Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Azumanga Daiohby Jason Thompson,
Episode LXX: Azumanga Daioh
Yon-koma (four-panel) manga is getting more and more popular. Story manga, with its TV/cinema-inspired storytelling techniques, are still the big hits that make most people into manga fans, but meanwhile, slowly, gradually, there are more and more breakout hits based on yon-koma: Lucky Star, K-ON!, Hetalia - Axis Powers, and the one that started it all, Azumanga Daioh. Perhaps it's because yon-koma manga don't have such complicated plots and are more inviting to new readers. Perhaps it's because of technology: more and more people are reading manga online and on cell phones, where the standard page format designed for print is awkward-looking, but where four-panel strips look just fine. Almost all the most popular webcomics are strips, after all. Just like American newspaper comic strips predate American comics, yon-koma predates story manga, and if the printed manga industry ever collapses, yon-koma might be the last thing to go, the way that cockroaches will survive a nuclear war.
Okay, that sounded bad. I should have used a cuter, moe metaphor, since yon-koma and moe go together like shoyu and mirin. When Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga Daioh first popped up in Dengeki Daioh magazine in 1999 (the story is named after the magazine), its success inspired a swarm of imitators, until today it seems like every other yon-koma manga must involve four to six cute schoolgirls and one irresponsible older-woman authority figure. (Of course, there are exceptions: I'm fond of Neko Ramen myself.)
You have to be good to inspire this kind of imitation. Kiyohiko Azuma's comedic timing is great, his art is cute (and he improves over the course of the story), and his characters are funny and distinct from one another, both physically and mentally, unlike some of his imitators who just draw four copies of the same girl with different-colored hair. They say that good character writing is when you know your characters so well you can just put two of them in the same room together and situations will start writing themselves.
The manga follows a group of girls through their three years of Japanese high school. There is no main character, but the mascot of the manga is probably Chiyo-chan, a 10-year-old girl who's so smart she's skipped ahead to high school. She's little and cute and hard-working like Sasami from Tenchi Muyo! (a popular anime when Azumanga Daioh started; I first became aware of the moe trend when I saw a Usenet poll where people overwhelmingly voted that Tenchi should end up with Sasami rather than the post-pubescent female characters) but she's also smart and competitive; when someone scores better on a test than her, or people make fun of her for her age, she gets pissed off. (You don't get to be a child genius by not caring.) But Chiyo's actually a nice person, and she's also adorable…and tiny. She is so small she can ride a dog. When she tries to give a speech to the class, everyone's transfixed because it's so cute the way her head barely clears the desk. When she gets a part-time job at a fast food restaurant, the customers think it's some kind of hidden-camera prank TV show. Her teeny-tininess is the manga's #1 source of physical comedy. The thing is, Chiyo isn't really aware of how cute she is; she's just trying to be a good student and make friends. But she's so cute she literally haunts her friends' dreams, and everyone wants to touch her pigtails and find out if, perhaps, they're actually wings, or alien antennae controlling her head.
Sakaki is as tall as Chiyo is short, and she's also got the best body of any of her classmates. Everyone's a little intimidated or impressed by her because she looks like the strong silent type, but actually, she's usually silent because she's spacing out, thinking about pets and stuffed animals and the other cute things she secretly loves. (No spoiler: in her first appearance her classmates in P.E. class see that she's wearing kitty-kat panties.) She's the one who writes an anonymous suggestion that the class should have a stuffed animal show for the school festival. Unfortunately, animals are terrified of her, and in a running gag, she spends most of the manga trying to pet a cat which keeps biting her. But like a gentle giant, she never gives up.
Tomo Takino introduces herself when she first shows up: "I'm Tomo Takino! I'm a crazy-go-nuts high schooler with energy and spunk, if nothing else!" Tomo is a hyperactive girl who's always full of crazy ideas, and who says whatever's on her mind, usually with speedlines and exclamation points. Like someone who's read too many shonen manga, she's incredibly earnest, the kind of person who thinks the real world isn't exciting enough so she'll MAKE it exciting. When she forgets her homework, she insists on punishing herself by standing out in the hall with a bucket of water in each hand, because that's the way they do it in old manga. ("I've always wanted to try this!") When she runs a marathon in P.E., she completely burns herself out running as fast as possible from the moment the race begins. She spreads rumors like "Legend tells that one of the school's many fire alarms is a self-destruct button!"…and she BELIEVES it. She means well, but she gets on everyone's nerves.
Ayumu Kasuga is a transfer student from Osaka, who talks in an accent which Yen Press renders as a sort of Southern drawl. "Back in Osaka, folks called me names like 'moron' and 'ditz.' But now ah got me a chance to turn things around!" she thinks. But Ayumu would be a space case no matter what part of the world she lives in. She's got an inexhaustible sense of wonder, and she can't stop rambling about things like superstitions and customs and the meanings of words. "Say, ain't the god of lightnin' s'posed to pull out youre belly button? How's that work? There a big hole? Does it get all smooth? Smooth wouldn't be so bad, but what if there's a big honkin' hole in your tummy?" Or: "You know them hemorrhoids…some folks call 'em 'hemorrhoids,' but others call 'em 'roids.' Why does the one not have an 'h' in it? Which one's right?" Since both she and Tomo are perpetually lost in flights of fancy, they end up becoming friends, although Kasuga's fancies are less hyper. Of course, it's Tomo who insists on calling Ayumu "Osaka," until the entire class calls her by that nickname. But Osaka is so easygoing, even Tomo doesn't bug her much.
All these weirdos need a straight-man character to be annoyed by their antics, and that role goes to Koyomi, a serious, sensible girl who wears glasses. Koyomi's biggest insecurity is her weight, and she's always trying to lose a few pounds. In one strip, she weighs herself…in the third panel she takes off her clothes to try to lose a few more kilos…and in the fourth panel, she takes off her glasses. Kagura is a sporty competitive girl, a little like Sakaki on the outside, but much more of a tomboy on the inside. Kaorin is a minor character who has a crush on Sakaki, although she doesn't show up much in the manga, her role in the anime is much bigger. This isn't a yuri manga, even though almost all the main characters are girls.
Although the characters go to a co-ed school, there aren't many speaking parts for boys, and the biggest guy character is the literature teacher, Kimura-sensei. A gaunt, hollow-cheeked creep, Kimura seems to always have his mouth open (thankfully, he's not drooling) and when a student asks him why he became a teacher, he answers "Because I like teenage girls and stuff!" That's right: Kimura's the perv. I described him as 'vaguely pedophilic' in Manga: The Complete Guide, which caused some arguments on Wikipedia over the definition of 'pedophilic,' but I think it's a fair description for a character who takes such a strong interest in girls' gym shorts and likes to drink water from the swimming pool after the girls have been swimming in it. But on the other hand, he never actually touches anyone, so maybe his interest is platonic and he's just misunderstood and…er…no, he's a perv. Is Kimura, perhaps, a sneaky parody of the Dengeki Daioh reader, of the age-21-and-up man who likes reading manga about high school moe girls? (Like Wooderson says in Dazed and Confused, "That's what I like about these High School Girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.") But Kimura's not entirely a bad guy; that would be too gross and would bring down the mood of this sweet manga. Actually, in every matter not involving teenage girls, he seems to be a saint, and the characters are blown away to discover that he's got a beautiful wife and a daughter who think he's the coolest. ("I can't accept that Kimura-sensei has a wife like her. It's too weird. Maybe we oughta call the police or something.")
But the glue that ties together all these characters is their homeroom teacher, Yukari-sensei, the first character who appears in the manga. She's a lazy, irresponsible, unprofessional teacher, who's less like a teacher than a student who never graduated. (In fact, she's teaching at the same school she once attended: "You're not a whit different from when you were a student! I'd like to see you act more like an educator!" the principal complains.) She likes to chat with the girls and talk about what boys she likes and doesn't like. She frequently acts like she hates teaching and she seems much more interested in getting a boyfriend, getting married, getting rich, or basically succeeding in life in any way she can short of working; she's totally petty and jealous whenever anyone gets ahead of her, whether it's her long-suffering friend Kurosawa-sensei (the P.E. teacher who loans her money and drives her to school), or a student who makes her look dumb. ("And on that note, we're having a test today. SHUT THE HELL UP!") She lives with her mom (admittedly, this is more common in Japan than in the U.S.), she's always short on cash, and she's veerrrry reluctant to tell anyone her exact age. And although she teaches English, she's never been to America, and in one scene when she sees an American she shouts "Uwaaah! A foreigner!" and runs away. In real life, Yukari would be pretty awful, but like Misato in Neon Genesis Evangelion, in a manga somehow her flakiness comes off as endearing. American comedy shows are full of parents who are more immature than their children, so a teacher who's more immature than her students is a natural progression. Amusingly, at times Yukari dreams of being the kind of beloved high school teacher that heartwarming movies get made about, like Music of the Heart and Stand and Deliver…it's just that the reality isn't so good. Maybe the message of Azumanga Daioh is, you've gotta learn to grow up, because the adults sure aren't gonna be grown up for you.
Take these characters, mix them up, and you have Azumanga Daioh. If they sound like a bunch of losers in my descriptions, trust me, they're all much more lovable in the hands of Kiyohiko Azuma: they may be a little clumsy and insecure and dorky sometimes, but they're all tougher than they look, not childish moe clutzes who can't take care of themselves. (Okay, except for Yukari-sensei). It's hard to describe Azumanga Daioh's disarming, slice-of-life comedy without just telling you to read it. It's a great mixture of character humor and absurdity and physical comedy. And unlike most American comic strips, there's an ending: there's no major plot points, no forced drama, but over the course of the 676-page series the characters get a little older and wiser—and Chiyo even gets taller—and finally they graduate.
The final chapter, when the characters graduate and walk off happily in their street clothes, was one of the more emotional moments I've read in a manga. The final chapter is more about emotions than punchlines, which brings up one of the interesting things about four-panel manga: since it's published in batches of several pages instead of one panel at a time, the artist has much more freedom to experiment. Sure, the overall mood is funny, but you don't need to have a punchline in every strip, the way you do in a traditional American comic strip. It's okay if some strips are just the buildup for a later strip, or some strips have no jokes at all, or weak jokes which set up for a big joke later. Like music, a good yon-koma manga isn't about hitting the same beat every time: it's about hitting the right sequence of beats to make music.
Yes, in closing: four-panel manga is the wave of the future. You can't stop it. In the future, everyone will be a girl (or a Hetalia-style bishonen) and everything will be a four-panel manga. Except that of course, Kiyohiko Azuma apparently doesn't think so: Yotsuba&!, his current hit series, is a story manga, and it's got really detailed background artwork, the kind that doesn't show up well in little yonkoma panels. Maybe story manga don't have to Roll Over and Die just yet. After all, not every yonkoma creator is Kiyohiko Azuma.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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