When you get your hands on some material, and feel hungry for more, and a real sense of sadness when it ends, you know you've hit on something special. But for some titles, like this one, writing a review to explain why can be a real challenge.
This review includes two other manifestations of Azumanga Daioh. One is a "movie", which is actually a 6 minute promotional episode. The other is "Azumanga Web" which I don't know the history of. They are both somewhat different in style and purpose but the content and flavor fits perfectly into the series. So there's not much point in doing a second review for them.
The story starts in a Japanese senior school, one no doubt like so many others. Within this class are many students, each with their own personality, strengths and weaknesses, which again is what you'd expect of any class. Of that class we get to follow a number of female students, as their personality shapes the typical student experiences that make up the year. Summer holiday, Athletics festival, Cultural festival, Studying, doing tests, eating lunch... it's all incredibly mundane and no truly earth-shaking events disturb their lives. And after three years they graduate from high school and the series comes to, not an end, but a conclusion.
That synopsis is, intentionally, over-aggressive. But a synopsis is designed to summarize a story and is always going to be a challenge in a series like this that doesn't actually have one. From a high level point of view the girls go through their schooling without anything incredible or truly unusual happening. Of course this also manages to miss the point entirely, because what the show loses in story it gains in character. We get to be a part of all those events, little moments of character, of insight, of interaction and of humor that will become the basis for memories. It makes you realize that, even without incredible occurrences, people are fascinating.
Of course to be honest the girls we follow aren't exactly that normal. This material is derived from a series of 4 panel gag-strips so their characters have to be relatively strong and defined to work in that format (you can see some translated examples here). Thus each of them has accentuated personality traits and can be depended upon to act in a certain way. They also each play a role within the cast and in relation to each other. So for example Chiyo-chan, the uber-kawaii 10 year old genius, has a very different relationship with Sakaki, who is intelligent enough to be her equal, as she does with Osaka, who is so spaced out no one has any idea as to her intelligence. Taken together they form a fairly complex and complete web of personality archetypes and interesting interactions. So even a very mundane event, such as a school athletics meet, can be seen in a wide variety of ways depending on which characters we are observing and the specifics of the event.
The characters are also highly varied in terms of strengths and weaknesses. This ranges from Sakaki at the high end, who is seemingly talented at everything she tries and attractive beyond her years, to the intriguing Kasuga Ayumu (better known as Osaka) at the lower end. She's bad at just about everything, looks, academic, sports and even things normal people take for granted. However, since friendship is the focus, both have their place in the group and can add their unique richness to the experience. And indeed strength is matched with weakness, Sakaki is somewhat restricted by the expectations her appearance causes, while Osaka has gained the ability to think without restriction. Each of them is charming and cute, but their personality is not dominated by the need to project cuteness. They lose their temper and do immature, eccentric or thoughtless acts at times. Although some, like Tomo and Yukari-sensei, seem to do little else at times. In short while they are not truly real, their character aspects a bit too strongly delineated, they work wonderfully together and as representations of an archetype.
The show actually draws heavily from the sources, even to the extent of using multiple small stories. Indeed the Azumanga Daioh FAQ states that it originally screened as 130 five minute episodes and then was later rebuilt into the full length anime I watched. However the anime does an absolutely fantastic job of presenting it. The character of the girls (the only male is the rather creepy Kimura-sensei who has a, thankfully, minor role) is extremely well brought out. The superb observation, and ability to capture expression, makes the anime incredibly fun to watch in addition to meeting the story requirements. The action, and very rich comedy, are also wonderfully represented. There is just so much meaning, and charm, in even the most minor of expressions. And, like much character driven material, it is highly re-watchable. It is also extremely cute at many points, and (it must be said) each of the girls has her own unique flavor.
Does it have any downsides? Not really, it's a perfect representation of these rich "slices of life". However it is possible to dislike the overall structure. The lack of an over-arching story does detract somewhat from the depth of the material. Likewise the very small story segments, and light hearted atmosphere, limits the amount of insight we gain into the characters. Nor do they really develop much, it would have been nice to see some more change in the cast over time. Indeed Tomo is somewhat over-used to drive the comedy, and draw reactions out of the more subdued cast members, which ends up leaving her a quite shallow character. Kaorin has even less luck, never really establishing a niche, and eventually getting thrown to the wolf. In other words it is relatively light, we get lots of events and character but we don't delve that deeply and the meaning of the events passes quickly. And needless to say the contents will not be to everyones taste. However if you love charm and character it really is hard to think of a series that does it better.
I guess I should also mention there is virtually no romance in this title at all. There are lots of male school students around, and one of the teachers is considering an arranged marriage at one point, but those are totally peripheral. It seems odd to leave this vein untapped but it actually makes a lot of sense, because the introduction of such things would break up the tight bond between the girls. I also don't know whether I emphasised the comedy enough, there's a lot of it and most of it works well. It has a lot of energy, even physical and surreal comedy, but at the heart of it there is always a rich sense of character. As a result the comedy doesn't tend to cause wild laughter, or have a simple joke at the core, but it does leave you with a silly grin and a light heart for quite a lot of the running time.
Spectacular, there's just no other word for it. From the moment the characters bounce onto the screen (literally) and the opening music embeds itself in your subconscious you are trapped. It makes for pretty poor screen captures, having a relatively simple style, but in motion it is just brilliant. Highly expressive, fantastic voice actors for each character, and able to use a variety of visual and audio techniques to emphasize meaning. And even with the energy and variety of visual appearances it is still wonderfully coherent, able to go from a somber shoujo mood to exotic super-deformed comedy without breaking the atmosphere. It is not a technical victory, some of the physical animation is a bit dodgy (especially early on), but a stylistic and expressive one. It really does bring energy to the show, capture a moment and often provide a punchline. Indeed let me commend the audio again, the voice actresses do a fantastic job, and the laid back folksy music is perfect. The fansubbers (the Triad in this case) also do a sterling job providing rich culture notes to bring out some of the puns and underlying humor a western fan would miss. Some tolerance for high pitched Japanese voices is required though, especially in the case of Chiyo-chan.
Amusing gag-strips set in high school are brought to vibrant life by a wonderful anime production. The stories are extremely small scale, and the depth is limited by the time, but the charm, character and humor of the group is wonderfully depicted. Each character is interesting in themselves, they interact well, and the production is inventive and superbly expressive. If you like ensemble drama, and the inherent humor in the everyday, then this is one you really should try.