Azumanga Daioh was a manga that came out just about the time I was retreating from anime and manga. I thought I'd seen it all and was tired of harem comedies or awfully derivative works about high schoolers. I pretty much vetoed any show that concerned people under the age of 18 as a rule.
I've eased myself back into anime this spring, with strange choices like Ergo Proxy, Monster and Azumanga Daioh and this has been the best and biggest surprise. While inane, insane and bizarre, this show is full of heart and true youthfulness. While the vignettes are usually funny enough on their own, it's the slow and steady character development (and in some cases, such as the late-blooming Osaka, very little) that takes this anime to the next level.
The students themselves, each individuals but all with different characteristics and talents that change depending on the combination you have. (Tomo + Kagura + Osaka = idiot squad, Sakaki + Chiyo = cuteness overload, Tomo + Yomi = smack-talk, Osaka + Chiyo = childish hilarity) It's these and more that make the show great.
There are certain characters that stick out, that their portrayal seemed different in the hands of this team than others. In other shows, these characters could have been weak or failed, but in Azumanga, they flourished. Chiyo, the elementary-school aged student could have been played off as a truly bland idiot savant, is actually a super hardworking and endearing character, cute but not overly so. Sakaki, the aloof athlete with a soft spot for anything adorable reminded me of physically growing up faster than other girls while emotionally still holding on to my interests. Instead of her being arrogant and cocky, she is just as insecure as the rest.
Azumanga Daioh is often described as surrealist and goofy at the best of times but I think the show hits it's mark perfectly. A cross between a slice of life with a touch of inanity, it has received a place in my heart for years to come. Definitely a modern classic.