more to the series than that." But no, I assure you there really isn't. What you see in the plot description is all there is. You could see the series a dozen times and analyze it from every angle, but you won't find anything more. It's simply a series about girls going to school.
In addition, it happens to be ones of the most unusual high schools I've ever seen in an anime. Unusual because there are no alien invasions, giant robots, martial arts tournaments, secret societies, mad scientists, teenage superheroes, shootouts, alternate dimensions, or perverted teachers obsessed with their students... oh wait, scratch that. They do have one of those. I guess they could not avoid every cliché. But most surprisingly of all, there is no romance! That's right, in a series covering every year of high school, not a single character gets involved in a romantic relationship of any kind. The closest thing to it is one student's fantasy crush on another, which it's clear from the beginning will lead nowhere.
So what does happen in this series? Well basically the same thing that happens at schools in real life: Sports events, summer vacations, field trips, doing homework, studying for exams, etc, etc. Thrilling right? I can just imagine the challenge of doing a trailer for the series and trying to make that sound exciting. But oddly enough, that's what makes this show work so well. After seeing all of those clichés at anime schools over the years, it was actually kind of refreshing to see a series about normal school life, or as normal as an anime high school will ever get, anyway. You gotta give the makers of this series credit for even attempting to pull this off. But more importantly, they succeeded, and succeeded big.
It is the true mark of great characters when you can put them in any situation, no matter how routine or mundane, and let them find some way to make it entertaining. And that's what happens here, in just about every episode. It's really the characters that make this work. Azumanga Daioh has one of the most wonderful casts I've ever seen in an animated comedy series, and watching their adventures just never gets old.
For our cast, we have adorable little Chiyo, a 10-year old child prodigy whose intelligence allowed her to skip five grades up to high school, but whose physical and emotional maturity is not on par with her intellect (she's extremely small even for her age, and probably the cutest character ever drawn in anime, something the series takes full advantage of and constantly emphasizes), along with tall and athletic Sakaki, who despite being popular, is shy, reserved, and has a obsession with cute animals that all seem to want her dead. Next is longtime friends Yomi and Tomo. Yomi has glasses, so right away I was thinking she would be the nerd of the gang. It turns out that while she is pretty good in school, she's also athletic, socially well adjusted, and an all-around nice person. Far from being a bookworm, she's actually the most "normal" and well-rounded person of the group, which is quite a contrast to the ditzy and eccentric Tomo. Even her one flaw, excessive concern about her weight and body image, is something you would expect from a normal teen. Last of the main students is Osaka, the dreamer of the group, who specializes in coming up with elaborate fantasies about every possible situation they find themselves in and generally over thinks even the simplest concepts.
There are also a few support characters who occasionally tag along, such as Kagura, a track star athlete determined to form a rivalry with Sakaki even though she has no interest in it at all, and Kaorin, who has an obvious crush on Sakaki that everyone, including Sakaki, seems totally oblivious too.
Finally, we have the teachers. First up is my favorite character the series, Yukari. She's probably the wildest, most bizarre character of the series (which is saying a lot), who can be a sweet and loving teacher or a ruthless tyrant depending on the mood of the day. In addition to being self-centered, manipulative, and narcissistic, her teaching methods range from kind words and gentle encouragement to violent outbursts of verbal cruelty and hitting students with blunt objects (Chiyo gets no mercy for her age or cuteness, and is on the receiving end of a surprisingly large amount of her abuse). Next is Nyamo, Yukari's friend since childhood and probably the most normal character of the whole cast. Yukari and Nyamo often play the parts of a vaudeville comedy duo, with Nyamo assuming the role of the straight man. Last is Kimura, the only male member of the main characters and the previously mentioned teacher obsessed with his students. About the only thing notable is how open he is about it (he states upfront he became a teacher because he likes high school girls). Kimura is basically a constant, one-theme gag, but fortunately he isn't really overused and he does create some fairly amusing moments.
Perhaps it seems like I'm spending a lot of effort on character descriptions, but in this case it's really worth it because they are what makes this series so entertaining. With their various traits, weaknesses (every one of them has at least one glaring flaw, from Chiyo's athletic ineptitude to Sakaki's love of animals that want to maul her), they all complement each other perfectly and can make a wonderful episode out of just about any situation. The creators seem to know all the important points of what's funny, what's entertaining, and what makes for an excellent ongoing gag, from Chiyo's cuteness to Yukari's reckless driving and Osaka's odd fantasies.
And that's a good thing since, as I stated before, the episodes really don't have any major events. Some of the episodes are pretty creative, such as one where the entire episode consists of showing the dreams of the characters based on how they see the world and each other, as well as their ultimate desires (Tomo dreaming of doing better in school, Sakaki dreaming of animals she can get along with, Kaorin with her elaborate fantasy of Sakaki). But, for the most part, they're just simple, real world situations--going to a theme park, having a snowball fight, or competing in athletic competitions. It just throws the characters into normal events and lets them go to work. The result is pure fun. A wonderful comedy series that walks the perfect line between serious and absurd, with its great characters and team chemistry keeping you hooked from start to finish.
The animation is much like the series itself: Beautiful and creative, yet fairly simple. It lapses into "Super Deformed" stye occasionally during some of the comedy routines. The character models look superb and everything from the clothing they wear to the vehicles they ride in look practical and realistic--basically what you would expect real people to wear and use. The only weakness is that some the facial features are not very detailed, particularly for Osaka. For some reason it seems the animators didn't spend much time on her, but I can't really fault them on that since it's clear they were simply trying to make them look as much as possible like they do in the original comics the show is based on. Based on the images I've seen, it appears they clearly suceeded.
The English dub work is fairly good, and was done without "Americanizing" the show too heavily. The series still takes place in Japan, the characters keep their Japanese names, and proper Japanese terms for currency are still used. Sadly it's not perfect; there are some parts where it seems they could not resist changing things for American viewers. For example, in one scene, Yukari brags about her soccer talent by stating "I'm Nakata," referring to Japanese soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. In the dub, they changed it so she says "I'm Mia Hamm." Now, I understand the reasoning; I didn't know who Nakata was before I watched this series. But personally I would have preferred to look up who Hidetoshi Nakata is (which I ended up doing anyway) rather than hear a Japanese teacher in Japan talking to her Japanese students about Mia Hamm, knowing full well it's unlikely any of them would really know who she is. But overall, I have to say the dubbing is top-notch. The voice actors are excellent, the humor survives the translation perfectly fine, and the Mia Hamm statement is the only thing in all 26 episodes that felt out of place.
If this show has a weakness, it's that it's way too short. 26 episodes is simply not enough time to cover 3 years of high school (High school in Japan is three years). The whole series feels rushed, breezing from one year to next without giving the characters any time to change or develop. Even Chiyo, after going from age 10 to 13 and dealing with much older kids all the time in a three year span, really isn't any different at the end of the series than at the beginning. With the exception of Sakaki's issue with animals, none of the characters' personal flaws or conflicts are ever seriously dealt with, let alone resolved. They remain constant themes throughout the series, with no indication they will ever change.
Finally, there is no central plot at all. It doesn't feel like there is much to link the episodes together, and while they do progress forward through time, it's moving so fast you barely notice the changes. It also doesn't help that a lot of the episodes deal with recurring events. As I recall, three of the episodes are about the girls' summer vacation trips, three cover the same annual sports event, and two cover an annual school culture festival. It's not unrealistic--real school life does involve some of the same events every year. But in a series that covers mundane everyday life it really doesn't help to have the same premise being repeated so many times. You never get the feeling of an overall theme for the series or main point of the story, which I think even a comedy series should have.
The series concludes exactly how one would expect: with the girls graduating high school. That's as good of a conclusion point as any, but it still feels unsatisfying since the years went by so fast and none of the major issues confronting the characters are resolved. On top of that, since the characters are so enjoyable and likable, I wanted to know what their life would be like beyond high school. The series doesn't give much to even imply it, other than let us know what some of their career plans are, and since it doesn't look like there will ever be a sequel, it seems the series will just leave us wondering.
Overall, Azumanga Daioh is a wonderful addition to any anime collection. It takes the simple premise of quirky, fun characters at a semi-normal high school dealing with real world issues and problems and turns it into one of the most refreshing and entertaining shows in the anime universe. It's a shame that there isn't more continuity between episodes, an identifiable central plot, or a better conclusion. But the final result is something anime fans of most ages can enjoy.
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Comedies with this little in the way of wacky situations or supernatural elements are uncommon; Best Student Council is probably the closest in general mood and lack of romance or drama, though it's considerably more broad and has some anime-standard elements. The shoujo comedy Here Is Greenwood shares a realistic world and a relatively low-key sort of hijinks, but has somewhat more drama and wackier characters.
Notes and Trivia
The series is based on the four panel ("4-koma") comic strip Azumanga Daioh, created by manga author Kiyohiko Azuma. It ran between 1999 and 2002, and was later collected into 4 volumes. It's available in English from Yen Press, originally as individual volumes and more recently as a single jumbo-sized, 700-page book of the whole series.
The comic series was quite popular in Japan, spawning not only this anime show, but also three video games: "Azumanga Donjyara Daioh," a puzzle game for the Sony Playstation, "Azumanga Puzzle Daioh," an arcade game, and "Azumanga Daioh Advance," a card game for the Game Boy Advance. None of the games are available in English. A CD collecting various in-character songs was, however, available in the US.
The title of the series has nothing to do with the story or characters at all. The first word, "Azumanga," is a combination of series author Kiyohiko Azuma's last name with the word "manga." The word "Daioh" (meaning roughly "Great King") comes from the magazine "Dengeki Daioh," which first published the original comics.
When the anime originally aired on TV in Japan, it was shown in two forms: A miniature 5-minute episode aired every day of the week, in keeping with the comic strip style, and a version compiling the five shorts into a regular half-hour-sized version with opening and ending credits, which was shown on the weekend.
There is also a "movie," which is really just a six-minute short shown in theaters as a teaser for the TV show. A similar web short was also made, according to Wikipedia, to gauge whether the show would have enough interest to be worth doing a web series; it turned out to be popular enough that a regular broadcast series got the green light.
Voice actress Aya Hisakawa, who does the voice of Nyamo in the subbed version, has done many other roles in popular anime shows, including Lupin III: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, Card Captor Sakura, Excel Saga, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Fruits Basket, among others. Probably her most well known role is the voice of Ami Mizuno (Sailor Mercury) in the popular Sailor Moon series.
This is one of the few anime series I've seen that refers to characters from other anime shows by name. In one episode, when explaining her new hairstyle, Tomo says with her previous one, she was going for the "Fujiko look," citing Fujiko from Lupin the 3rd. She also states she wants to work for the ICPO, but is unsure if the organization is actually real (it is). The organization is most commonly known as "Interpol," but inspector Zenigata from the Lupin series always refers to it as the ICPO (the acronym for its official name "International Criminal Police Organization").
US DVD Review
Section 23, née ADV, has released and re-released the series on DVD several times, none of which list much beyond stereo Japanese and English audio, and soft subtitles as features. The most recent of the releases is a 6-disc box set.
With minimal profanity, no nudity, and cartoonish violence, this show is fairly kid-friendly. The only real issues I can think of is Kimura's obsession with his students (which is depicted as being just as funny as it is creepy) and the surprisingly large of amount of physical abuse Chiyo ends up receiving.
Violence: 1 - Some occasional mild violence like what you would see in a three stooges skit.
Nudity: 1 - No nudity in an anime high school? Shocking, right?
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - An occasional mature topic will enter casual conversation, but overall nothing major. There's also Kimura and his girl obsession, of course.
Language: 1 - Some occasional profanity, but it's pretty mild. Nothing worse than a word starting with D.
Available in North America from Section23 (originally ADV), most recently on a 6-disc bilingual DVD set released in 2009. The series was originally released on six individual DVD volumes, which were also available together in an artbox; there were also two prior incarnations of the box set, released in 2005 and 2008, both of which came on 5 discs instead of 6.