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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Azumanga Daioh

Azumanga Daioh is a series that always reminds me of the simplistic joys of everyday high-school life. After recently going through it a second time, I thought I’d express my views on what made this show such a runaway hit.

First and foremost, Azumanga Daioh is one of the most unique comedy series’ in all of anime. It sports an absurdly offbeat and unconventional sense of humor that only a handful of people can truly grasp. As such, people tend to assert that the series is very much an acquired taste, as viewers will either hold it on a pedestal as comedic gold or write it off as pointless, impenetrable babble.

I might as well get the bad out of the way while I warm up the microphone to sing AzuDai’s praises. While the comedic timing is often spot-on, the series has a lot of trouble with pacing and maintaining consistency in general. As an example, compare the scenes focusing on Chiyo or Sakaki to the ones focusing on Osaka. While all three characters possess quirks that could potentially grind the pacing to a halt (Chiyo being a diligent child genius, Sakaki being a painfully shy introvert, and Osaka being, well…Osaka), it’s primarily the Chiyo or Sakaki-centric scenes that encourage bouts of yawning.

Perfect yawning, maybe, but yawning nonetheless.

Pacing issues aside, AzuDai just outright isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The series is already vacuous enough to begin with and more cynical-minded people will find it almost offensively inane as if it’s deliberately trying to test their patience or waste their time. So it’s definitely not for folks who want a series where “stuff happens” or those looking for an “intellectually rewarding” experience.

With that out of the way, what exactly is it that makes AzuDai a timeless classic? Simply put, it’s the characters.

These schoolgirls comprise the most lovable and exasperatingly eccentric nakama that you wish you could be a part of. The characterization is particularly robust, even if there is little overall development due to a distinct lack of plot. Heck, I would say that AzuDai sports such a brilliant cast that it warrants its own section.

Chiyo
The overly optimistic child prodigy of the group. Chiyo acts as the voice of creativity and motivation. Although she is wise beyond her years in terms of book-smarts and strong-willed determination, her experiential immaturity often leads to her being fairly gullible. Her playful, childish tendencies are often charming and hilarious, such as delicately dashing between streetlights in the middle of the night to reach a convenience store.

Cooking is so fun….cooking is so fun.

Sakaki
As one of the most memorable Shirking Violets in anime, Sakaki is a peculiar case as her intimidating physical stature and perpetually ponderous expression involuntarily thrust her into the limelight. She shares a particularly close bond of friendship with Chiyo as the two of them are the kindest and gentlest members of the group and have a mutual interest in animals. Sakaki’s affection, however, extends to full-blown infatuation and her attempts to pet cats are continually met with abrasive hostility, much to her dismay and our amusement.

Sakaki. Not good with cats.

Sakaki embodies The Woobie quite well as you can’t help but feel sorry for the fact that she draws unwanted attention. People expect her to be “mean” and “badass,” but tragically few people see her for who she truly is (hence, the Shirking Violet).

Tomo and Yomi
These two share quite the relationship. Conceptually, it’s nothing new as far as Vitriolic Best Buds go, but in terms of execution, the interplay between them is nothing short of priceless. Tomo is the hysterically hyperactive (and by that I mean, even the likes of Haruhi Suzumiya can’t hold a candle) and carelessly capricious Genki Girl who injects excitement and vivacity into the group. However, with genkiness comes the desire to be center of attention. Tomo is no exception and takes it upon herself to play pranks on people (her favorite target being her best friend, Yomi), make boisterous, tactless remarks, and just be an indefatigable Jerkass in general.

Fortunately (for the world), she’s at least periodically reined in by Yomi, who plays the role of the Straight Man, i.e. the feet-on-the-ground, stringently sober foil to Tomo’s free-radical nature. Of course, this doesn’t stop Tomo from getting on her nerves (When Yomi is unable to make it to the theme park due to an illness, Tomo is first one to rub it in her face as much as humanly possible). The highlight of their friendship occurs when Yomi gets so fed-up with Tomo’s antics that she decides to sock it to her in the final episode of the series.

While their interactions may be unoriginal insofar as that they all but epitomize the staples of a Boke And Tsukkomi Routine, Tomo and Yomi are an endless source of hilarity rivaled only by Osaka herself.

Osaka
Speak of the Osakan Oni! Osaka is hands-down the most charming character of the show. She repeatedly steals the spotlight whenever she’s onscreen and is the driving force behind many of the series’ running gags.

For one, her “slow and spacey” open-mounted, wide-eyed, and completely blank default expression which she admirably displays is impossible to look at without laughing. Then there’s the fact that she’s endearingly na├»ve and gullible, often absentmindedly stating the obvious or being harassed as Tomo’s personal chew toy (Osaka is probably her second favorite target after Yomi).

However, Osaka’s eminent infamy can be chalked up to her vaunted position as queen of Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s as if her approach to life is to be totally vacant and complacent while occasionally spouting the weirdest lines imaginable. But she does so in such an openly innocent and benign manner that dubbing her an inattentive idiot is always done under the most affectionate of intentions.

“Get it together, get it together.”

To be fair, in a hilarious revelation, Osaka demonstrates that she’s incredibly skilled at thinking literally as she manages to answer Tomo’s trick-riddles without a second thought. All the more proof that she rules over her domain with an iron fist.

Kagura
Despite being the sixth member in the five-man lineup, Kagura definitely does not play second fiddle and is just as goofy and likable as her friends. She’s the most hot-blooded of the group and is often seen playing the role of the headstrong, almost juvenilely-pugilistic ruffian. As she excels at sports, but not at schoolwork, she makes quick friends with Tomo and Osaka (and thus the Knuckleheads are born) and finds a lofty rival in Sakaki.

Kagura is probably the most well-rounded of the cast as she possesses Yomi’s common sense (without her inferiority complex), Osaka’s unconcerned braindead-ness, Tomo’s bombastic belligerence, Chiyo’s optimistic mindset, and Sakaki’s honed athleticism.

Everyone Else
Surprisingly, one of the most entertaining characters in the show isn’t even a member of the main nakama. Yes, homeroom English teacher Yukari-sensei is unfailingly amusing to watch in action as she is somehow less mature and significantly less responsible than 99% the students in her class (the exception of course being Tomo who is probably a good indication of what “Yukari-chan” was like as a student). She’s prone to flying into a frenzy whenever things don’t go her way (which is often), much to the chagrin of her fellow co-worker, Minamo Kurosawa.

The two are as hilarious to watch play off each other as Tomo and Yomi. Whereas “Nyamo” is levelheaded and professional, Yukari acts like an adult child, constantly making bets with her and roping her into heated competitions such as the yearly sports festival. Nyamo usually responds with either indifference or a snappy, snarky retort of her own, which always leaves Yukari pitiably dejected.

Behold, the horror of the “Yukarimobile”

Finally, there’s Kimura-sensei, notorious for his unrivaled eccentricity despite being a kind-hearted, devoted, and charitable husband and father. His stalker-esque obsession with school girls truly knows no bounds.

Poor Kaorin.

With an outstanding cast of characters, AzuDai warmly invites you with open arms to chill out with a quirky and sugary, yet pure and empathic (as in not overly-exaggerated) group of high school girls. The heartwarming feeling of just kicking back with them hits so close to home that you might even take one of them as your waifu by the time the bittersweet graduation rolls around.

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