Reviewby Casey Brienza, Sep 4th 2009
The Complete DVD Collection
Azumanga Daioh follows the day to day lives of six (not so) ordinary high school girls and their teachers throughout their three years of high school—as they enjoy vacations, sports days, and cultural festivals and find success in their academic lives. Including among them are Chiyo Miyama, a ten year old child prodigy; closeted lover of cute things Sakaki, who to the rest of her classmates is the epitome of unruffled cool; spaced out Ayumu Kasuga, nicknamed Osaka; all around good student Yomi; her hyper energetic childhood friend Tomo; and the athletic swim team champion Kagura. On their periphery is Kaorin, who has a huge crush on Sakaki. Their teachers are the offbeat Yukari Tanizaki (English), the more level-headed Minamo Kurosawa (Physical Education), and the unabashedly perverse Kimura (Japanese).
Who would have ever thought that a 26 episode animated television series with a title that does not mean much of anything and with a story premise that really is not about much of anything—could be so unpretentiously yet humanely meaningful?
The warmth and humor of Azumanga Daioh are the dominant characteristics of the original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma, and the animation studio does a spectacular job at maintaining the sentiment of the original. Scenery and designs are stripped down and simple but never sloppy, and the pacing is measured. Some viewers, more readily accustomed and enculturated to the whiz-bang of American film and television, may become impatient with this show's long, pregnant pauses and comic timing. But even if you cannot stand it, it is very well constructed, and that is impossible to deny.
Also impressive is the way this anime takes a manga that is predominantly yonkoma in format and transforms it into a believable narrative of twenty-odd minute continuous episodes. Although some episodes do feel choppy, featuring perhaps two or three loosely connected vignettes, you would not ever suspect that Azumanga Daioh was originally yonkoma from its animated adaptation. In fact, the animated format provides a strong sense of continuity and of the passing of time, which is one of the story's more serious themes, which works better on the screen than on paper. There is an easy, natural rhythm to the girls' three years of high school, three years' worth of sports festivals, three years worth of summer vacations with their teachers, three years worth friendships. It is sometimes said that the best artistic craft is that in which the hand of the creator is invisible—this show is a good example of that principle.
If I have any gripe at all about how the manga's overarching narrative sweep was adapted into an anime, it would be with the subplot that involves closeted lover of all things cute (especially cats) Sakaki and the Iriomote kitten. One of the most dramatic and affective stories in the original manga, the climatic moment where the Maya defends Sakaki from the bullying black cat that has been biting the hand trying to pet it since the beginning of the series, passes far, far too quickly for my taste. The matter of fact way in which the show executes this emotional plot is perhaps more unforgivable given that so many other less impactful storylines are given far more dramatic, slow-motion attention.
Still, it's a small gripe, and there is still more than enough to love about Azumanga Daioh…the characters in particular. It is hard to have just one favorite because they are all so memorable and lovable. I am particularly partial to the English and homeroom teacher Yukari, whose arbitrariness in the classroom and reckless driving on the roads are sources of endless humor, and to Yomi, all around excellent student who secretly struggles with her weight. I also find myself sympathizing with Kaorin, whose hopeless infatuation with Sakaki is a source of both lowbrow, yuri comedy and of universal recognition. Even moe bait Chiyo is more than the sum of her gratuitous cuteness.
And speaking of moe, if you are looking for the pinnacle of the genre's potential, look no further than the humble Azumanga Daioh. Sure, the cuteness is enough to rot your teeth ten times over, but there is an unabashed—even idealistic—purity of sentiment to it that no amount of Kimura cameos or cup size conversations can overshadow. There is an overriding sense that these girls on the cusp of womanhood, along with the relaxed and responsibility free lives they lead, are something to be treasured, even more so because this stage of life is so brief. That is a thesis that is awfully hard to argue against.
Both the Japanese and English dubs are excellent, though in the case of the latter, Osaka's Osakan accent is adapted into an American southern drawl, which is, as always, a controversial choice. None of the vocal performances strike one as either especially positive or negative, and overall this must be viewed as a good thing because any standout performances mean that one character is getting more attention than the others—and that is not the point of this exercise. For the same reason, perhaps, the soundtrack is dull and unmemorable, though I would argue that it did not need to be quite so dull and unmemorable as it is. Opening and ending themes are of the tedious, helium-inspired female Japanese vocal sort and add precisely nothing to this otherwise strong production.
ADV's re-release of the entire six disc Region 1 DVD set in one economy-minded package is a most welcome revisiting of this beloved show. Do not expect much in the way of bonus material—besides the usual textless opening and ending themes, production sketches, and one bonus short animation included with the final disc—there aren't any. But for $49.98, this is a must buy for anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of watching Azumanga Daioh in its entirety. Oh, and be sure to pay close attention—it might be on the exam!
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C-
+ Spectacularly adapted plot and unforgettable characters.
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