Azumanga Daioh (2002)
Directed by Hiroshi Nishikiori

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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Synopsis & Analysis
Hiroshi Nishikiori's animated television series Azumanga Daioh has little or no narrative connecting its different episodes or even within each individual episode and consists, essentially, of depictions of the various incidents which befall a group of teenaged girls. While it may seem that such a lack of structure could soon grow tiresome and that the program could degenerate into a succession of disconnected sketches, the director not only manages to bind these various incidents together but also imbues them with so much charm and humor that Azumanga Daioh is one of the most enjoyable television series I have ever encountered.

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While things that are found to be funny at one particular place or at one particular time are often not found to be funny at another place or time, and, as a result, comedy rarely transcends such limitations, Azumanga Daioh is an exception. The program is infused with such a vivacious sense of hilarity that it is sure to leave nearly any viewer laughing.

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Not only is the series funny, however, it is also genuinely engaging. The high school girls around whom the program revolves are all well realized. Sakaki is tall, beautiful, painfully shy, and loves animals, despite the fact that they do not appear to be fond of her. Tomo is a loud mouthed, destructive, and extremely competitive extrovert. Ayumu Kasuga, nicknamed "Osaka," is a dreamy individual, disconnected from the world around her, and could be the funniest and most endearing character I have encountered in any television program. Kaorin is Sakaki's adoring fan, and is, almost certainly, in love with her. Koyomi, or Yomi for short, is intelligent, calm, and reasonable, if somewhat sarcastic. Chiyo is an adorable ten year old girl who has been promoted out of her own grade because of her exceptional abilities, and Kagura, who joins the group part of the way through the series, is an overly competitive athlete who is not always as attentive to her studies as she should be. Although the characters are not complex individuals, they are all well crafted, interesting, and genuinely likeable.

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While wisely avoiding attempts at inappropriate character development, the makers of Azumanga Daioh do explore the personalities of the girls, allowing the viewer to engage with them and to find humor in their lives. Sakaki, in particular, benefits from such examinations. She is surprised to learn, for instance, that her classmates admire her height, beauty, and athleticism and believe that she is "cool," as she herself is uncomfortable with being tall, thinks that others are more attractive than she is, and is completely uncompetitive. She emerges as an appealing individual with whom the viewer is able to sympathize and, perhaps, identify. Osaka's character is also explored fairly extensively. The viewer is shown her preoccupations and worries and is, consequently, made to empathize with her inability to achieve many of the goals she sets for herself. On her first day of school, for example, she decides that she will be a good student but, despite the best of intentions, still falls asleep in class. She is a wonderfully quirky individual who, while being odd, is by no means just a caricature.

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In addition to such virtues, the program's appeal is considerably enhanced by its visual qualities. The director has avoided the unfortunate tendency found among many animators to demand photographically realistic drawings. Instead, the animation he uses in Azumanga Daioh is simple, restrained, and charming. In fact, the series' characters are all brought to life with wonderfully enchanting, stylized designs that are sure to endear them to the viewer. These modest but attractive character designs are, moreover, complemented by various extreme, non-realistic, and simplified designs which are intermittently employed to give visual expression to the characters' emotions. The effect Nishikiori achieves with all these images is appealing, engaging, and genuinely sweet.

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Admittedly, some episodes are, inevitably, better than others, but even the series' weaker installments are still entertaining. Azumanga Daioh also includes what could well be the single funniest episode of any television program I have ever seen.

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There are, unfortunately, a couple of problems that do reoccur throughout the series. The worst of these distractions is undoubtedly the director's portrayal of Mr. Kimura, a leering male teacher. He is so overdone that his behavior, instead of being creepily humorous, is simply disturbing. My enjoyment of episodes of such hilarity that I was left in pain from the laughter they induced was transformed, on more than one occasion, at least briefly, into discomfort because of the character's presence.

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Despite its occasional missteps, Azumanga Daioh is among the funniest television programs I have ever encountered. It is a real delight.

Review by Keith Allen

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