A review of Azumanga Daioh

Azumanga Daioh coverLast month, early in my August daily writing binge, I put up a short post about the Azumanga Daioh opening theme Soramimi Cake and the memories it brought back. Memories of resting the morning after puking my insides out from college antics, so not exactly the best kind (or not the most wholesome anyway.)

Watching the then still pretty recent slice-of-life comedy Azumanga (this was back around 2006 from what I remember, and no I wasn’t 21 yet: I remember that much) helped ease my mind a few of those mornings. It was an unusual choice for me — back then, I didn’t have much of an interest in anime like this and was far more into the adult-oriented action, that dark and gritty stuff for manly men like me. I’m pretty sure I picked up Azumanga for the sole reason that images and animated gifs of it were all over the internet back then, or at least around the anime-enjoying parts of it, and those gifs especially were entrancing enough to make me take an interest.

Azumanga Daioh knucklehead dance

I just had to know, you can’t blame me

After writing that post, I decided to check back on the first couple of episodes of Azumanga. This 26-episode series aired over the spring and summer of 2002, based on an original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma published from 1999 to 2002 in Dengeki Daioh (which I went over in that post, but I can’t go without repeating the origin of the series’ name in this one.) Twenty years now makes this officially “old anime”, or maybe classic or vintage if you want to be fancy about it, and watching it again after 16 or 17 years felt like seeing it again for the first time, only with some hazy memories that made it all feel familiar: the very best kind of rewatching experience.

That was the feeling I had watching the first two episodes again, like a warm blanket on a cold morning, and about as close as I can get anymore to the warmth of a glass of whiskey along with it (though not in the morning, not even back then.) This feeling was so nice that I watched a few more episodes, and a few more the next day, and at some point I was halfway through and well on my way to a full rewatch because Azumanga Daioh ended up holding up even better than I thought it would. Strangely enough, even though it’s set in high school and mostly follows a central cast of six friends living their high school lives, I think I got more from the series as an embittered working adult than I did as a drunken idiot college student far closer in time to those days.

Yukari and Nyamo drinking

Part of it had to do with these two, but not entirely. Also yeah check out that 4×3 aspect ratio, such memories. That’s how you know Azumanga is vintage anime.

I plan to explore that feeling and others further along this post. But I don’t plan on writing this review in the typical way. The plot to Azumanga is extremely simple: a bunch of friends go through high school from start to finish. That’s really it. Azumanga isn’t the first anime series I’ve written about with no real plot to speak of beyond “cast of characters live their lives”, with just a couple of character-specific side-plots that show up now and then. But it is maybe the least plot-heavy (plot-lightest?) one I’ve taken on in comparison to its extremely strong emphasis on its characters. Since this is one of the most character-driven shows I’ve watched, I feel like outlining the central and supporting cast before getting in depth with my thoughts on the series as a whole. Starting with:

Sakaki

Sakaki from Azumanga Daioh

Just Sakaki — her given name is a mystery. She starts as a bit of an outsider thanks to her quiet and mild demeanor and her imposing aura — she’s tall and striking, excelling at both studies and sports and inspiring sort of girl-crushes in her class (and an actual romantic crush from another character I’ll get to later.) Despite her reputation, Sakaki loves cute things, especially cats (who don’t reciprocate her love and usually bite her when she tries to pet them) and wishes to be cute herself. She also has a tendency to daydream, making up elaborate fantasies that she occasionally mistakes for reality, though thankfully in a pretty harmless way. Though she’s not all that talkative, Sakaki slowly becomes a solid part of the central cast’s friend group.

Kagura

Kagura from Azumanga Daioh

The other girl in the central group with just one name we know. Kagura starts out in a different class from the rest of the group and sees Sakaki as a rival at athletics when they’re in different classes their first years (though not in academics, which she’s terrible at.) After being in the background for a while, she transfers to the main group’s class in their second year and befriends Sakaki and the rest. As the resident tomboy, Kagura is a tough girl, but she also has a softer side (so a pretty typical anime tomboy type? Still like her though.)

Koyomi Mizuhara

Koyomi Mizuhara from Azumanga Daioh

Better known as Yomi. Studious and serious, Yomi is often the voice of reason in the group, except when she loses her temper. She often fights with the next girl on this list, her childhood friend and classmate Tomo Takino, for reasons that are entirely understandable. Sometimes has a bit of a sarcastic and occasionally even a mean streak and is more than capable of scheming, but her heart’s usually in the right place. Yomi is also constantly watching her weight (and getting teased by Tomo about it.)

Tomo Takino

Tomo Takino from Azumanga Daioh

Yomi’s childhood friend and long-time classmate, and the self-appointed class clown and Kagura-appointed “idiot wildcat”, or I think that’s how it was translated. Tomo has an endless supply of energy, yet somehow she consistently shrugs off her studies, gets bad grades, and even fails at athletics. She’s also generally a reckless nuisance who inserts herself into any and every conversation and situation she feels like, often speaking and acting before thinking, and usually aggravating Yomi and starting fights between them. Despite Tomo’s obnoxious nature, she’s also a source of positive energy (sometimes positive anyway) and is still counted as a close friend of the group, bringing them together in sometimes unexpected ways. Even if it’s only to get yelled at by everyone else.

Chiyo Mihama

Chiyo Mihama from Azumanga Daioh

In some ways the most remarkable member of the central group, Chiyo is a newly minted high school student at only ten years old, a child prodigy who jumped several grades out of elementary school. You might expect a precocious brat out of a character like Chiyo, and though she is both from a wealthy family and extremely intelligent (not just for her age, but even compared to her much older classmates) she doesn’t have a superior attitude and tries hard to just be another high school student. Her total lack of physical coordination also helps balance her out a bit character-wise.

For their part, her friends at school treat her largely in just the way she wants, as just a friend and fellow classmate, though she does become something of a class mascot during their sports and cultural festivals. Chiyo also gets a bit bullied for her small stature sometimes, particularly by Tomo and their homeroom teacher (and man, more about her soon too.)

Ayumu Kasuga

Ayumu Kasuga (or Osaka) from Azumanga Daioh

And then there’s the most truly remarkable character in this central cast. You might not know the name Ayumu Kasuga, but find any list of popular anime characters over the last twenty years and you’ll find Osaka somewhere in there — this is the legend herself. Ayumu joins the class at the beginning of Azumanga as a transfer student from Osaka to Tokyo, yet despite Osakans’ reputation for being rowdy and loud (something like New Yorkers’ or Bostonians’ reputation here in the States maybe?) she’s just the opposite, both slow- and soft-spoken. Even though she defies Tomo’s expectations about how Osakans are supposed to act, Ayumu still gets pinned by her with the nickname “Osaka”. This new name instantly sticks to the point that it’s easy to forget that’s not her actual name, and also to the point that I’ll just be calling her Osaka too from now on.

There isn’t any other character quite like Osaka. She’s sometimes considered dumb, with her constant trailing off and her difficulties with her studies, but she’s anything but — her mind just operates on a completely different wavelength than everyone else’s. Osaka often isn’t paying much attention to what’s happening around her, but that’s because she’s wondering about the origins of common expressions or words or simply about why life is the way it is. Like Sakaki, Osaka has bizarre dreams that she confuses with reality, but unlike Sakaki, she also seems to forever live in a semi-dreamlike state. She’s my favorite character in Azumanga without question, and that’s a high bar to clear.

In addition to this main cast, Azumanga features several important supporting characters, some of the more prominent including:

Yukari Tanizaki

Yukari Tanizaki from Azumanga Daioh

An English teacher and also homeroom teacher to the central group. Yukari is casual and offhanded despite her role as a teacher, even letting her students refer to her by her given name and even as Yukari-chan. Yukari still seems to want to be a student, an irresponsible adult if there ever was one — she’s inconsiderate and cheap as hell, a real contrast to her friend, former classmate, and current colleague Minamo Kurosawa. It’s not a big stretch to say Yukari is probably how Tomo will turn out if she stays on her current course.

All that said, Yukari still has a real impact on her class and on the central characters, most of whom are with her all three years of high school. I’d say her heart is also in the right place but I’m not so sure with Yukari. But then she sure doesn’t give any fucks, and I guess I can respect that to some extent.

Minamo Kurosawa

Minamo Kurosawa from Azumanga Daioh

A P.E./gym teacher and homeroom teacher in the class next to Yukari’s. In contrast with Yukari, Minamo is actually respected by her students throughout the series for her maturity and kindness, often inspiring jealousy in Yukari that she doesn’t bother to resolve by being a better teacher herself. Minamo and Yukari are still close friends despite Yukari being Yukari — they attended the very same high school they work at in the same class years earlier, and Minamo soon becomes known as Yukari’s nickname for her, “Nyamo”, by the central characters. In some ways, Nyamo is the most relatable character to me, which I suppose is probably a good sign for my mental maturity.

Kaorin

Poor Kaorin

Another student in the same grade as the central cast. Kaorin is friendly with everyone, and while she isn’t quite a solid part of that central cast, she does get invited along to hang out with them sometimes. Kaorin’s main thing, however, is her massive, no-question actual romantic crush on Sakaki — she’s constantly trying to find a way to get closer to her beloved, though sadly for Kaorin that love is never reciprocated. Though to be fair Kaorin never really expresses it either, and Sakaki does live in her own world most of the time and isn’t the most observant except when it comes to animals. Poor Kaorin.

Kimura

Kimura is a creep, Azumanga Daioh

Poor Kaorin, because the only person who expresses that kind of feeling about her is this guy. Kimura is the school’s Japanese literature teacher, an exceedingly strange and creepy man with a passion for high school girls. Yeah, specifically the girls. He’s shockingly open about his feelings and his thankfully futile attempts to get the girls to wear their swimsuits to class and so on. There are plenty of absurd aspects of Azumanga, but maybe the most absurd is the fact that Kimura still has a job by the end of the story. (But then again, maybe that’s not so unusual.)

There does seem to be a little more to Kimura than that, and he never goes beyond some creepy and bizarre behavior particularly towards Kaorin, who’s tragically placed in his class in her third year. But still, man. This fucking guy.

Chiyo’s father

HELLO EVERYNYAN

He’s a cat. Don’t tell him he isn’t a cat. Also speaks English, can fly, and has other useful powers.

These and a few other characters (a couple of other students, a few cats, a dog, and a mysterious woman you’ll get to discover for yourself) spend 26 episodes just living their lives. Again, there really isn’t any plot to speak of in Azumanga. That’s by design, because the show clearly doesn’t mean to have a plot, unless “high schoolers coming of age” counts. There’s no romance (aside from the running “Kaorin loves Sakaki” joke, and something that one-sided hardly qualfies) and no drama, only a bunch of comedy bits strung together across three years of high school and its full run of classes, exams, cultural festivals, sports days, and summer vacation trips.

That might not sound terribly impressive or interesting to you, and reading the premise on paper it doesn’t to me either. At least I would have said that before starting to get into the slice-of-life genre early this year. Azumanga feels very much like a precursor to that strangely anime/manga-only “slice-of-life/cute girls doing cute things” sort of hybrid genre, containing a wide variety of series with Lucky Star, Nichijou, Yuru Camp, and K-On! among the best-known. This series introduces a lot of the comedy and surreal humor this genre would become known for, and though these following series would have their own unique blends of those elements, some leaving out the surreal parts and others jacking up them even more (Nichijou, from what I’ve seen — it’s also on my list to watch) I think they all owe a lot to the work of Mr. Azuma and the team at the studio J.C.Staff that produced this adaptation.

Chiyo and her dog Mr. Tadakichi talk to Sakaki

Mr. Tadakichi is the dog

A lot of the character in Azumanga comes out of the VA performances. I’ve only watched the show subbed (I know, I’m that snooty sub elitist) and the voice actors all do excellent jobs, with Osaka’s languid trailing off lines being a special highlight for me. I still don’t have that much of an ear for it, but her VA Yuki Matsuoka is an Osaka native as well, and I know at least enough Japanese to hear some of that dialect in her speech — a nice touch there, like getting a Bostonian character an actor actually from Boston who doesn’t have to try to put on that accent.*

But setting my subtitle elitism aside, I’ve also heard the dub is pretty damn good and even iconic. Rare enough for an anime from 20 years ago to get that kind of attention to detail and quality in localization, though it still seems like a point of controversy that they decided to make Osaka into a country girl in her speech patterns both in the translated manga and the anime dub (look at Google Earth and go to Osaka; it’s anything but country.) But I’ve seen a few dub clips and it all works in the strange sort of way that somehow fits with the general strangeness of Azumanga. The only potential issue with watching the dub is that a few jokes based on language puns might not translate so well, but that’s not a new problem for translators and localizers working from Japanese to English. Maybe they found some creative ways around those issues.

Osaka from Azumanga Daioh wondering about the difference between escalators and elevators

This one doesn’t need explanation since they’re using English loanwords. When you think about it, “escalate” and “elevate” describe the same act, don’t they?

These characters don’t have a whole lot of development outside of Sakaki, who has her own separate story running through the series that resolves in a really nice and heartwarming way (and I don’t even mean “heartwarming” in the sappy sarcastic sense — it really works perfectly.) But I don’t think that matters since Azumanga stands well enough on its sometimes absurd comedy and on the occasional warm feelings it creates. I don’t think this series had a single episode I disliked or was at all bored by. That’s even considering the fact that some of its gags are drawn out with pauses and a lot of repetition, but they work perfectly well in this context.

Osaka floats off into the sea, Azumanga Daioh

Again, a lot of these scenes involve Osaka, seen here floating off totally oblivious into the sea. I think whether you like Osaka is a good test for whether you’ll like the series as a whole.

Maybe it’s strange that I like Azumanga so much. I’ve heard other fans say that the sense of nostalgia it creates is a big part of its appeal, and I can see that myself. It’s one of those series that transported me back to a time when I didn’t have bills to pay, and when life still held at least a little hope — when I still had some sense that there might be something out there in the world for me that I just hadn’t found yet. It’s a little melancholic going back to Azumanga so long after all that hope’s been fully crushed and disposed of, but my feelings when rewatching it were far more positive than that on the whole.

No, the strange part in my case is that my high school life was a fucking misery too, just in a different way. Being a painfully awkward and socially inept kid through most of middle school and the first few years of high school, I holed up with books and games. Not so much with anime, not back then, but I had plenty to keep me occupied in my own bubble, and by the time I’d started finally getting fed up and breaking out of my shell a bit, it was far too late to overcome first impressions, so I waited until college to bother with that.

So why the fuck should I enjoy a show about high school? Or any of these shows set in high school for that matter? I don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings about that godforsaken place, not even today, looking back near two decades after leaving.

Yukari and Nyamo at their desks at work, Azumanga Daioh

Depends on who you were and what you mean by easygoing, Yukari. But Yukari is easygoing even as an adult.

Maybe Azumanga works for me despite that because it’s still pretty far removed from my own American high school experience. On top of all the show’s surreal weirdness, that may create enough of a distance that I’m not exactly reminded of my own school life while still getting the benefit of nostalgic feelings from earlier childhood before that bullshit began. I can certainly relate to the girls’ struggles through their entrance exams, but I’m mostly digging the nicer memories of being a kid up from those earlier years.

At the same time, my current self can strongly relate with Minamo’s thoughts about adulthood in particular (since Yukari doesn’t seem to have those thoughts too much herself.) The idea of having to “get serious”, thinking about starting a family (and getting pressure from family yourself) is almost painfully relatable. Maybe a bit less for a man than a woman, but at least in the culture I was partly raised in, we get it as well.

If anything at all pained me about watching Azumanga, it was these occasional looks into my present and future as an adult with responsibilities. The show doesn’t dwell too much on these adult moments, but they’re nice breaks from all the high school-related insanity going on for the vast majority of its running time, and I especially like how the students are depicted as looking up to Minamo and not quite as much up to Yukari (and as for Kimura, again, the less said, the better.)

Yukari and Nyamo at nighttime, Azumanga Daioh

I’m looking for a Nyamo in my life, but I’ll probably end up with a Yukari, God help me. I also wonder what Yukari said to make their surprise blind dates bail on them — it’s left a mystery.

Once again I’ve written probably far too much about a simple comedy. But you know, sometimes what seems simple really isn’t, and seeing Azumanga again stirred up a lot of feelings in me, so I had to express them fully. Looking back now, the soundtrack did a lot to stir up those feelings too: I already wrote about the appropriately bizarre/lighthearted opener “Soramimi Cake”, but the show is full of memorable background music, many tracks that instantly came back into my mind the moment they began playing. I would post examples here, but there are so many that I’ll just put up this playlist I found on YouTube of both OSTs.

Sakaki and Kagura walking home from Azumanga Daioh

Oh such memories, such a simpler time, having to deal with evil stray cats on the way home

My final word on Azumanga Daioh is that it’s a great series that truly deserves to be called a classic. Maybe the production value isn’t quite up to today’s standards — certainly Azumanga isn’t nearly as detailed or nice-looking as some modern series — but the style works perfectly in its context, and every other element of the series works so well that I didn’t even notice the aged look of the show (though again this is coming from someone who loved almost all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes as well, and the original version too.) Azumanga may not be for you, for example if you absolutely need some serious action in your anime or you’re so deathly allergic to school-setting series that you can’t stand the sight of a sailor suit in any context at all. But even if these describe you, I’d encourage you to at least watch the first episode, because you might find something new to love like I did.

 

* Watch Scorsese’s The Departed. Good movie if you’re up for a lot of gang violence, but apparently it features some of the worst Boston accents in any movie. If you’re a Bostonian maybe check it out and see what you think of it.

6 thoughts on “A review of Azumanga Daioh

  1. Team Yukari ftw! She’s the type of person that I would enjoy spending time with my whole life.

    And let’s not forget Chiyo’s father… truly a hallmark of the words “Mentally untouchable” if you will 😂

    Serious things now, despite all the downsides of high school you faced, did you have a favourite year among the four? I would have to say the tenth or eleventh grade was mine, I felt I had a very good share of fun spending time with friends and not having to worry about the university troubles to come. We were really a tight knit group in those days, just like the Azumanga gang.

    • A life with Yukari sure wouldn’t be boring, I’ll say that much. And Chiyo’s father is truly a great man. Cat.

      No joke, my favorite year of high school was my senior year, and only for the fact that it was the last one and the end was in sight. I didn’t have a tight group back then, though I did run track all throughout high school and also had a few other isolated types to talk to on occasion. Not sure why we didn’t bond ourselves. If I could go back and do it all again knowing what I know now, but then everyone can say something like that.

      • I mean, I had a group that I hung out with back in high school, but in retrospect they were nowhere near as tight as them with each other, given they were part of the school band and spent a lot of time outside of school gaming with each other. Plus, I do know one teacher which might come close to Yukari or Chiyo’s father in terms of kookiness: my 11th grade physics teacher, who I actually met by chance a few months back and followed up with.

        It’s interesting you bring up that last sentence, because personally I like to believe there’s another universe where high school went exactly like how Azumanga Daioh told us it would go – plus the romance, intense sport competitions, and all that. Sometimes I like to ponder that, but nowadays it doesn’t get as bad as it did last year. How long has it been since you last talked to the “isolated types” folks from high school? I imagine it’s been a while.

      • Man, I haven’t talked to anyone from my old high school for well over a decade. Just didn’t keep up with any of them and now I guess we all live our own lives. I hope they’re doing well, especially those others who used to be isolated too.

        If it was guaranteed that high school would have been like Azumanga, I might just go back for just a while if I could. Maybe a few weeks at least. I can use a vacation.

      • I see. Well for me I kept in touch with some of them for a few years after high school ended. We’d be balling on Fridays, eating dinner at someone’s house or go to amusement parks – but since 2020 happened we’re basically a fractured splinter going our own ways I guess.

        As for the general majority, I can only hope that they’re doing well also; I know some of them have married young, are studying law, or moved away from Canada in general. It’s pretty bittersweet to think about, I guess? Anyhow – I pray for them in my Rosary intentions on occasion.

      • If they’re studying law, then I sympathize with them! More seriously, even if high school wasn’t that great, I do hope the same for my classmates. We all end up going our separate ways, and especially by my age — approaching twenty years on now from graduation, and it’s all kind of a haze now.

        It could have been a lot worse, anyway. I get why so many people seemed to connect with Azumanga on that “high school memory” level.

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