Welcome, all, again. In this season’s spirit of sharing, I’ll now share something with you–that no matter how immersed I become in current titles, I sometimes long for the comfortable familiarity of an old favorite. I have for the last few days been [re]watching the 2002 series Azumanga Daioh, and it feels so good! The subtle joy of watching vaguely remembered storylines develop is juxtaposed against the thrill of rediscovering all those specific bits that had since slipped my mind. . .favorites become favorites for a reason, so I make sure to go back to enjoy them again every once in a while. I tell you, it’s time well-spent!
And it’s really no surprise that I like Azumanga Daioh so much: it’s slice-of-life; blends an eccentric but believable cast; and takes place in the innocuous but likewise tumultuous setting of high school. And, of course, it is the creation of mad genius Kiyohiko Azuma, who also created my favorite manga, Yotsuba&! (the 13th volume of which was recently released). In fact, Yotsuba&! began its run in March 2003, not quite a full year after the May 2002 conclusion of the Azumanga Daioh manga, both published in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. And although the settings are different, both follow a similar premise: an established group of friends and acquaintances react to the introduction of a young girl into their midst. In Azumanga Daioh, that girl is Chiyo-chan.
Chiyo Mihama is a ten-year-old child prodigy who is elevated straight from elementary school into her freshman year of high school. While this move poses no intellectual challenge for her, Chiyo is suddenly thrust into the social machinations of students who are roughly half-a-decade older. She is not only much smaller than her classmates physically, but is also not so emotionally developed as they are. Her new environment confuses and even occasionally intimidates her, and she is very cognizant of others’ uncertainty and discomfort around her. Luckily for Chiyo, her classmate Sakaki has a natural liking for things small and cute.
While Chiyo’s presence is what drives this story, her friends are also brought vividly to life. It is Sakaki who first gives Chiyo an actual social presence within their class. Sakaki is the strong, silent type to whom people seem naturally drawn, so Sakaki’s friendship immediately changes the way in which Chiyo’s classmates interact with her–especially Yomi and Tomo, childhood friends who had been teasing Chiyo. While that teasing never altogether stops, it is largely replaced with genuine interest that soon develops into friendship. Ditzy transfer student Osaka (Ayumu Kasuga) rounds out the core group of friends, although–as in real life–others pass in and out of this social construct (witness Kagura’s gradual eclipse of Kaorin, for instance). Also playing important roles in Chiyo’s new life are her homeroom teacher Yukari Tanizaki and her P.E. teacher Minamo “Nyamo” Kurosawa. These two teachers are former classmates who now teach at their alma mater, and the term frenemies was probably invented just for them. All of these characters are developed brilliantly, each with her own telling quirks that just scream authenticity (such as Yomi’s fixation with her weight or Yukari’s automotive death wish).
Azumanga Daioh follows its subjects from the first day of their first semester all the way through their high school graduation. And at 26 episodes long, the series allows viewers a leisurely immersion into its characters’ lives, creating a warm familiarity. Additionally, this is just a very pleasant show to watch, with warm, soft artwork that complements the simple, natural feel of the story. Sometimes you just want to relax and laugh–this is the show that will make that happen.