High school may well seem like a trying time but, as old farts like myself will tell you, your school days really can be some of the most fun of your life. Azumanga Daioh proves this unequivocally with every turn of the page as it documents the everyday life of the innocent ten-year-old prodigy, Chiyo, and her new high school friends during this turning point in their lives.
As with all the best comic slice of life series, Azumanga contains very little in the way of plot. While the overarching narrative follows the girls’ escapades through high school, the joy of this manga comes from the individual events that occur within the three-year timeframe. Likewise, these incidents aren’t entirely disconnected from each other as, like in real life, the experience builds from year to year, creating a natural progression. Azumanga largely achieves this through ongoing jokes such as Yukari’s increasingly competitive obsession with beating fellow teacher Minamo in the school athletics festival or Chiyo’s traumatising ordeal at the hands of her tutor’s horrific driving “skills”.
Azumanga excels in its comedy by refusing to rely on outlandish or just plain idiotic plotlines. Instead mangaka Kiyohiko Azuma brings the natural humour out of day to day life and enriches it with his eccentric – yet wholly believable – cast. By not overusing fantastical elements, Azumanga allows its readers to relate to events, which ultimately heightens its comic appeal. Small incidents such as Yomi tricking Osaka into eating her super spicy curry will undoubtedly remind people of odd pranks they‘ve either witnessed or played on their friends. Certainly, whoever has given in to the temptation of conning a gullible pal into believing a ludicrous pack of lies will find something to smile at when Chiyo becomes convinced that Sakaki is sucking the height out of her and is the sole reason she’s so short.
Azumanga’s 4-Koma layout works ideally with the story’s tone. By splitting the girls’ antics into bitesize chunks, each punchline packs that little extra punch by providing a definite pause for the joke to sink in rather than merely moving on to the next frame. Not every strip provides a laugh a minute, but that isn’t a necessity since some simply set the scene for the next quadruplet of panels, and in doing so build up the anticipation for the inevitable gag. Likewise, Azuma adds in occasional “specials” in a more standard manga format, which, while not always as funny, adds a nice change of pace from the series’ otherwise quick and pithy rhythm.
Azuma utilises a more straightforward visual style, with few frills or unnecessary fuss and the character designs – particularly those of the girls – are suitably cute. This not only helps endear them to the reader, but also allows for added humour when their appearance descends into an even more simplistic form, thus adding impact to the relevant expression or situation. A brilliant example is when Yukari’s driving flips Chiyo’s trauma switch and the prodigy’s suffering becomes plain to see as her usually naïve and shiny wide eyes transform into empty wibbling pools of horror.
Despite a generally simpler art style, Azuma still adds in plenty of small details to make the Azumanga world that bit more believable. Seemingly unimportant things such as giving Kagura tan-lines and then continuing to include them even after the initial point has been noted by another individual, shows a great care in the mangaka’s work. Likewise, Osaka balancing a cup of water on the end of her chopsticks is greatly enhanced by Azuma depicting that the eating implements had broken unevenly. It not only seems more real, but also refers back to the earlier jokes surrounding the dim girl’s obsession with equally splitting the spindly wooden rods.
Azumanga’s greatest strength comes from its cast. While each individual is fairly straightforward, this simplicity ultimately drives most of the comedy. The adorably naïve Chiyo, quiet and misunderstood Sakaki, and athletic Kagura all shine through their distinct quirks, whereas the manzai-style relationship between tsukkomi Yomi and the cringingly irritating boke, Tomo, sets up plenty of comedy throughout. However, while they all grab onto the reader’s attention like barnacles to a whale’s butt, there’s one girl who continually hogs the spotlight: everyone’s favourite dimwit, Osaka. With her head permanently in the clouds, the lovable teen flaunts her own “unique” way of thinking wherever she goes. Her fascination with the most obscure of things – such as sea-cucumbers or splitting her chopsticks perfectly in two as a good luck charm – gives her an altogether child-like feel and sets up countless incidents of hilarious reactions from her peers. Likewise her curiously illogical brand of logic and half-sleepy antics, such as attempting to wake up Yukari with a kitchen knife, remain a constant source of amusement. This young girl, whose idea of terrifying is smelling a fart in an empty room that isn’t your own, sets up a plethora of jokes during Azumanga’s four volumes and remains one of its most memorable characters.
While the main group inevitably grabs most of the focus, Azumanga’s secondary cast proves just as captivating. For me, the star of the show is the creepy and depraved super-perv, Kimura. Part of his genius as a character comes from echoes of real life. Now, I’m not saying that every school has a guy demanding to drink a glass of pool water that all the girls have been swimming in, but I’m sure that everyone knew of a lechy old teacher when they were a student – or at the very least heard rumour of one. Certainly, incidents such as Kimura chasing girls at the sports festival and obsessing about them tucking their shirts into their shorts reminds me of one time at my (all girls) secondary school where my entire class had to line up as two of our male teachers leered at our thighs checking our skirts weren’t too short – seriously. There’s a very fine line between cringingly funny and just plain cringeworthy, but Kimura hits the comedy spot on without inviting utter disgust. Whoever doesn’t find themselves giggling at Kimura’s gaping-mouthed declarations of “I LIKE HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS” is probably missing a humour gene somewhere and should consult a specialist immediately.
This was one of the earliest manga that I read, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t overly impressed at first for the simple reason that I wasn’t a fan of the 4-koma style. Now, after a few years and a bit more experience with the medium, I’ve come to realise that in the right situation, this method of storytelling excels where a more narrative-led layout simply can’t convey the same comic tone. With plenty of humour, an outstanding cast, and enough of schoolgirl antics to keep a herd of rampant otaku nourished for a few weeks, Azumanga Daioh is four volumes of pure comic brilliance.