Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
GN - Omnibus Edition
Chiyo is a ten-year-old genius-child who skips straight into high school. There she finds herself under the tutelage of Ms. Yukari, and English teacher with the maturity of a ten-year-old non-genius child. Chiyo's a cheerful girl, so she makes friends quickly (it doesn't hurt that she's also murderously cute). Soon she's hanging out with Tomo, whose life revolves around being as obnoxious as possible; Yomi, whose life revolves around dealing with Tomo; and Sakaki, a terse athlete whose cold exterior hides a heart fascinated by all things cute and cuddly. Their ranks are soon joined by Ayumu Kasuga (AKA “Osaka”), a transfer student whose unique perspective on life borders on the quietly insane, and Kagura, an energetic sports-loving girl with a heart of gold. Together they muddle their way through high school, their lives filled with all the usual trails and tribulations: field trips, track meets, college entrance exams, unrequited girl-on-girl crushes, shamelessly perverted teachers, and of course, vicious cat attacks.
For those of us who are still young enough to remember, more than grades or romance or even defeating super-villains with our godlike martial-arts prowess, high school was about friends. It's something that manga artist Kiyohiko Azuma is well aware of; his four-panel gag manga Azumanga Daioh is a slice-of-life chronicle of high-school friendships cranked up to just the right extremity to be absolutely hilarious.
Structured much like American comic strips, each of the series' strips is a bite-sized snippet of high-school life with a punch-line. The tone is as light as a feather, and the humor surprisingly observant. The closest Azumanga Daioh gets to being dark is wistful nostalgia, a perverted (but honest!) teacher, and the unsettling ease with which inked likenesses on paper can become surrogate friends (which is terrifying in its own way). It's easy to see ourselves or our friends in the vignettes, and in the characters that inhabit them, for few people live lives of drama and adventure but everyone lives through funny anecdotes. Each of the characters has an easily encapsulated personality (from the back of the book: "brainy Chiyo-chan, spaced-out Osaka, over-the-top Tomo, soft-spoken Sakaki, hair-trigger Yomi, and brash Kagura") full of impossible-to-encapsulate quirks. No single word can communicate Tomo's vast range of obnoxiousness or the sheer weirdness of Osaka, and even at their most extreme there's a roundness and ring of truth to everyone that makes them terribly easy to identify with. So don't feel bad if you end up counting Chiyo or Sakaki among your friends. It's only natural, right?
Azuma has excellent comic timing and a practiced eye for the comically repetitive rhythms of everyday life (and for how to allow the distinctive personalities of his cast emerge naturally from them). His peculiar sense of humor won't be to all tastes though. Repetition is key to many of the jokes (how many times does Sakaki get bitten by cats?), others are heavily dependent on how fond one is of a certain character (for that reason, Tomo jokes sometimes fall flat), and as often as not a strip will be three panels of exactly the same thing with one slight change in the fourth panel. Azuma's illustration style is spare, full of repeated compositions and minimal movement, with characters that, while expressive, are simplistic by manga standards. He hardly uses backgrounds at all outside of the occasional traditionally manga-styled chapter. His visual style combined with his penchant for simple, everyday humor (albeit with characters that are anything but) and a preference for knowing chuckles and wry smiles over gut-busting belly laughs, produces a brand of comedy best described as laconic, but that really must be experienced to be fully understood.
Other than saving money and shelf space, the omnibus edition of this manga is also useful for tracking Azuma's progress as an illustrator. You can actually see his art streamlining and growing in confidence over the course of the book's gargantuan 700-page length (check out the misty-eyed emotive power he marshals with the ending series of close-ups). Other attributes of this giant, easy-to-read tome are less advantageous. Printing quality is variable, especially towards the beginning, ranging from over-saturated to slightly faded. Osaka's dialogue is also variable, her dialect growing more and more pronounced as the volumes progress. The translation is a little heavy on the pop culture adjustments, which include a considerable number of outright replacements (some of which are just as obscure as the Japanese references they replace. Who remembers King Louie's "swingers" song from The Jungle Book anyway?). Luckily translation notes are included to explain the alterations made, but as they are taken directly from the original manga releases, they are only available for the third and fourth volumes and are labeled using the original page counts, making locating the strip they refer to nearly impossible (i.e. the note referring to page 32 of volume 4 actually refers to page 524).
For fans of the television series who haven't sampled the manga version, this omnibus version is a budget-friendly chance to do so (and encounter some of the jokes left out of the anime). For those unfamiliar with the series in any form, it's a hilarious (though slightly acquired) taste of the fun side of high-school life. And for those who already have the manga, this is exactly what you already own, so don't bother forking over for it again.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B
+ Budget-priced collection of one of the more entertaining and influential slice-of-life comedies out there.
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