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Azumanga Daioh vol. 1
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

A couple of years ago, the manga periodical Monthly Comic Dengeki Daioh started running a 4-panel humor comic strip by an artist named Kiyohiko Azuma. Azuma dubbed his series "Azumanga Daioh," or "Great King Azumanga," an amusingly weird pun on both his own name and the name of the magazine. The series, chronicling the life of a group of high school girls and their teachers, became a big hit, eventually spawning a twenty-six episode TV series. But with the series came a very interesting challenge-- how would the staff transform a 4-panel gag strip into stories suitable for TV animation?

To their credit, JC Staff, under the auspices of director Hiroshi Nishikiori, took the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" to heart, and animated the show as a series of brief, looely-connected vignettes. You know, just like the comics. This formula works remarkably well-- almost fiendishly well, in fact, as the brief character pieces that make up the narrative of Azumanga Daioh are awfully addictive. It's the sort of series that will see you prepared to watch an episode or two going in, but before you know it, you've finished off the entire DVD and are hungry for more.

We're introduced to the characters of Azumanga Daioh in rapid-fire fashion, starting with 10th-grade homeroom teacher Yukari Tanizaki, frantically pedaling her bicycle to school, because she's running late on the first day. She's an interesting combination of flakiness and ingenuity-- when the bike breaks down, she solves her transportation problem by simply nicking one of her student's bikes. At school, we meet the rest of the characters, most of whom are students. There's the quiet, withdrawn Sakaki, the exhuberant Tomo, the businesslike, bespectacled Koyomi ("Yomi" for short), and the new kid. There's always a new kid on the first day of school, only this one's a bit different-- in a classroom where the average age looks to be 15 or 16, this girl is 10. Her name is Chiyo Mihama, she's a child prodigy who skipped a fistful of grades, and she's got absolutely adorable pigtails!

Given that setup, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect some silly high-school shoujo melodrama. But Azumanga Daioh is much more about comedy than drama, and we learn this quickly as the characters' bizarre personality quirks emerge. Sakaki seems blunt and unfriendly, but secretly she loves cute animals and yearns for friendship with her timid classmates. Tomo is nothing but trouble; she's a gigantic blowhard, her energetic nature mostly causes her to enter into pointless competitions with her classmates (Who can run the fastest? Who can take the most punishment? Who's got the bigger boobs?!), and she destroys everything she touches. This aspect of Tomo's personality is kryptonite to Yomi, who also worries obsessively about her weight. And Chiyo.... Chiyo's pretty normal, actually. It's her circumstances that are unusual. That's OK, because soon enough Azumanga Daioh is graced with the oddest duck of the bunch in Ayumu Kasuga. She's from Osaka. Her classmates are immediately fascinated by her nasal drawl, a characteristic of Osaka dialect, and since all of the funny comedians on TV are from Osaka, they're a bit crestfallen when Ayumu (whom everyone immediately dubs "Osaka," much to her dismay) isn't the funniest girl on the planet-- she's just a bit weird.

From there, Azumanga Daioh busily concerns itself with the daily quirks of high school life. There's no improbable, purely accidental groping in Azumanga Daioh, nor are there sudden gusts of wind that reveal flashes of panty. These things don't actually happen to people in high school, and Azumanga Daioh seems very concerened with the thousand little nothings that do happen. This first batch of episodes involves Sakaki's failed attempts at befriending a tiny gray kitten, which abruptly turns into a nightmarishly toothy, floppy-headed monster whenever she tries to pet it. Meanwhile, Osaka resolves to make a good impression and keep herself together-- and promptly falls asleep in class, where she dreams that Chiyo's eye-catching pigtails are actually detachable. As the show progresses, we're introduced to a few more characters, like the exasperated gym teacher Nyamo (she's friends with Yukari, which means that she gets to endure the woman's laziness, fondness for booze, and freeloading tendencies), Kaorin, who looks up to Sakaki with a giddy mixture of hero worship and clueless adoration, and Mr. Kimura, a gaunt, slack-jawed Japanese literature teacher who unabashedly admits his fondness for ogling high school girls.

Mr. Kimura is Azumanga Daioh's only real stumblng point. Author Azuma blunts the character's creepiness by turning it into a gag. Mr. Kimura leers and flirts, but wouldn't dream of actually touching his students-- he's married to a very beautiful woman, after all, something which endlessly puzzles the kids. Still, his queasy nature is only somewhat offset by this, along with a later scene in which the girls catch him giving away a large sum of money to charity-- he sees their surprise and piously explains that it's the duty of teachers to give back to society. To be fair, the whole teacher and student thing is a relatively modest taboo, but Kimura's lust for his charges seems forced-- it imbues the show with the kind of comedy that it doesn't really need. But as complaints go, it's small potatoes.

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The surprising strength of Azumanga Daioh's plot and characterization is augmented by honestly excellent animation and visual design. Character designer Yasuhisa Kato turns in excellent work, porting Azuma's manga designs excellently-- every character looks fantastic, right down to the school uniforms. The animation quality is also quite vibrant, and it's all tied together with a wonderfully surreal set of OP/ED sequences. My favorite technical aspect so far is the fluency that the animators have with facial expressions-- Kato's character designs are deceptively simple, but the team coaxes a surprising range of reactions from almost every character. Sealing the deal is some excellent music courtesy of Masaki Kurihara, a composer who ends up making frequent and very good use of the recorder, of all instruments.

The acting is also fantastic, a statement that applies equally well to the Japanese and English versions. I'm quite fond of Yuu Asakawa's subdued, smoky performance as Sakaki, but Christine Auten does a similiarly good job in the dub. As Osaka, Yuki Matsuoka edges out her American counterpart, Kira Vincent-Davis-- I just found it hard to get used to Kira's comes-and-goes drawl, but she still does well with her role. Conversely, Mandy Clark is clearly ahead of Chieko Higuchi as Tomo-- she's shrill, motormouthed, and absolutely fantastic. As for the two Chiyos, Tomoko Kaneda and Jessica Boone, it's just too close to call.

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Azumanga Daioh is a truimph of good animation and very good storytelling. The talented animation staff has put together a great-looking show, but more importantly, the original manga's endearing sense of whimsy is left intact. I've seen a lot of production teams handle manga-to-anime adaptations in a lot of different ways, but it really seems like JC Staff "got" the comic, and subsequently nailed the process of transferring its moods and mannerisms to TV. Azumanga Daioh is a delightful cross-section of high school life that avoids big moments of drama and romance in favor of little things-- the awkward silences, the entertainingly stupid remarks that turn into catchphrases, the simmering rivalry between teachers/friends, the joy of being completely obnoxious-- and let's not forget the absolute satisfaction of correctly separating a pair of wooden chopsticks.


Added:  Friday, May 28, 2004

Related Link:  ADV Films
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