Azumanga Daioh vols. 1-4
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author: Kiyohiko Azuma
Price: $9.95 each
I’ve seen a lot of anime and manga that have polarized audiences, but I don’t think very many have caused as violent a rift between the “love-its” and “hate-its” as Azumanga Daioh. On one extreme side of the argument are the show’s rabid fans, who believe that every anime and manga fan would (and should) love this title. On the other are the people who think that Azumanga Daioh is substance-free cute marketing fluff, a Pokemon for lonely guys. So, which is it? After reviewing all the evidence and giving it some thought, I think I’ve reached a conclusion I can comfortably accept.
Azumanga Daioh belongs to a genre we rarely see in its purest form: Slice of Life. By that, I don’t mean the watered-down definition of the term that translates into something like “dumb harem comedy whose writers were too lazy to come up with an actual plot.” This is much closer to the true definition of “slice of life”: realistic writing that focuses primarily on the small, everyday details of life. Azumanga doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it merely chronicles the everyday lives of a group of offbeat high-school girls, how they struggle through each day trying not to look like fools, and how they rarely succeed. There are no Earth-shattering crises, character deaths, or “A Very Special Episode Of…” moments at all. There are a few weird and wacky moments, but for the most part, Azumanga Daioh just doesn’t concern itself with the monumental or fantastic.
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Such is the nature of Slice of Life; it usually doesn’t sound very exciting on paper. Azumanga Daioh is about as conceptually simple as stories get, but that simplicity is also the comic’s greatest strength. It doesn’t try to incorporate crazy gimmicks or criss-cross genres in an attempt to appeal to more readers. It doesn’t try to turn into a romance story halfway through, nor does it try to inject drama where there is none. It’s a light, whimsical comedy about some teenage girls, and it remains so to the end. Such purity of concept has become a commendable quality as of late, considering how many recent titles can’t resist experimenting with very little regard as to whether or not said experimentation works.
Of course, Azumanga‘s simplicity of concept demands that its cast be memorable enough to make up for the lack of action, but the comic passes this test with flying colors. The characters are quirky, yet fully realized enough to avoid coming off as mere gimmicks. Sakaki, by outward appearances, is a pretty, tall, athletic lone-wolf character, yet she’s actually very shy and enamored with all things cute. Tomo is a buzz-saw of kinetic energy with a more-than-slightly mangled view of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. Yomi, the most businesslike and “normal” of the characters, is obsessed with her weight. Osaka comes off as an airhead who isn’t really good at anything at all, but in her own way she’s actually the most perceptive character. Chiyo, a 10-year-old genius, is naturally the “cute and sweet” character, but she’s also very self-conscious about her position as a grade school student in high school. The cast is rounded out by the competitive athlete Kagura, the affable P.E. teacher Nyamo, and the psycho English teacher Yukari. There’s also the pervy teacher Kimura and the Sakaki fangirl Kaorin, but they’re both so minor that they’re practically relegated to “gag character” status.
That alone would make for a pretty interesting cast of characters, but what really impresses me about Azumanga Daioh is how it handles its character dynamics. It practices a sort of laissez-faire characterization; it wisely lets the characters be interesting on their own, rather than try to force us to be interested in them. It avoids laying on thick, heavy backstories for each character in favor of just letting them play off each other. Everyone reacts with a sort of irritated tolerance towards Tomo’s psychotic bursts of energy, but she’s also the one who tries to lift everyone’s spirits when fortunes look bad. Like the audience, no one’s ever totally sure if Osaka’s an airhead or a sort of idiot savant. Chiyo, despite being the most book-smart girl of the bunch, maintains a childlike gullibility in her day-to-day life. Things like these are what make the characters and their actions believable. Of course, by “believable” I don’t mean “totally realistic.” All the characters are exaggerated for comedic effect in one way or another, but they retain enough truth to create a genuine sense of schoolmate camaraderie.
I think I’ve made it clear which side of the Daioh Debate I’ve taken. I’ve spent most of this review gushing over Azumanga Daioh, but even so, I think it would be a grave mistake to act as though this comic will appeal to all people. Despite its vivid characters and occasional moments of wackiness, Azumanga Daioh is a fairly subtle, low-key comic. It’s about the horrors and joys of everyday life; it’s about the little nothings that happen to people every day, as opposed to momentous things that never happen to anybody. You almost never see guys faceplanting into girls’ chests, but people look stupid in front of their friends every day. Thus, Azumanga Daioh can seem mundane, or even boring to some audiences. Whether or not you will enjoy this rather eccentric comic depends largely on whether or not you can connect with the characters and identify with their situations. If you’re unable or unwilling to do this, then this comic will have nothing to offer you– its appeal is an all-or-nothing affair.
Azumanga Daioh does have other difficulties, with most being centered around the localization. Several of the strips have jokes that rely on cultural references or language quirks that just don’t have an English equivalent, and in spite of ADV Manga’s best efforts to find a counterpart that makes sense (with varying levels of success), the humor doesn’t always quite make it over the barrier. To make matters worse, while the final two volumes of the series contain translation notes, the first two volumes have none at all, so the original jokes and the reasons for changing them are left a mystery. There’s also the matter of localizing Osaka’s accent; evidently, the translators chose to substitute a New Jersey accent for her Osakan accent. I’m not a fan of dialect in any sort of written communication, but it’s done so inconsistently here that I wish they had just left it out altogether. And finally, as with all gag strips, some of the jokes simply fall flat in either language.
In my mind, to call anything a “feel-good” title is to damn it with faint praise. “Feel-good” is an adjective that’s become a pejorative through usage; most reviewers reserve it for tepid comedies or any title that tries to make its own saccharine sweetness the focus of the show. Yet, I honestly can’t think of a single adjective that’s a better fit for Azumanga Daioh. It’s a “feel-good” comedy in the best sense of the term: it manages to amuse and uplift the audience without leaving them feeling cheated or betrayed. It’s simple and entertaining without being totally vapid, and it never raises any heavy questions, only to evade them. Though I do think the TV series is quite a bit better than the comic, this is still the strongest title I’ve seen from ADV Manga yet. It’s a light, amusing little thing that’s nowhere near as creepy as either the ultra-hardcore fans or the vehement haters might lead you to believe.
Added: Monday, January 24, 2005
Related Link: ADV Manga