Who would have ever thought that a 26 episode animated television series with a title that does not mean much of anything and with a story premise that really is not about much of anythingâcould be so unpretentiously yet humanely meaningful?
The warmth and humor of Azumanga Daioh are the dominant characteristics of the original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma, and the animation studio does a spectacular job at maintaining the sentiment of the original. Scenery and designs are stripped down and simple but never sloppy, and the pacing is measured. Some viewers, more readily accustomed and enculturated to the whiz-bang of American film and television, may become impatient with this show's long, pregnant pauses and comic timing. But even if you cannot stand it, it is very well constructed, and that is impossible to deny.
Also impressive is the way this anime takes a manga that is predominantly yonkoma in format and transforms it into a believable narrative of twenty-odd minute continuous episodes. Although some episodes do feel choppy, featuring perhaps two or three loosely connected vignettes, you would not ever suspect that Azumanga Daioh was originally yonkoma from its animated adaptation. In fact, the animated format provides a strong sense of continuity and of the passing of time, which is one of the story's more serious themes, which works better on the screen than on paper. There is an easy, natural rhythm to the girls' three years of high school, three years' worth of sports festivals, three years worth of summer vacations with their teachers, three years worth friendships. It is sometimes said that the best artistic craft is that in which the hand of the creator is invisibleâthis show is a good example of that principle.
If I have any gripe at all about how the manga's overarching narrative sweep was adapted into an anime, it would be with the subplot that involves closeted lover of all things cute (especially cats) Sakaki and the Iriomote kitten. One of the most dramatic and affective stories in the original manga, the climatic moment where the Maya defends Sakaki from the bullying black cat that has been biting the hand trying to pet it since the beginning of the series, passes far, far too quickly for my taste. The matter of fact way in which the show executes this emotional plot is perhaps more unforgivable given that so many other less impactful storylines are given far more dramatic, slow-motion attention.
Still, it's a small gripe, and there is still more than enough to love about Azumanga Daiohâ¦the characters in particular. It is hard to have just one favorite because they are all so memorable and lovable. I am particularly partial to the English and homeroom teacher Yukari, whose arbitrariness in the classroom and reckless driving on the roads are sources of endless humor, and to Yomi, all around excellent student who secretly struggles with her weight. I also find myself sympathizing with Kaorin, whose hopeless infatuation with Sakaki is a source of both lowbrow, yuri comedy and of universal recognition. Even moe bait Chiyo is more than the sum of her gratuitous cuteness.