Reviews of “Azumanga Daioh” (2001) and related work

“Azumanga Daioh” (2001Moving picture, 6 minutes)

Scenes from high school.

Absurdist slice-of-life comedy. Clearly intended for fans of the comic, with too little exposition for a wider audience. Superseded by the TV series that followed, and not as good.

The author of the comic is Azuma Kiyohiko, hence Azu-ma-nga. Daioh, “great king”, refers to the magazine where that comic was first published. Azuma’s other works include the excellent, more diverse and extensive Yotsubato in a similar style.

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction

Azumanga Daioh (2002Moving picture, 10 hours)

All of high school, specifically for some of the girls in a class. None of the male students have identities but a few of the teachers do.

You can do great things very differently from how Aristotle liked them. In this sitcom, the measured cuteness of To Heart (1999) is stripped of science fiction, fantasy and romance, to distill a relaxing “looseness” (adj. yurui) akin to Here Is Greenwood (1991) but with a strong focus on comedy. It is a wholesome and optimistic affair purged of the normal filters of the genre, except the reduction of characters to type.

Azumanga Daioh combines the animated freedom and disrespect for authority of the early Simpsons (1989) with the naturalism of Seinfeld (1989) but does not inherit the knee-jerk irony of either, nor does it implement the cringe humour of post-Seinfeld American sitcoms or the familial myopia of the generation before that. There’s no laugh track, no freezing of time, no escalating implausibility, but good writing and good comic timing.

The slow and fluffy everyday feel surpasses the humble comic strip and the 2001 probe. From a certain point in episode 9, it’s a balm for the soul. The only things that drag it down are the industrial-standard animation quality and the implication that the main characters are all female—and romantically uninvolved—for objectification, not for arbitrary or feminist reasons. There are many ways that added diversity and realism could have improved the show, but there are some ways it could have damaged the material. The delicate balance might be coincidental, but Azumanga Daioh stands out as the finest of a hundred similar Japanese shows “about nothing”.

References here: Strawberry Marshmallow (2005), K-On (2009), Dear Lemon Lima (2009), My Ordinary Life (2011), Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017), Asobi Asobase: Workshop of Fun (2018), Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan (2018), Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020).

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production fiction series