Based on the manga of Azuma Kiyohiko, Azumanga-Daioh is the story of several high school girls and their 3 teachers working their way through school life, mostly orientated around the school they all attend, though at times they do venture out through other places, adding depth to the construct of what could have easily become a two-dimensional animated life.
Quite to the contrary it shows to be a series full of life and refreshing mix of comedy styles. All the characters are loveable for their own personal traits and it’s how they work and interact together, bringing their own unique style of humour that makes the series work so well.
Take Mihama Chiyo for instance, the ten year old bumped up into the others class for her excelling intelligence, brings the innocence of her old school with her reintroducing the others to some things they had left behind as they went up the years such as jumprope. Besides that, being the shortest amongst them is considered cute by everyone, much to her annoyance so in an unavoidably cute fashion makes a point of letting people know she may be little but is in the same classes and isn’t cute. Of course not “Chiyo-sensei,” something she even persuades one student to call her.
Or Takino Tomo who has a strong passion to win at anything regardless of her lacking the ability. At one point even groups her score with that of two others so she can brag about being the highest scorer out of the three lowest scores, and takes honest pride in it. It’s her insane logic and competitive nature that always makes her a funny character, especially around the others.
There’s Mizuhara Koyomi, better known as Yomi, Tomo’s unlikely childhood friend for the most part acts at an opposite to Tomo and always questions her immoral actions. Personally though she’s very insecure and can be seen as one of the more downplayed characters, often worrying about her weight or grades, though as with everything about the series, is still capable of being woven seamlessly into an irresistible comedy without dampening anything.
Kagusa Ayumu, whom I honestly had to check on her real name since from her very introduction was spun into being called ‘Osaka’ before she even knows what’s going on, all because she was a transfer student from Osaka. No prizes on guessing that it was Tomo that started this nick. Effectively too as everyone calls her Osaka from thereon and you do tend to forget what her real name ever was. The character in question though is a very interesting one, she has determination, but no focus. As strange as that sounds, it’s best shown with example. She becomes determined to get her act together but then spends the rest of that day chanting “I will get my act together… I will get my act together” and completely misses the point of the class. To say her mind wanders is an understatement but it’s never a bad thing, at least not for the viewer. At one point she ponders on Chiyo-chan’s pigtails and thinks they let her fly or are detachable and she gets new ones at christmas. Other times though she ponders things such as the same word having entirely different meanings and when she asks about it often suprises everyone who more often only see her simplistic, carefree side.
In stark contrast to all the loud and proud characters is Sakaki, the quietest of them all and often considered the ‘coolest.’ Often introverted and quiet, has a distinct mysterious nature about her but deep down just really loves cute things, such as cats. One cat really dosen’t like her though and every time she passes it and tries to stroke it, the cat would bite her hand. It was funny in how she never learned and the cat’s blank gaze and oversized grin always pulled in a chuckle, but to be honest they could have done the scene one or two times less. Having said that, most of the time it was only a few seconds long so wasn’t too much a downpoint on repetitiveness.
The other two school girl characters both have a connection to Sakaki. There’s Kaorin, who’s absolutely taken by how ‘cute’ Sakaki is and though she constantly dreams of her, has the worst luck. Whereas the others will go to Chiyo-chans summer beach house, Kaorin gets stuck with her school club trip, much to her dismay for not only missing out on being at a beach side summer house, but missing out on Sakaki in her bikini. Kaorin can only imagine how ‘cute’ Sakaki must look.
Not forgetting Kagura, the late arrival to the group is the effective athlete. Think Tomo, only with an actual ability to win and that pretty much covers it. Kagura becomes Sakaki’s rival, not that Sakaki really cares all that much or even notices. Though unlike Tomo she has some control and focus, knowing that she seriously wants to go into athletics, whereas Tomo strives to better people at anything. Perhaps this is why Tomo constantly fails at doing so. Needless to say the two find a friendship in each other very quickly.
Just these seven students could carry the series by themselves and it would be quite funny. Though what holds it together is the inclusion of their teachers.
Yukari-sensei being the overly competitive and confident one, often making bets with her childhood friend and gym teacher, Kurosawa-sensei. She drives a car that simply traumatises anyone that should get in it, especially poor Chiyo-chan who rode to her summer house in it once, later going out of her way to get a rental car. It got so bad that through one trip someone mentioned being able to fit another in Yukari’s car to the reply of “shouldn’t more people survive?” with those in the car gone a ghostly shaking white even before it had started moving.
Now if Yukari-sensei is Tomo then Kurosawa-sensei is definitely Yomi. The schools physical education teacher, often hounded by the bluntly perverted Kimura-sensei to switch classes with him. She’s the more easy going of the two and always treats her class to juice whether they win the schools athletic events or not. Yukari still knows just what button to press to get her riled and competitive though, and seeing her usually calm personality change like that under her old friends influence can be interestingly funny.
Not much can be said for Kimura-sensei though, the only recurring male character with a constantly gaping jaw, he’s honestly quite scary and perverted. His place in it being mostly for shock humour, at one point Kaorin has to dance with Kimura and swiftly drops to a well illustrated emotional hell. Other than the occasional lude joke about swimsuits and the like there isn’t much to Kimura. The lack too all many perverted jokes is welcome though and shows it to be well balanced. Though Kimura’s character can’t be helped but feel lacking, later on they even introduce his family, and his wife is met in person by the school girls, but her inclusion changes nothing about Kimura’s tendencies even more so when Kaorin is moved into his class, tragically away from Sakaki, he still swoons over her. I can only assume this was intentional to really convey just how terrible Kimura was, even in light of having a caring wife and daughter he chased school girls around.
Enough about characters then, though the focus of the series is the way each character is so unique and when all thrown together make Azumanga-Daioh special in that heart warming insanity kind of way that it does. It’s been debated that because of it’s sheer random nature, you don’t need to watch it in any sort of real order. Some agree, others say it’s best to see the first few to really see where the characters come from. Personally I would side a little with both, to really understand the characters you have to see how they come to know the others, for instance Osaka is only really called Ayumu once or twice in her first episode. Once you know the characters foundations though, for the light viewer or someone that’s seen the series before, you can just glance at any one episode and enjoy it. Though if it was your first viewing you would miss out on some of the deeper comedy of it. What Azumanga-Daioh does very well is to separate the comedy into two types. One being immediate, usually more slapstick comedy, such as anything involving Kimura or Sakaki and the cat that constantly bites her hand. The other being more long run, things that use reference to previous episodes or deeper character eccentricities. The school dance scene for example, if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean. Sure enough if you walked in on that scene, it would be funny, but only for it’s severely over the top expressionism. However, following the series, you’d know exactly what it was built up from and laugh at the pairing that much harder. Or just why Chiyo-chan starts shivering when anyone mentions Yukari-sensei’s car, it’s funny but it shouldn’t be.
A running plot is virtually non-existent in Azumanga-Daioh, the only consistency being that they are school girls and teachers working through school life. This is where the old saying of less is more comes into play. As there is less pre-planned plot, there is more room for merely anything that can be thought up. With these seven girls and three teachers, the fact that anything can be implemented, usually allows it to be so. The series follows them all the way to graduation, and through out many varied things happen, keeping the want to watch the next instalment fresh on the viewers mind without worry of it being the exact same place and same jokes. One day they could be hosting the stuffed animal cafe, the next they could be trying to get rid of Osaka’s hiccups with simply bizarre ideas that only help keep the comedy flow, not helping poor Osaka in the slightest. It’s the sheer randomness of possibility that stirred the previous debate about where one could watch it from and really enjoy it. In Azumanga-Daioh, every episode varies form place to place, easilly sliding from school grounds to the park to Chiyo-chans house. It’s this randomness within consistency of character and humour that makes it easy to get into for new viewers, yet still rewarding those that had followed the series along its path without fear of things becoming old and unimaginative.
As all the characters are memorable, the intro music ‘Soramimi Cake,’ and outro music ‘Raspberry Heaven,’ both performed by the j-pop band ‘Oranges & Lemons’ also has it’s charm, leaving the tune stuck in your head for hours or even days after having watched it. Be that good or not depends on the person. Other than that though the music tends to keep in a quiet background place, setting mood and scene, though never intruding enough to call too much attention to itself. The voice acting of the collective cast in it’s original japanese, and god help me if I should ever hear it otherwise, is done perfectly. Every characters voice suits as if the character was moulded around the actor, and I know they’re not, what with it being set on the origional manga strips. Be it Tomo’s abrasive, nearly male at times shouting, or Osakas constantly spaced out tone, all add that small extra layer of attachment that they so easilly gather from the viewer through the series, and it is very easy, nearly too easy to become attached to them before you know what’s happening. This fact that the dialogue and voice actors work so well is good to know when you consider that what really makes this series is the character interaction and dialogue.
The animation style stays true to it’s comic strip origins. For the most part the characters look normal, if you can call them normal to begin with. At any moment though arms can change into handless stumps, peoples eyes can go blank and small with what looks like pencil scrawling circling them. As well as some more drastic changes that have to be seen to be understood or believed. All in all this extreme expressionism really adds to the carefree structure of the comedy in Azumanga-Daioh perfectly. Backgrounds are all perfectly drawn out and vary greatly, be it the school yard, a park road or the glistening beach waters, everything is done with perfect perspective and style, nothing seems out of place or poorly done.
Final comments and summary:
As with all good things there comes an end. The end of Azumanga-Daioh is surprising though not in a plot sense. It surprises you that you actually feel sad, maybe the only time through out the entire series. To see everyone at graduation, to know this is where they part ways and the series ends, just something you never expect to feel sad over. That’s what the cast of Azumanga-Daioh do really well, pluck at your heart strings and make a place in your memory. Even as I finish writing I can still see Kimura jumping out of nowhere and shouting Banzai at everyone then complaining about them not wearing swimsuits to class. When I read a small summary of it, the final line said highly recommended. After having seen it myself, they don’t recommend it highly enough. Definitely worth your time if you still like a good light-hearted laugh every now and then.