Sunday, March 6, 2005



‘Azumanga’ relates
quirks of school life

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days,
Readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic,
taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

Ah, yes, high school memories: fond for some people, forgettable for others. The close bonds of friendship. The late-night study sessions. The heartbreak of having a cute neighborhood kitten using your hand as a chew toy.

OK, so maybe that last one would be a memory that only Sakaki, one of the girls in the anime and manga comedy "Azumanga Daioh," could have. What matters here is that "Azumanga" specializes in serving up fond high school nostalgia with a few quirky twists.

The franchise began life as a series of "4-koma" (four-panel) comic strips by Kiyohiko Azuma that ran in the Monthly Comic Dengeki Daioh anthology in Japan (hence the series' name, a contraction of sorts of "Azuma's manga in Daioh"). It proved popular enough to warrant a 26-episode anime series in Japan in 2002. ADV brought both to the United States -- the manga in a four-volume set, the anime in six DVDs containing three to five episodes each.

The plot is simple to grasp: A group of girls attend high school in Japan, from their first day to graduation day. That's it. Consider it like "Seinfeld" in the United States, with much of its humor based on the minutiae of everyday life.

If there's one thing that can be said about the "Azumanga" cast, it's that its members are incredibly cute. (One of their teachers would certainly agree with that assessment -- more on that in a bit.)

The first girl -- and arguably the cutest -- to be introduced is Chiyo Mihama, the 10-year-old daughter from a wealthy family who is so smart, she was granted the opportunity to skip from elementary to high school.

It quickly becomes apparent that Chiyo might actually be smarter than many of the people at her school, students and teachers alike. A core group of friends soon forms around her:

» Tomo, a hyperactive, competitive girl who is an overachiever in everything she does. Even if she finished second in a race with two people, she would still happily crow, "SECOND PLAAAAAAACE! I got SECOND PLAAAAAAACE!"

» Yomi, Tomo's intelligent yet weight-obsessed childhood friend who often serves as the foil to Tomo's antics.

» Sakaki, a strong, silent girl admired by everyone who has a hidden love for cute animals and the misfortune of always being attacked by those animals.

» Kaorin, who worships the ground that Sakaki walks on.

» Ayumu Kasuga, a transfer student who promptly earns the nickname "Osaka" from Tomo on account that Ayumu came from that region. She's just a tad spacey, often falling asleep in class and celebrating accomplishments like splitting wooden chopsticks perfectly down the middle.

» Kagura, the jock of the group, who sees Sakaki as a natural rival, even though Sakaki doesn't see her the same way.

Then there are the teachers. In most shows set in high schools, teachers are portrayed as stern disciplinarians who often act as a foil to their students' antics -- that is, if they even appear in the show.

IN THE WORLD of "Azumanga" ... well, let's just say that the girls' homeroom and English teacher, Yukari, is first seen rushing to school on her bicycle because she woke up late on the first day of classes.

Then her bicycle chain breaks, a student stops to help her fix it and she takes his bicycle instead.

And then she arrives late anyway and ends up introducing herself to the wrong class.

Suffice it to say that Yukari isn't your average organized teacher.

Yukari's longtime friend and PE teacher, Minamo, is the complete opposite of Yukari, more easygoing and quiet. This makes her more popular with the students than the high-strung Yukari -- a fact that irritates Yukari to no end. It's pretty easy to see them as an older version of Tomo and Yomi.

Every school with cute girls has to have a resident creepy guy to ogle those girls, and filling this role in "Azumanga" is the only recurring male character in the series, Mr. Kimura. He even admits to his class that he took the job just so he could see high school girls every day. Yet the girls are surprised to learn later that he's happily married to a loving (if slightly klutzy) wife and has a daughter.

As with most comedy series, "Azumanga's" humor won't appeal to everyone. Some jokes rely on long pauses of a minute or so, where no action takes place on screen. Some of the girls' dreams -- involving their vision of Chiyo's dad as a large yellow blobby catlike thing -- are equally bizarre.

Several Japanese cultural in-jokes also will go over the heads of American audiences. To ADV's credit, the company included booklets explaining the cultural notes behind the jokes with each DVD volume, along with Japanese production staff notes and pages of official art of the main characters. ADV has always been good at localizing series for the United States -- the company's English dubs are among the best in the business -- and it's nice to see that tradition continuing here. (It is somewhat odd, though, to see Osaka's Kansai accent translated as a New England accent in the manga but interpreted as a Texas/Southern accent in the anime.)

Still, this remains a delightful series to read and watch. And don't be surprised if you shed a few tears by the time the girls' graduation ceremony rolls around in the final episode.

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