Television Series Review: Azumanga Daioh

Lu, la lu, la –

Azumanga Daioh serves very well as an introduction to anime for those who are unfamiliar with the genre.

My husband really enjoys anime, and much of our courtship revolved around him sharing some of his treasures with me; the first series that he showed me, Darker Than Black, I had a hard time following and did not really get. 3 years and several anime series later, I think I would fare much better if I watched it again. I am more familiar with the pacing strategies, the narrative techniques, and, for lack of a better word, the conventions. But Azumanga Daioh, the second series we watched together, I was able to pick up without a problem.

Call it “Anime Lite”, perhaps?

Lu, la lu, la –

A couple of weeks ago I had a desire to watch it again. (I had actually been hoping to watch a couple of episodes on New Years Eve, but my guests weren’t really the anime type, so Super Troopers it was!) I can’t really put my finger on where that desire came from – there’s nothing going on in my life right now that particularly connects to the stories of six fun-loving Japanese school girls, and rewatching the show didn’t trigger any cathartic revelations in me. But, to quote Giles Goat-Boy, “Not every day can be Graduation Day.” Sometimes you don’t want to put on black velvet and eye liner and eat roast dragon for supper; sometimes you want to wear blue jeans and serve up microwaved leftovers. For times like that, there’s Azumanga Daoih, and its silliness won’t serve you wrong.

Lu, la lu, la –

The theme song starts with catchy nonsense syllables and doesn’t even try to pass them off as legit lyrics (to Strong Bad’s delight, I’m sure – wow that reference just dated me). The lines that follow, while they are actual Japanese words, don’t really make much more sense than “lu la lu la” and they go something like:

piano wa sekai no yumesaku nohara ni melody
Kowareta tokei wo shinjite jikan wa dare no mikata?

Translated to English:

“The piano is a melody in the world’s field of blooming dreams
Believe in the broken clock and who’s side will time be on?”

If the melody weren’t so cheerful, the bad-poetry quality of these lyrics might lead you to think that you were about to watch something very melodramatic, perhaps emo – after all, when the manga of the same name that Azumanga Daioh draws from was published, 1999-2002, there were still some people willing to identify as emo out there, I’m pretty sure. But no. This theme song doesn’t lead you to think anywhere. Which is a good thing, because the point of Azumanga Daoih isn’t to think. Smile, bob your head, pretend you know Japanese well enough to sing along, and feel good. Now you’re getting the point…

So here are some things you might want to know about Azumanga Daioh if you’re trying to figure out whether or not to watch it:

    • Characters
From left to right, back row: Yomi, Tomo, Kagura, Osaka, Sakaki.  Chiyo is down front.
From left to right, back row: Yomi, Tomo, Kagura, “Osaka”, Sakaki. Chiyo’s down front.

Azumanga Daioh

      somehow manages to function both as a story with an ensemble cast of six very likable Japanese high school girls, and also very much as the story of one of these girls in particular: Chiyo Mihama, “Chiyo-chan”, who gets the green light to go to high school at the age of ten because she is a prodigy. I noticed this balance between ensemble and star the first time I watched the show, and even after the second time through I’m still not quite sure how the writers pulled it off. It’s rare.

Just so you understand the elements in play, I’ll give you a rundown of the ensemble: Chiyo, the Prodigy, is always optimistic and cheerful but understandably prone to anxiety, and she thrives off the well-deserved approval of her pseudo-peers. Tomo is the Wildcat: ten pounds of energy in a five-pound sack, and unfortunately that energy is not paired with any other talent. Kagura is the Athlete. She’s competitive. I don’t have much to say about her other than that it’s a shame she doesn’t like cats much, because if she did she might have more to talk about with her chosen rival, Sakaki, the Shy Cool Animal Lover (Sakaki, incidentally, while a runner-up to Chiyo in terms of screen time, is my favorite character in the show). “Osaka” (a transfer student from Osaka whose real name is forgettable) is the Space Cadet. And rounding out the leads of the show is Yomi, the Pragmatist, who keeps Tomo as (tenuously) grounded as she can be.

Azumanga Daioh also has some secondary characters that are worth noting. Foremost among these is Kaorin, a Lesbian who appears to lack self awareness, or at least a political consciousness. She has a huge crush on Sakaki but remains isolated throughout the series. The other secondary characters are three of the school’s teachers: Yukari, the Grown Up Wildcat… Nyamo, the Grown Up Pragmatist… and Kimurin, the Creepy Inappropriate Adult, the man who wants to save the school’s pool water after the girls swim in it.

Azumanga Daioh is very much a sitcom in that once the characters are set up, they go through their paces extremely predictably. The same points of tension surface again and again: Yukari spends money and drives impulsively. Everyone assumes Sakaki is aloof when internally she’s pining for someone to reach out to her. Tomo teases Yomi about her weight, playing on her insecurity, and Yomi tells Tomo to live in the real world. In this respect, the first episode is the last episode. And yet… just as there is a balance between ensemble and protagonist, there are elements of change to balance the characters’ stasis. Most dramatic of these elements is Sakaki’s triumphant reward of Mayaa, the iriomote cat who loves her. The return of Mayaa is of course my favorite episode; it reminds me of a certain tiger-striped cat I once knew.

    • Plot
Who needs plot in a chibi world?
Who needs plot in a chibi world?
      OK, maybe I didn’t make this clear enough the first time, I’ll restate it here:

The point of Azumanga Daioh is not to think.

      There’s no complicated story here. There are some moments when the silliness reaches a fever pitch and takes some unexpected turns, like when a sleepy “Osaka” thinks a butcher knife is a frying pan and accidentally scares Yukari into a gibbering mess, but I don’t think that really counts as a plot twist. (I guess Mayaa showing up on the mainland might count as a plot twist, but the fact that such a feat is ridiculous on its face prevents me from giving the writers much credit for that one.) The plot is that these girls are confronted with the events of three cycles of the Japanese school year, and they get to react in idiosyncratic ways without taking anything very seriously. No brain teasing and no enigmas, other than the question of what Chiyo-chan’s father

really

      looks like. The lack of plot opens up space in the narrative that gets filled with a lot of repeated moments and dialogue; for example, when Tomo hits Yomi over the head during a dream sequence and asks her a question that translates to

“Why the heck?”

      , she doesn’t ask that question just once; she fills at least a minute with repetitions of the question. This was probably the most egregious moment of repetition in the series, but it was far from the only one, and this is probably

Azumanga Daioh

      ‘s biggest weak point for me. Repetition can be a crucial element of comedic timing, I get that, but I think this series overdoes it a little.

    • Themes
Yomi is not the only one insecure about her body.
Yomi is not the only one insecure about her body.
      I found it very interesting that all of these girls managed to make it through high school not only without having boyfriends, but, as far as I could tell, without even referring to a male classmate by name. It’s as if they all have an unspoken agreement that none of them is ready for romance so therefore none of them are going to risk making any of the other ones uncomfortable by even thinking about the possibility of it. In fact, while the girls are happy to talk about their own and each others’ chests ad nauseam, the question of male sexuality is present only as a looming shadow in the figure of Kimurin, the mouth-breather who somehow manages to keep his job for three years when his overt ogling of the teens makes everyone uncomfortable, including his teaching peers. Boys, as peers, are present mostly as stick figures and outlines in the world of these girls. This is very different from what I remember of high school, and is also different from other portrayals of Japanese high school that I have been exposed to in the past 3 years (such as the

Persona

    video games). I end up wondering how much of this gender segregation is a cultural feature of Japan, versus to what degree it is an unconscious peccadillo of the series’ creators, versus to what degree it is an intentional artistic choice on the part of the artists, meant to reflect something unusual about the characters.

Azumanga Daioh would be pretty much my top recommendation to anyone who expressed an interest in Anime Lite to me. For serious aficionados of the medium, one or two episodes will probably suffice, before you get the hankering for something more gritty and turn to Speed Grapher instead. But Speed Grapher is not everyone’s speed. This comedy is gentle, mostly harmless, and if you like bizarre antics, it’ll make you laugh. Enjoy.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s