I'm not sure how harsh I should be, since Azumanga Daioh practically created the modern school comedy genre, but the fact is that the plot boils down really simply to "six girls who go to high school together." Each episode is chopped up into five-minute segments and each one of them can be taken completely out of context and someone could still understand what's going on. Of course, there are little story arcs here and there but those are the exceptions rather than the rules. The story isn't even why someone would be watching a comedy series anyway, so give it a pass.
I will say that the recurring themes of friendship, while subtle, are very powerful. I probably can't think of any series that has covered friends' relationships with one another better than Azumanga Daioh.
When the art comes up, one thing is abundantly clear: cuteness is the main goal and it certainly is delivered. Azumanga Daioh was made back in the early 2000s, and it had some pretty good production values for its time. Having gone through the whole series multiple times probably has gotten me more acclimated to the tiny little bits, sort of those subtleties that can't be caught on just one time around, which is why I will say that the art manages to have a surprising amount of depth.
Character designs are simple, but realistic, and while we've all seen school uniforms or mascot characters, something about the design in Azumanga just manages to stand out to me. Maybe it's the colors, maybe it's the general softness that the art appears to have all the time, or the mixture of cute and surreal (especially with the mascots) but the fact remains that in the slew of school series, Azumanga is one that is instantly recognizable.
Another thing of note is that all of the characters bring a lot of personality, thanks to the amazing director of the series. Osaka's movements, for example, are usually very stiff and strange (likely a reference to her inflexibility that's established near the start of the series, or just her odd personality); in contrast to Kagura, who is really laid-back and free-flowing; or Sakaki, in which the viewer can see how deliberate all her motions are. One of the things I didn't even realize until my second time through the manga was how Osaka is always drawn with the reflection in her eyes on the bottom, while all the other characters have theirs on the top.
Ultimately, Azumanga Daioh worked within the technology of its day without using any CGI or fancy effects, everything being done simply. This was probably deliberate, so as to allow the art style to be timeless. It isn't trying to be a visual masterpiece, but that's fine since the art does its job at matching the tone of the series.
General Presence: 2/2
Visual Design: 1/2
Attention to Detail: 1/1
Visual Effects: 0.5/1
Honestly, I will say that this was one of my first experiences with subbed anime. I tried watching the dub, but couldn't really get behind it (it was Osaka's voice that killed it since I took one look at her design and sort of instinctively had an idea in mind of how she should sound). The sub is much better, with voice actresses who can not only fit their characters to a tee, but who have great comedic talent. They all sound distinct, and even as I got more used to the Japanese voice actresses and started hearing more from the girls I first heard in Azumanga, I can still go back to the series and find that their performances in here are distinct from pretty much anything else they've done. But if you don't like subbed anime, I will say that I consider the dub to be passable for the most part.
The music is, as one would expect, very relaxed and laid-back. It matches the tone perfectly and uses a lot of strange instruments, most notably a liberal usage of recorders. I like it, it makes the music stand out a lot, especially when they could've used violins and the music wouldn't have made as much of an impact. While it's not a perfect soundtrack, the music in Azumanga Daioh fits the series perfectly and it can be very effective (the composition that plays over the final scene of the series is so touching I swear it makes me cry every time I hear it).
Sound effects sound great and are used exactly right. When they don't need them, they aren't used - when they help the scene, they are used. Some of the more notable sound effects - like the floating sounds or the meowing heard various times - are actually ones that someone whose seen the series could identify as being from Azumanga Daioh.
And the image songs are amazing. Just for the record.
Voice Acting: 4/4
Sound Effects: 2/2
What's a series without good characters? Be it a drama, a comedy, or whatever the goal is, good characters are one of the most important factors. Quite honestly, it's the absolutely stellar cast of Azumanga Daioh that makes the show. Not only the six main characters, but the three teachers, Kaorin, and even the various cats all have unforgettable presence on screen. Over the course of the series, they aren't just the characters who deliver jokes to you, they are in fact your friends.
There's a wide range of personalities bouncing off each other here, from serious to shy to hyperactive to plain strange and I think that's where I'll fudge the "Complexity" score (since I couldn't bring myself to NOT boost this rating up to max power), since they all act differently around everyone else. Yomi doesn't treat Tomo the same way she treats Chiyo, or Osaka, or Sakaki. Just like actual people, their relationships are distinct. Kagura doesn't join the group of friends just because she hangs out with Sakaki, she joins the group because she becomes friends with the other five. At the same time, having the benefit of all the exposure I do, it's also interesting to note some of the character traits that one wouldn't notice except with prolonged exposure to the characters, such as Sakaki being almost as airheaded as Osaka or Chiyo's terrible luck, usually resulting in slapstick. So while I do think that I might be generous to give "complexity" a full score, I also think it's one that I could easily defend.
The ultimate guiding question when it comes to any comedy is "Is it funny?" And Azumanga Daioh constantly answers that with a big "yes." The comedic timing, both in the manga and the anime, is perfect - or if it isn't perfect, it's damn close. There's a reason this series has defined the modern slice-of-life genre, and that's because it's just really good. The only times Azumanga isn't being funny are when it will be tugging at your heartstrings, which is equally enjoyable. It's short, yes, but I actually think that the short size makes it better. It doesn't stay too long, knowing that all good things must come to an end. When the final episode comes around, you WILL cry, oh yes. And then you'll want to go back to the beginning and relive all those great memories. I've heard Azumanga Daioh as being "comfort food," and that's probably a good way to describe it. Maybe my own feelings for the series are biased, as it was one of my earlier anime experiences, but that doesn't deflate my love for it. Azumanga Daioh is easily one of the few anime that I love enough to say...
FINAL JUDGMENT : 10/10