This was always going to be an interesting one to review. Azumanga Daioh is frequently held up by people such as myself as a cutesy 4-koma adaptation that is actually good and therefore proof that I don’t unconditionally hate moe comedies. But Azumanga was made long before those series became a commonplace and diluted the market with their terribleness. I was genuinely unsure what returning to it would reveal. Was there some secret trick Azumanga pulled that all subsequent series failed at, or will I regard Azumanga with the same disdain at disgust I usually reserve for stuff like A-Channel?
Or will I just post a review that consists entirely of screencaps of Chiyo looking distraught?
People often say that Azumanga doesn’t have a plot, which isn’t true. Or perhaps ‘plot’ isn’t the right word, but there is a very strong narrative running through the show. You know the way Japan has this idea that high school is the greatest time of your life. There’s a whole load of societal reasons why this time period is fetishised to this degree, from the oppressive lifestyle that is working salaryman life to the widespread culture of idolising youth in general, but it’s a big part of why 99% of anime are set in high school. Anime fans take issue with this, but that’s because anime fans are nerds and therefore high school sucked for them. Western culture likes to idolise college life because it’s seen as when you finally get freedom to get away from your parents, drink alcohol legally and have lots of sex, which again comes down to a whole load of cultural reasons.
But anyway, Azumanga is selling this idea of this idolised highschool life, and does this by presenting it through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. It’s similar to the author Kiyohiko Azuma’s other work, Yotsuba-ampersand, which takes the view that you can enjoy even the simplest things in life if you view it through the eyes of a 6-year-old. The other thing that Azumanga does is, while events are certainly suger-coated in that nobody in the show suffers severe repercussions from their crippling social anxieties, child-molesting teachers, or closet lesbianism, it’s also not like everyone is wonderful to each other all the time. A nice subtitle for the show would be “Teenagers bully a 10 year old girl: The Animation”.
Case in point:
This one is my favourite one. Osaka asks Tomo something and Tomo absent mindedly responds while she’s pulling on Chiyo’s pigtails. They never draw attention to it. It’s just happening as part of everyday life.
The first half is more about setting up the various characters and giving them their single defining trait that will make up every single bloody joke they’re involved in for the entire rest of the goddamn show, but the second half leans way more heavily on the high school life portion. This is largely because the characters are leaving school and everyone becomes introspective about how their friendships formed and what they’re going to do with their lives from now on. It’s about the importance of the relationships you form and how each person’s eccentricities make up the entertaining concoction that is your school life. But equally it’s about this being the last portion of your life where you don’t have to make any serious choices that affect your career direction. It’s about the characters coming to terms with what they like and making those decisions by themselves, but also about hoping for the best for your friends and giving them support, even if it’s as dumb as giving them charms to take into exam.
The inclusion of the teachers as major characters is fascinating, because in many ways they’re constantly reliving their high school life. Apart from still physically being in the school, they spend most of their time together reminiscing about high school. They also are made face the decisions they made at the end of highs chool to become teachers in the first place. That episode in particular was weirdly poignant. It came before the rest of Azumanga got more reflective and was mostly a dumb comedy, so the teacher’s hard thinking about where they were in their life and whether they made the right choices was a perfect mirror to hold up to the same questions the girls had once the final batch of episodes kicked in.
Speaking of the comedy, here’s more pictures of Chiyo looking unhappy.
The comedy in Azumanga isn’t particularly clever or anything. Its connection to the overarching narrative of girls growing up and forming relationships gives it a bit of weight at least, but as singular jokes they’re hardly the height of social satire. There are a few occasions where it slips into the surreal, in particular an episode focused around each character having bizarre dreams involving Chiyo and her cat-dad. Those episodes are brilliant, both from a surreal humour perspective, and the way they tie how the other character’s views of Chiyo. Chiyo is kinda surreal in her own way, being this ball of cuteness so concentrated that it forces you into a fever dream that distorts reality around her, so seeing that presented in the form of dream sequences was fantastic.
But those surreal sequences are few and far between. Most of the rest of the humour is the same gag for each character repeated to breaking point. Sakaki is the worst in this regard. At least when Osaka is dopey, she’s dopey about a different thing every time. Sakaki is so single minded about cats that she basically has nothing else inside that head of hers. Yomi is even worse, to the point that they struggle to come up with any personality trait whatsoever and in the end make a half-hearted attempt to have her weight issues become something more character defining. The comedy gets by mostly on its timing, for which it has the best comedic timing for anything anywhere anytime. There was a scene where Osaka runs after her friends with her hands above her head yelling “CAKEEII~”.
By itself not particularly funny, but the pause they did before where Osaka’s brain clunks into gear before she realises that there’s cake to be had is so perfectly timed. Osaka is usually the recipient of these pauses, which work brilliantly because you can practically hear the rusted gears inside her brain whirring as she comes to some nonsense conclusion. Generally though, the humour’s quality wanes alarmingly quickly because there’s so little to it and it repeats itself so bloody much. The show’s depth doesn’t truly appear towards the end, so the occasional surreal episode and cuteness of Chiyo are left trying to hold up the rest of the show by themselves. They do a surprisingly good job of it though. Only towards the 3rd quarter did some of the episodes really start to bore me.
As I was watching this show and formulating these thoughts about Azumanga’s depiction of high school life, I realised that I had seen these exact same arguments made about another anime: K-ON! This idea that you’re watching the characters form relationships and live their high school life, coupled with that same depressing feeling when you reach the end and watch them leave school together. That is exactly what I got from Azumanga through exactly the same format with exactly the same genre construction. Which got me thinking as to what the hell it was K-ON did wrong that caused such an internet backdraft against it? Perhaps I could blame the fact it came once the moe boom was in full swing, or that it came after Lucky Star ruined that genre forever by being literally Hitler. But Azumanga’s jokes are fairly repetitive with stupid characters and leans heavily on cuteness too. I didn’t enjoy Azumanga as much this time around, but I still certainly enjoyed it. Maybe I should try watch K-ON aga-
NO SCAMP BAD SCAMP DON’T DO THIS QUICK POST MORE PICTURE’S OF CHIYO!!!