Originally debuting in Japan in 2002,
Azumanga Daioh didn't take long to become a major fan favorite both in its homeland and here in North America. A cute, relaxed mix of comedy and sentimentality, the series became a hit almost overnight, and a domestic DVD release seemed a sure thing. Thankfully, ADV was only too willing to oblige, and released the first volume of Azumanga Daioh almost two years to the day after the series' television debut in Japan. Presenting the first five episodes and a lot of fanfare, Entrance! serves as an instant must-buy for established Azumanga fans, as well as an ideal introduction for curious newcomers.
Adapted from Kiyohiko Azuma's four-panel gag manga, Azumanga Daioh is a simple, light-hearted take on a group of friends and their day-to-day experiences through high school. The central cast of characters, which includes the child prodigy Chiyo, flighty transfer student Osaka, shy cool girl Sakaki, hyperactive Tomo and her better half Yomi, along with their irresponsible English teacher Yukari, is very diverse and offers up much of the series' offbeat sense of humor through the interactions of the unique personalities contained within. There isn't a single spot of angst or serious drama to be found in Azumanga, which instead opts to offer up awkward comic timing, deceptively clever characterization, and even a few moments of tranquil "back in the day" nostalgia for those of us who've moved beyond the whole high school experience. It's fluff, and is very much an acquired taste that certainly won't please everyone. However, its bizarre comic styling and memorable cast have already drawn in quite a following, and are sure to draw in more with this opening volume.
Visually, AzuDai is decidedly well-developed, if a bit sly in its methods. With much of its sight gags relying on intentionally choppy animation, long still shots, and repetitive motion, the production team was able to hold back on the budget, and make it really count when there was any real action on screen. It's not quite cinema or OVA quality, but it's a notch above many of its television peers. The video is also very crisp and bright, with lots of soft, vibrant colors being used to reflect the cheery, lazy nature of the series. Character designs similarly impart a nonoffensive aspect to the cast, with rounded features, expressive eyes, and an all-around simplistic appearance, all while still keeping the characters very distinct from one another.
Like the visuals, the musical end of Azumanga Daioh serves to punctuate the cute, relaxed state of mind of the overall show. Primarily dominated by woodwinds and an assortement of stringed instruments (including guitars and ukeleles), the score complements the intended tone of the series quite nicely, and even makes an enjoyable stand-alone listening experience, depending on your mood. The opening theme is excessively catchy and upbeat, even if the lyrics are a bit nonsensical, and the ending theme is an appropriately subdued closer.
In terms of voice casting, AzuDai fares very well in both languages. With big names like Rie Tanaka (Yomi) and Aya Hisakawa (gym teacher Nyamo) gracing the show's Japanese credits, it should be worth noting that the seiyuu chosen for the Japanese audio track are an overall talented assortment of players. Nearly every character is ideally cast, and the voices fit the characters' personalities perfectly. While less ideal, the dub cast also manages a generally commendable performance as well. Most of the voice actresses are able to capture the same sense of personality that their Japanese counterparts did, with Kira Vincent-Davis' Texan drawl really standing out as an excellent substitution for Osaka's namesake dialect. Andy McAvin's Kimura-sensei also manages to literally steal whatever scene the character's in, as he's not only matched, but surpassed
the level of creepy perversion of the original. The only real noticeable stumbling points for the dub are Tomo and Chiyo, the former of which comes off as forced at times while the latter is a touch too squeaky. And while managing a decent job much of the time, the occasional "valley girl" feel to Yomi's dub is both distracting and somewhat inapproriate for a reserved, serious character like her.
The extras supplied with AzuDai's first volume are so-so. Featured on the disc itself are a handful of production sketches and the standard textless opening and closing, which actually fare rather poorly on this outing (the production sketches change automatically, and the clean opening surprisingly looks worse without credits filling the gaping bubbles seen throughout). Beyond what's on the disc, the extras are noticeably more appealing. The reversible cover features an image of Chiyo in mid-air (from the opener) as the default, with a somewhat more interesting classroom shot on the backside. There is also a rather extensive booklet, which contains translation notes, staff commentary, and character design sheets for Chiyo and minor character
Chihiro. It's incredibly informative, and even outclasses ADV's popular ADVid Notes, simply because of the greater depth at which it's able to explain many of the cultural nuances found in the series.
As an opening volume, Entrance! is an excellent introduction to the quirky, offbeat anime series that is Azumanga Daioh. Wasting no time in jumping right into its own brand of unusual, free-spirited comedy, it sets the pace for later volumes and lets the viewer know right away whether or not the show is suited to their tastes. For those able to enjoy it, the series will be infinitely rewarding both here and in the later volumes to come. For those who just aren't into this sort of comedy, there are greener pastures to be found.