The third episode of Azumanga Daioh that has one of the funniest pieces of animation I have even seen. Ayumu Kasuga, dubbed ‘Osaka’ against her will by her classmates ’cause that’s where she’s from, is staring forward, intent on conscientiously following the teacher. Then the focus of her eyes shifts, and they start to move. Her head follows, moving left and down, then up.
“What are you doing?”1 A classmate sensibly asks.
“You know those bubbles you can sometimes see in the corners of your eyes?”
“I’m trying to see if I can catch up to one.”
And she continues to do so, totally oblivious to her complete weirdness. There in microcosm is the charm of Azumanga Daioh, a show with almost as much weirdness as an Excel Saga without the exhausting extroversion. By limiting its narrative focus to realistic observational humor, the show succeeds admirably both as humor and as an example of genuine weird animation.
Azumanga Daioh is about a group of high school girls. Big deal, roughly 90% of everything to come out of Japan, from video games to pornography, is about high school girls. But Azumanga Daioh‘s high school girls do not have magical powers, evident extravagant sexual prowess or bizarre melodramatic emotional turmoil. They go to school, they play sports, they enjoy themselves. Just high school girls.
It is the elimination of these typical anime contrivances that makes Azumanga Daioh so successful. Anime is often pitched at the drooling school-boy level, with sophomoric sexual references and titillation eclipsing character and plot. This show eschews that as readily as it does generic trappings. I don’t believe, as happens in the first episode of Love Hina that a young lady is apt to say, “I think my breasts have gotten bigger” and then cart the mammaries in question to her roommates for inspection. In Azumanga Daioh, a riff on breast size leads to some genuinely funny jokes2 , which are neither played for fan-service nor run into the ground, in terms of either humor or taste.
Azumanga further distinguishes itself by defining characters by actions as opposed to histories. The typical anime character has a single event from the past as the defining moment in their psychological makeup, replacing real characterization. Azumanga‘s character are formed by their actions and interests, and end up being much more involving in their cheerfulness than a boatload of angsty Shinji’s. This does not imply that there is particular depth to any of them, but that what does exist feels natural, not cribbed from the great Anime Character check list.
It also grounds the brief forays into complete surreality. Consider the episode, New Year’s Dream, a series of dreams from the various girls, including one in which Sakaki sees Chiyo’s dad as an enormous triangular cat, or Osaka accidentally kills Chiyo by pulling off her pig-tails. Osaka is obsessed with pig-tails, Sakaki with kitties. The situations emerge from character, not imposed by the strictures of plot.
As the series goes on, I find it curiously becoming more comfortable, and yet less hilarious. The early episodes have the sharpest writing (and animation, as is typical since then budgets are fresh and flush) while the latter ones move, not into repetition, but into familiar zones thanks to the well-defined characters. Within the space of about a dozen episodes, Azumanga ingratiates itself wonderfully, generating the comfort of visiting friends that is the hallmark of good television. Not earth-shattering greatness, sure, but good television is rare enough.
2e.g. Osaka is in the changing room getting into her swim suit. She looks at the tall and very well-endowed Sakaki, says she looks American. She inspect the svelter Tomo, and declares her to be Japanese. Funnier in execution than explanation.