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.
Plot – Girls go to high school.
Characters – Chiyo, a 10 year old genius who skipped many grades, is most likely the protagonist. Her friends, stereotypical buffoon “Osaka”, annoying and self-centered Tomo and Sakaki, an intimidating badass in appearance who secretly has a love for cutesy things, all get their share of the spotlight, as well as some other friends and their teachers, two of whom are drunkards and perverts.
Why It Works – The simple premise allows for total freedom of character interaction, which ultimately becomes the highlight of the manga. With different personalities clashing constantly, humor usually rises out of reactions from characters that are different than you expect, which leads to effective jokes and can always elicit at least a chuckle. Another way this series uses humor is by miscommunication, which, when used at the right time, can be absolutely hilarious. Adding to this, the small cast allows for each character to have their chance to shine. The pedophilic gym teacher is an oddball and usually creates jokes by acting in a perverted way without bothering to hide it or acting totally out of character. The drunkard main teacher is a hard one to pinpoint, as she’s almost always acting out of character, but usually its always in a way that benefits her. Finally, the sane gym teacher is usually manipulated by the drunkard, which often results in jokes revolving around a teacher acting like a child. Yet perhaps the best thing about Azumanga Daioh is not the characters or the humor, but the environment. Through people’s behavior you really see a lot of Japan and how Japanese school functions. (Minus the gag teachers, etc.) Not only that, but the simplistic backgrounds are remarkably interesting and make the environment a star as well. Adding to all of these elements, the manga is very brief. Due to the humor focusing on characters acting differently from normal, the jokes are bound to become predictable and repetitive; or, they would have been, had this manga lasted any longer. At a trim four volumes, Azumanga Daioh is impressively short, just the perfect amount of what it is. Both entertaining and amusing, Azumanga Daioh is a four panel manga, or 4-koma, which doesn’t really affect too much humor as there is less humor in the punch lines usually than in the first three panels themselves. The art is quite simple, enhancing the characters expressions and supporting the humor. Azumanga Daioh is fun and simple.
Why It Doesn’t Work – The simple premise would allow for character development, but never does. Throughout the course of four years, the characters remain in their cliché roles; genius-klutz, stupid-selfish, stupid-clueless, not-really-badass, etc. Also, being a 4-koma manga, the punch lines lose lots of impact when translated. Sometimes you’re left wondering “What was the joke?” at what was apparently making fun of fairly typical behavior. Something that distracts this manga from its theme is brief and random fan service. This doesn’t add to the manga and just feels odd and interrupts the flow of the manga. Story arcs can feel abandoned at times and just when it seems like Azumanga Daioh is a funny commentary on realistic events, something that couldn’t conceivably happen in real life (the Iriojime Cat) happens. Adding to this, the manga never goes anywhere. Despite time going on, the characters never really mature and you can’t imagine they’ll be any different in college. Once they graduate, they attempt to tackle the issue of not seeing each other again. And then they don’t. The author’s attempt to confront this issue is better than in Lovely Complex, but you still feel as if there was no real ending and despite time supposedly going on, it’s just an endless circle.
Azumanga Daioh was unfortunately a big disappointment for me. Not only because it was in a 4-koma format which spoiled my experience because it became a dull and even heavy reading, but because the comedy was very mediocre, and the worst that can happen in a manga like this, is to not have a good laugh while reading.
It is a comedy that clearly catches on some stereotypes and overuse them until they can no longer (Sasaki loving cats, Chiyo being a genius). Despite everything, the characters are charismatic, but it didn't work for me. Also, art is too simple, i mean, it doesn't even try to be a little detailed or have a different drawing stroke for the comedy. I'm going to Yotsuba To, crossing my fingers not to be in this format and that really brings a good comedy.
Trying to describe Azumanga Daioh is like trying to describe a cake to someone who has never had cake: it's kind of impossible, and strongly advised to just give them a bite - otherwise they will never believe that those random ingredients will create something that's actually good. Since it's a 4-koma manga, it's quite easy to give it a shot without a big time investment anyway. If you don't want to do that yet, I hope my review below can convince you to try it anyway.
Story and characters
There isn't much to say about the story of this manga: it's literally just the daily lives of a bunch of highschool girls, and sometimes some teachers are thrown into the mix too. The manga follows the girls through their 3 years before college, as they follow classes, go on vacation, take part in school events and almost get killed because their teacher is nuts. It's truly a "slice of life" in the sense that all you get is that part of their lives - which is all too short. Having to put down the book because I finished it was somehow sad...
Now I've only been talking about the slice of life part, but of course this is also a comedy manga. And the comedy is carried entirely by the characters in this case: not only is the cast adorable and likeable, but they're also a tad eccentric. For those of you who think of Cromartie High School when I say "eccentric", I have to warn you that the girls are eccentric in a more "believable" way. (That's also how the comedy in general works in this manga: by using a lot of natural elements like pranks. )But still, they're all memorable: the airhead Osaka, the hyperactive Tomo, the lolicon Kimura... none of them took long to grow on me, and I kinda miss them already.
It's quite typical for 4-koma that the artstyle is more "bare bones", and this is also true for Azumanga Daioh. However, there are still enough details to make it look good, and the style fits the manga well.
This is a fun, short series which is just relaxing at times and hilarious at others. Don't pick this up if you want a deep story, but if you're looking for a soothing comedy then you'll have a great time with this one.
Story: Oh Azumanga Daioh, how amusing you are. Light and humorous and flowing as well. I felt myself laughing all time while reading this. From all the little quirks and oddities, Azumanga isn't short of comedy and fun. Nothing to heavy and I never found myself bored. The ending was fitting and not overdone. Just a great bundle of fun.
Art: Cute and amusing. Character designs fit to a tee. I found Chiyo's father pretty creepy though. Other than that, the art is easy on the eyes. The short panels don't do much for the background but there not supposed to. Chiyo-chan is the epitome of cuteness especially when she's a penguin.
Characters: The characters are all real and down to earth. Not to stereotypical so you don't really know what they're going to do next. There little niche doesn't feel overdone and all the characters are very well developed. The male teacher is a creep and Tomo is really annoying along with their homeroom teacher; those were the only ones bringing down the score but they didn't even bring it down that much. An awesome and endearing cast of kooky but lovable people you wished you knew in real life.
Overall: I loved, loved, loved this. It's light and funny and I had a great time reading it. I would this to just about everybody.