Azumanga Daioh is a slice-of-life high school comedy gag series about six girls, three of their teachers, and an assorted cast of other side characters and animals. That's it.
And yeah, that's pretty much it.
When Azumanga Daioh came out in 2002, there really wasn't anything like it. While gag anime had been done for decades prior, this series was notable for revolving almost entirely around high school girls as opposed to children/boys, with only a few scattered adults and no action or sci-fi elements. It was also refreshingly grounded in reality, with its occasional bouts of cartooniness reserved exclusively for jokes and dream sequences. And with the exception of one girl with a one-sided crush on another, there isn't even any romance between our core cast of characters. (Notably, the series' only semi-major male character, Kimura, is already married.)
To some anime fans out there, Azumanga Daioh isn't just a cute school girl anime; it's THE cute school girl anime. Back in the early 2000's the anime was hyped everywhere on the Internet, and you wouldn't have to go far without bumping into a picture of one of the girls of the series online, especially Osaka. (One of my siblings even used an avatar of Osaka on a forum for years.)
As for me? I had read almost all of the Azumanga Daioh manga before I watched the anime. And despite ADV's at times super rough translation job of it (especially in volume one), I enjoyed it a lot. Hell, I liked it so much I bought it twice: the original ADV run, and the much better Yen Press version. The snappy four panel pace with two comics per page allowed for brisk jokes, while allowing for simple stories over a few pages as well. This made the rare time the series went into full page storylines - like exploring Chiyo's daily routine or helping cure Osaka of her hiccups - have more impact. Carlos, Christi, and Eric's glowing review of the anime on this site also made me really excited to watch when it finally came out on R1 DVD. My siblings and I bought every anime volume as they came out, and we enjoyed it at the time.
But as the years have gone on, and the industry has expanded more on the "cute school girls doing cute things" genre of anime, Azumanga Daioh is more and more starting to show its age. And the more I look back on this series, the less and less I find myself liking it. The reason is two fold: I always preferred the manga, and the slice-of-life school girl anime genre since 2002 has had shows of much better quality overall.
Is the Order a Rabbit? has much better art and actual character development for more than just one character.
Shikimori's Not Just A Cutie has not only way more likable characters (not a bad egg in the bunch), but a more consistent art style.
Non Non Biyori looks worlds better and captures the more bratty/fun-loving side of kids way better, while also having a lot of sweet, touching, and even tear-jerking scenes as well.
Hidamari Sketch has an incredibly adorable art style and (mostly) fun characters, with less focus on school life antics and more on relationships and bonding.
And lastly, Encouragement of Climb adds actual trivia about mountain climbing and Japanese mountains with its cute cast of characters between slice-of-life antics.
Azumanga Daioh has a relatively tiny cast of ten characters: the main six girls, their three teachers, and Kaorin. Aside from a couple of very minor side characters and a couple of pets, Azumanga Daioh has a surprisingly tiny cast for a series revolved around school life. This also means that if some of these characters don't resonate with you, it's going to be harder to like this series. Let's go over my own personal ranking of all ten characters from worst to best to further explain about them.
Kimura is the series' sole male semi-major character, whose one joke is that he's a lover of underage girls, while also somehow being married to a beautiful woman and having a daughter. To say the humor revolving him has not aged well would be an understatement. He's a creep pure and simple. Even back then you wouldn't find many fans of him online, and in the 2020's his humor has aged like fruit in the desert. His few nice moments (like donating money to charity) are far, far outweighed by the creepy ones.
Kaorin is the only minor girl character of the cast, and her personality almost entirely revolves around her crush on Sakaki...which she expresses with the subtlety of a truck horn in someone's face. She does not gel with the rest of the cast at all, and at times is shown to have a rather low opinion of anyone but Sakaki. For example, in episode nine, she has a dream where she imagines Chiyo, Osaka, Tomo, and Yomi as stereotypical delinquents, with Sakaki as her savior on a horse. In another episode, when her friend in her class sprains her ankle, Kaorin offers to take her place in a three-legged race with Sakaki. When her friend returns, she immediately hisses at her to back off to take the opportunity to be with Sakaki. It also doesn't help later on she ends up being in Kimura's homeroom class, leading to some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the entire series. Combine all this with Sakura Nogawa (the future voice of Erica from Strike Witches)'s absolutely obnoxious performance, and you got yourself a character even back in the day some other T.H.E.M. Anime staff members had a hard time sitting through. Kaorin has her fans out there for sure, but I have never been among them.
Next up is the girls' homeroom/English teacher, Yukari Tanizaki. A lazy, selfish slacker of a teacher, who's a bad drunk, a sore loser (AND winner), a terrible driver (a recurring joke that, while funny at first, loses its impact by series' end), and likes to pick on her students, not afraid to reprimand them with slapstick or yelling. Oh, and she also blackmails her best friend/fellow teacher Minamo Kurosawa to prevent her from talking about her past to her students, as if the series needed to give you more reasons to dislike her. She's clearly supposed to be seen as funny, but I'm sorry, I don't think even in a slapstick anime series an adult being mean to a literal child is funny. Her only saving grace is Akiko Hiramitsu's hilarious performance as her; it's still today her most prolific voice in an anime series.
Tomo is the token loud-mouthed tomboy of the six main girls, and That One Character (aka the character you wonder why anyone hangs out with). She likes acting before thinking, moving fast, and being an even violent at times nuisance, especially to her best friend Yomi and Chiyo, the latter who is a child. She was the least popular of the six main girls in polls and merchandise in Japan, and it's not hard to see why. Like with Kimura, the nicer moments with her are few and far between, and it takes her quite a while to calm down in the series.
Minamo "Nyamo" Kurosawa is the more level-headed P.E. teacher of the school, and Yukari's best friend. She's shown to be overall a much better teacher to her class than Yukari ever is, but she's not above her best friend's level of immaturity and yelling. She's also somehow an even WORSE drunk than Yukari. She's nice, but aside from a subplot in one episode about her mother setting her up for an arranged marriage, Minamo is surprisingly underused in the series. The series kind of just forgets about her once Kagura comes into the picture, aside from the summer episodes at Chiyo's summer home.
Yomi is the straight man of the six main girls, and Tomo's best friend. She's smart and studious, with a soft spot for Chiyo, but has a low fuse and is very snarky. (Though considering the company she shares with Tomo, it's not hard to see why.) A lot of people were fans of her in the day, and while she does have moments of funny snark, her character sadly rarely goes beyond that. Although I like Tomo less, I remember far more scenes and jokes with her than I do her best friend ironically enough. I also wasn't a fan of the constant weight jokes the series dumps on her later on, which made me feel more bad for her than laugh.
Kagura is the tan tomboy of the group and Sakaki's sports "rival" of sorts. She's one of the few characters other than Yomi to keep Tomo in her place, though she's just as prone to stupidity as her at times. She's basically a much better Tomo: kind, friendly, and helping others. She slowly stops seeing Sakaki as her rival and more as a friend as the series goes on, which was nice. She's also the only girl of the main six in a club; the swimming club, which she takes very seriously.
Chiyo is the youngest character in the cast at a mere 10 years old to start. A child prodigy and a total sweetie, a lot of the jokes involving her are about how fish out of water she is among her classmates five to six years older than her. And despite her intelligence, the series does show she has limits: she has awful stamina, she's not very strong, her being a child makes it harder for her to reach for things, and she can't do tongue twisters to save her life. After Osaka, Chiyo was by far the most popular girl in the series, resonating innocent cuteness in a way that never gets too clingy or annoying. (Though the cooking segments in the first episode push that a bit.) With that said, she's still a child and can be known to being childish and pouty at times, especially at Tomo, who manages to poke her buttons quite easily. (Notably, Tomo is the only one of the girls she addresses with a "-chan" honorifc in the Japanese version as opposed to "-san", showing how low of an opinion she has of her.) There's also a later episode in her second year where she makes a first year boy in her school refer to her as senpai because she really wants to be as a senior to her "younger" classmates, her smiling smugly after. Since Chiyo is usually such a sweetheart, it makes the rare time she breaks out of it much funnier than it would otherwise be.
Osaka is THE face of Azumanga Daioh; a quiet girl who goes very much at her own pace. She is anti-everything Osakan dialect characters in anime are stereotyped as: slow, quiet, polite, and feminine. In the manga she was my favorite character, but the anime decided to make every joke revolving her being that she does things really, really slowly. (One of the series' most infamous examples is her and Chiyo very badly playing volleyball in episode two, a scene that goes on for well over a minute.) Still, she can still be very funny at times, and Yuki Matsouka's adorable performance perfectly captures her cloud cuckoo lander mannerisms.
And at the top of the list is my favorite character, Sakaki. She is the Tall Girl, a quiet, almost stoic girl who deep down is a big softie who's not quite as she appears (i.e. crying at the movies over a cute little kids' film, or freaking out at a cockroach). She also really loves cute things, especially cats, and often tries to pet a particular one named Kamineko, who responds by biting her hand with his razor-sharp teeth. She's also the only character in the series that goes through an actual arc; starting off quiet and lone wolf-ish, but by series' end befriending five other girls (most notably Chiyo), and adopting an adorable Iriomote cat named Mayaa, finally getting a cat that doesn't attack her. As the years have gone on, I find myself more and more relating to Sakaki's shy, quiet demeanor (though I might also be a bit biased as that's typically one of my favorite school girl archetypes). Of all the characters in the series, her character has aged the best.
When Azuma Kiyohiko concluded the original Azumanga Daioh manga in 2002 and moved on to his next manga Yotsuba&! in 2003, he was offered the opportunity to adapt the latter into an anime not long after it started. But he turned it down, citing that the series was made as a manga only and it wouldn't work in animation. And, well, I would argue the same thing here with Azumanga Daioh. In an attempt to convert a four-panel comic gag manga into a cohesive 26 episode anime series, many storylines were changed around - some introduced a year or so earlier/later than in the original manga - and some funny strips were dropped, such as Chiyo learning how to use a computer and her and Osaka having part-time summer jobs. The series also divides each episode into five segmented parts per episode, each with its own episode title, since the show originally aired as five mini episodes a week, with the entire episode played at the end of the week. It goes a long way to explain why the show is so fragmented with its stories. (Again this isn't so much a problem in the manga, where each chapter is two half-parts of a month.)
Azumanga Daioh came out during anime's rough transition from hand painted cel animation to digital coloring. It thankfully avoids the then pitfalls of the garish, bright/dark colors many early digital anime went through (sup, Great Teacher Onizuka?). But on the flip side, many backgrounds are either really generic or are almost entirely colored gradients. It sure doesn't help that the art and animation start off rough, with characters' eye and hair styles constantly changing from shot to shot. It slowly gets better as the show goes on and the series slowly switches eye designs to plain black ones predominately, but this is the one category even the weakest school-girl comedy anime that came after Azumanga Daioh beat it in.
And then there's the music. Um, yeah, there's definitely music in this series alright. A lot of is played on a recorder, or uses very simple instruments, like the soundtrack was performed by actual high school students. It's cute enough at first (the bossa nova BGM is quite nice), but after a few episodes it starts to get tiring. There also aren't a lot of BGM tracks to go around, so expect to hear the same ones many times before series' end. (I've also never been the biggest fan of either the opening or ending theme of the series, even if the opening has some fun animation in it.)
On the plus side, the voice acting is mostly excellent. With the two exceptions of Tomoko Kaneda's squeaky toy voice of Chiyo and Sakura Nogawa's grating performance as Kaorin, all the voices in the Japanese version are perfectly cast. It's a shame Chieko Higuchi (Tomo) never really went anywhere in the industry; she stopped voice acting in anime altogether in 2008. Akiko Hiramitsu's at least still working, but mostly as mother characters, like every prolific Japanese voice actress eventually ends up at after they hit 40 or so.
Azumanga Daioh does get big points in one place, and that's that it ENDS. I don't care how many times I need to repeat this; it's nice to watch an anime with a beginning, middle, and end in a single season. Since this was made back in the early 2000's when near every full-length anime series got at least 26 episodes, time crunch isn't a worry for this series, and nearly everything from the manga appears in this series, in some cases even having scenes expanded. Heck, my favorite of the series is episode 19, an episode entirely made up of original material, and is also the most calming, quiet episode of the series. (Notably, it shows Tomo and Yomi hanging out in the latter's room just writing, reading, and listening to the radio while taking to each other, like real teenagers and friends. I know, right?)
I also really like how Azumanga Daioh ends. Even today, it's hard not to get a bit choked up at seeing characters you've grown to like over three school years and knowing that they'll never hang out like this again. I won't dare spoil anything proper, but it reminded me of my own graduation from high school, and it's still hard to not get a bit teary-eyed over it.
My thoughts on Azumanga Daioh's anime adaptation are overall a bit complicated, but that's because of its enormous reputation as one of the biggest and best anime of the 2000's. And while it was impressive for being the first really big school girl slice of life manga series, it has, at least in my opinion, been outshined by quite a few of its contemporaries. I'll much sooner read the manga again than watch the anime again. But I can't say I ever regretted watching it, and at times I even really enjoy it (I can't unhear the anime voices when I read the manga now). It's not only a good introduction to the overall school girl genre, but it's also entirely devoid of that "moe" stink the 2000's era of anime would sadly become known for. But maybe watch the anime first before you read the manga, so you can read the stories afterward that din't quite make it to the small screen.
Azumanga Daioh has not aged the most gracefully, but it can still be fun at times despite its slow paced comedy and not so stellar art and animation. Add a star if you never read the manga, as it will make you appreciate the jokes far more. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: No sex, no violence (other than a slapstick uppercut here or there played for laughs), and some puerile innuendo from Tomo (because she's obnoxious like that). Yukari and Nyamo do get sloshed off-duty a couple times, if you're worried about alcohol use. Okay for children and up, but the audience that would best appreciate are high schoolers and older who have lived these sorts of situations.
Version(s) Viewed: HIDIVE stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Azumanga Daioh © 2002 Kiyohiko Azuma / Media Works / Genco / JC Staff
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