Stew’s Reviews: Azumanga Daioh

Hey, it’s a volume of Stew’s Reviews that ends in the number eight, so it must be time to review a manga series! It’s Manga Week! Ma… me… M8nga Week! No? No, I don’t think that works either.

Actually, I think is just a happy accident. It was volume eight when I covered Dragon Ball, and I noticed after already picking this series for this week that it was ten volumes between them. I mean, I guess I could make it a thing? But I’d invariably just get distracted and by the time twenty-eight rolls around, I’d have long-since forgotten.

Let’s enjoy it while it lasts, though.

TITLE: Azumanga Daioh

Writer and Artist: Kiyohiko Azuma. Get it? AZUMA MANGA.

Publisher: ADV Manga

Protagonists: Boy, a lot of them, I guess. Sakaki, Chiyo-Chan, Osaka, Tomo, Yomi, Kaorin, Kagura. And that’s just the students. There’s also, Yukari, Nyamo, and Kimora as far as teachers go.

Antagonists: Nobody, really. I mean, usually it’s the girls antagonizing themselves? Kimura might count, though.

So we’re really off the rails this week, reviewing not just a manga rather than a traditional comic, but one that is a comic strip series more than a comic book. It’s like reviewing Beetle Bailey, but with even one more degree of separation! Next week I’ll probably just review a John Woo movie. Who even knows what I’m doing anymore?

I’m going to take crap for this, but the most fitting adjective I can find to review this series is… cute. It’s a cute series. There’s no saving the day, no bloody fights, no obvious sexuality. It’s just a comic strip series about a group of friends in high school and their lives, day in and day out. It’s precious, really. The misadventures of the class include spending summer vacation at a beach, participating in a sports festival, and hosting a cultural festival. Oh, and trying to pet a cat, but that is more of an overarching arc for one of the characters. Eh, it makes more sense when you read it. Maybe? But yeah, when your longest-running plot line is “will Sakaki ever pet a cat”, it’s not easy to find a better descriptive word than “cute”.

The series reads like an absolute breeze between the quick humor and Azuma’s frequent use of pauses and wordless panels for effect. You could honestly read all four volumes in two-to-three sittings if you wanted to. Since it follows the same group of friends from the beginning to the end of their high school lives, a lot of the stories get covered multiple times (there is a sports festival every year, for instance, so they go back to that frequently), so there’s a strong sense of continuity as the girls grow on what they did in each previous year.

The characters are all pretty distinctive and fleshed-out. They all certainly have their defining characteristics and can be lazily summed up be saying “She is the ____ one”, but they still feel alive enough in their interactions that it doesn’t hurt them if you think about it like that. It’s the “Japanese High School Girl” version of Friends. For the most part, Azuma balances them all out. There’s not really a MAIN character, as the series divides its attention pretty evenly, but eleven-year-old Chiyo-chan might be the closest. She is a child prodigy who has tested right into high school (but still takes as long to graduate high school as her classmates for whatever reason), and she is more-or-less the common link that brings everyone else together in the first place. I’m really avoiding going into too much depth on any of the girls as individuals just because there are so many that to do so would take the better part of two articles. I mentioned it before, but there is a bit of a Friends feel to them when they are together where you wonder if people who pick on each other this much would actually be friends for long, but that itself is just a trope to groups of friends in fiction. We all kind of accept it at this point; wildly different characters are thrown together and poke fun at each other’s differences for chuckles.

There is an elephant in the room to discuss with Azumanga Daioh, so let’s get to that. Kimura. The only relevant and recurring male character in the series, Kimura is a teacher with an incredibly skeezy side who, very early on, admits he became a teacher so he could be around teenage girls all day. He also has a borderline-obsessive relationship with Kaorin, though at no point does he feel “dangerous”. He is played entirely as a perverse comic relief character who occasionally wants to drink the pool water the swim team practices in or hides in a stuffed animal costume so he can pose for pictures.Whether you feel like a character like that should be played for hopeless laughs is your call, but I could empathize either way.

There’s also an anime to the series and it is… uh… weird? Weird, yes. The manga actually seems much more American-ized for the West aside from a few aspects, but the anime is more true to the original form. And the editing and pauses are much more deliberate… it’s hard to explain, but even for as much as I got a kick out of the comics, the show itself was a little more off-putting for me. It’s a strange duck.

Talking Point: I’ve never really been convinced that comic strips should count as the same kind of material as comic books, and yet… here we are, I guess. So that said, what are your three favorite comic strip series of all time?

OVERALL

Nine… is a really high score. For a manga comic strip series. But I actually got a kick out of this. It’s hardly deep or thought-provoking, but it is a lot of fun and I genuinely laughed out loud several times. I am going to recommend this to every comic fan I know.

9/10

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