Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Anime Series Review: Azumanga Daioh

Azumanga Daioh, based on the manga of the same name by Kiyohiko Azuma, is a quirky high school comedy that is unlike other anime series. Over the course of 26 half-hour episodes, this slice-of-life show follows a group of female students through all three years of high school in Japan. The show combines wonderful characters, gentle yet off-the-wall humor, and an overall sense of nostalgia for high school life.

Unlike other anime series, Azumanga Daioh does not have a singular plot running through it. The only continuity between episodes is the passage of time. The original manga was drawn in "4comi" or comic strip form. Each strip had a title and dealt with a situation across four panels. This structure also makes its way (sort of) into the anime version. Every episode is divided up into five sections and each section has a title. The sections of each episode are connected together by a common theme. For example, an episode may have five different stories that each deal with the characters at the yearly Sports Festival the high school is having.

The heart and soul of Azumanga Daioh are the characters. While most of them represent various high school archetypes, each one is distinctive. Sakaki is a girl who is envied and admired by the other girls in her class. She is tall, athletic, and naturally smart but also quiet and somewhat aloof. She has an affinity for all things cute and is routinely attacked by a stray black cat she desperately wants to pet. Chiyo (or Chiyo-chan, as she's called most of the time) is a 10-year-old genius who has skipped a few grades into high school. While she is arguably the smartest girl in the class, she has some trouble dealing with the non-educational aspects of high school. She envies Sakaki for her height (Chiyo-chan's short for her age) and attitude. The irony is that Sakaki envies Chiyo-chan for being so darn cute.

Tomo is loud, hyperactive, and brash. She speaks her mind, comes up with ridiculous ideas, and imagines herself as being a whole lot better than she really is. Tomo only gets through high school by copying the homework of her best friend Yomi. Yomi is not only Tomo's childhood friend but also her exact opposite. Of all the characters, she's the closest to a "normal" girl. She's studious and friendly and like other high school girls, she constantly worries about her weight.

Despite having a real name, Osaka is always referred to by the city she transferred from. To those from Tokyo, people from Osaka are considered to be "country" and that shows in Osaka the character. She's dim-witted, speaks with a light Osakan accent (a light Southern accent in the English dub), and is not good at anything she does. Despite her faults, she's happy, polite, and friendly. Her daydreams provide the show with its weirdest, most surreal moments.

Those five characters are the major ones in the show and they are joined later by Kagura, a dumb athlete who sees Sakaki as her rival. Another relatively minor character is Kaorin, a girl who has a serious woman-crush on Sakaki.

The girls' homeroom teacher is Miss Yukari, a woman who hilariously represents the worst qualities a teacher could ever have. She's self-centered, lazy, hotheaded, and somewhat mean. When her bike's chain breaks while on her way to school in the first episode, she actually steals the bike of the student who stopped to help her. Then there is Miss Minamo, the girls' P. E. teacher and swimming coach. She is well-loved by her students, a fact that is not lost on Miss Yukari who has been friends with Miss Minamo since they went to high school together. The girls' math teacher, Mr. Kimura, is also the only male character of any consequence in the entire series. He is, quite simply, a pervert who clearly likes high school girls. Depending on your sensitivity to his obsession with high school girls, his behavior throughout the series can be seen as funny or cringe-inducing.

One of interesting things about this show is the way it deftly handles things that are true to life as well as surreal fantasy. Yearly events actually take place every year within the show. There are three episodes that focus on the yearly Sports Festival, three episodes that deal with the yearly Culture Festival, and three episodes that deal with yearly exams. Then there are things in the show that are just plain strange. One of the strangest is an orange, catlike being that stands on two feet. He appears throughout the show and is often called Chiyo-chan's "father." Also, the show has a lot of references to Japanese culture and gags that require knowledge of the Japanese language in order to truly understand them. The translator's notes in the individual DVD volumes explain these references in detail and the dub changes some of them to make them palatable to an English-speaking audience.

The music of the show matches it perfectly. Composed by Masaki Kurihara, the score is truly hard to describe. The best way to describe it would be light, peppy, and somewhat circuslike. The animation is not the best you'll see in anime, but it's very good nonetheless. Lack of movement and repetition are used to comedic effect with great results. The character designs are more realistic than something like Sailor Moon and the use of color is excellent. The English dub of this show, done by ADV Films, is actually quite good. The actresses do a fine job with the characters and get better with each subsequent DVD.

Azumanga Daioh is not an anime series that will appeal to everyone. Japanese humor is quite different from American or British humor and for some people, the laughs will be lost in translation. In addition, since the anime has virtually no male characters that interact with the girls, some will think of it as an indulgent male fantasy. They will think that it's all about cute, innocent girls being...well, cute and innocent especially since the creator is male. I think there is a bit more to Azumanga Daioh than that. Azumanga Daioh is an idealistic look at that portion of your life that brings about the end of childhood. This show is purposely devoid of all of the problems that teenagers face during their time in high school including sex, violence, drugs, peer pressure, and overall angst. Azumanga Daioh focuses on the good things, the things you look back on fondly. It celebrates something that, apart from religion, can help people through both the best and worst times...friendship. That is something that everyone can relate to.

Azumanga Daioh is currently available on DVD in six individual volumes from ADV Films. A thinpak boxset of the show will be released in September.

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