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Reaching the halfway point of the series, the third volume of Azumanga Daioh manages to deliver in a big way. While it starts slow, it ultimately makes up for it with great episodes, a new character, and a cute new bonus accessory to boot.
Featuring a late-comer in the cast, Azumanga's third disc opens up with the introduction of its final main character, Kagura. The token jock of the series, Kagura has made appearances prior to Rivals!, but has only been placed among the series' primary characters with the opening episodes of this particular volume. As suggested by the DVD's title, she becomes a valuable member of the cast in that she quickly declares herself as Sakaki's rival, in effect managing to flesh out that character, as well as herself, to a greater extent than seen previously (although Sakaki herself seems rather oblivious to the fact that she's even seen as a rival). Unfortunately, the episodes which serve to establish both the new character and new plot angle don't really accomplishing anything else of note. While still funny, they just aren't as memorable or humorous as what's been seen in the series up to this point, and could almost be regarded as wholly forgettable beyond the introductions.
The last three episodes of the disc make up for this minor shortcoming, however. Taking a cue from the Sakaki episode of the previous volume, the third episode here presents another largely sentimental outing, this time focusing on Chiyo's perception of high school life and how much she has (and hasn't) matured since transfering. The episode is not only a bit touching, but also doubles as an excellent introductory episode for those unfamiliar with the series, as Chiyo explains each individual character and plot point at considerable length. The final two episodes then bring Azumanga back up to the same level of comedic form seen in the first two DVDs, and even a little bit beyond. With the fourth episode focusing on exams and the formation of the "Bonklers" team (named "Knuckleheads" by ADV) of Tomo, Osaka, and Kagura, and the final episode being the second of the incredibly funny summer break episodes, this pair alone make this disc worth purchasing. They really do embody Azumanga at its finest.
In terms of its visuals, the series is still an above-satisfactory package. Still taking something of a "less is more" approach, the producers have done a great job of applying decidedly limited animation to the show's verbal gags, and waiting for the slapstick routines to open up a bit more. In fact, some parts of the animation seem to shine even above the standard Azumanga has established for itself. While the entire disc isn't exactly stellar, these occasional areas of smoother and more refined animation do make the overall product look at least a touch more polished than previous entries.
Musically, Azumanga Daioh remains utterly unchanged. The score continues to rely heavily on the same instruments and melodies that have been featured prominently in every volume up to this point, and the opening and ending themes are the same addictive tunes that have been used since episode one. But as the old adage goes, if it's not broke, don't fix it. The music may not be anything worth writing home about, but it still works wonders in reflecting the light-hearted, jovial mood intended for the series as a whole.
Once again, both the English and Japanese voice acting casts put in overall great performances. The Japanese seiyuu are as strong as ever, and the English cast has polished out nearly all of its rough spots. Worth specific note is the new character, Kagura, voiced in Japanese by popular seiyuu Houko Kuwashima, and in English by Allison Sumrall. Kuwashima's delivery is spot-on, excellently bringing out the mix of energy and dim-wittedness that personifies the character. While not quite as on the mark as Kuwashima, Sumrall's rendition still captures the energy of the character, with an overall performance that's relatively on par with the rest of the cast.
While ADV are praised by many fans for often including a lot of extras on their discs, Azumanga once again proves a surprising disappointment for the most part. The actual on-disc extras are the exact same things seen in the past couple releases; aside from an automatically-cycling set of production sketches, clean opening and closing, and trailers, there's nothing to be found here. However, the saving grace comes from what's packaged with the disc, rather than what's actually on it. Another wonderful reversible cover, this time featuring Sakaki on both the default and reverse, and the booklet of translation notes, production commentary, and character sketches (of both Sakaki and Kaorin) is as in-depth and insightful as ever. Also included with this volume is an adorable lapel pin of Sakaki's plush cat doll (and one of AzuDai's mascots), Necoconeco.
It should go without saying at this point that Azumanga Daioh still isn't (and never will be) suited to everyone's sense of humor. But if you've been enjoying the series up to this point, then Rivals! will not disappoint, and is well worth the price of purchase. The beginning is a bit lax, but beyond that is undoubtedly Azumanga in top form.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ More of the same great comedy and production values, likable new character.
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