“Azumanga Daioh” is not deep, thought provoking, or complex. However it challenges the reader in the best way possible. It challenges them not to laugh till they cry.
“Azumanga Daioh” is about friendship, growing up, and living with a “all cats bite me” disability. The jokes come fast, loud, and often in this 4-panel compendium work. It is not subtle but it is all the merrier for it. The format helps this rush of gut-busters. Most of the gags are a few panels in a small story that leads up to a punch line. This keeps the pace brisk and even though some of the jokes don’t land, another one is always only moments away.
The characters are the heart amid the insanity. Though none of them are too layered and most of the backstory we get are asides and inferences, they are a blast to follow. The enjoyment is in their personalities and the wonderful hi-jinks they get each other into. Whether its surviving a teacher’s spectacularly bad driving or the warfare of “field day” how the characters interact in the ever-change landscape of high school is endearing and nostalgic. Some of the characters can be annoying, but they are balanced out by the other characters who either act as foils to them or show just how ridiculous they are. This manga is a prime example of using a cast of personalities to its fullest.
The art is also well-done. The jokes land because of Kiyohiko Azuma’s excellent use of physical comedy and framing. The characters fly off the panels, their kinetic energy and personalities apparent in every line. The reactions are the right amount on the over-the-top scale and the art changes from complex to simple erratically but is expressive in all the right places. Azuma is a master of knowing how far to go and how best to display a joke.
This manga is not without its inconsistencies. Like those old Garfield cartoons, the main draw is following the characters over time. The author creates the illusion that the characters are real, no matter how absurd they act. That means that occasionally, for the sake of a gag, we don’t get to follow them on. After some punchlines, you might be left wondering what happens next. There are no distracting subplots and the action is contained to a limited area, but like stage plays, the props and repeated scenery are used well.
It is always about surviving high school and the craziness of certain friendships. This is obviously aimed at fans of lighthearted comedy of the teenage variety. But I hope readers will keep an open mind and remember that doom and gloom are not the only intellectually stimulating literary ingredients. I enjoy artists and writers who know how to take simple situations and find the heart and beauty in them. Grounding this over-the-top comedy is a sense of reality we can all relate to.
“Azumanag Diaoh” is not an existential work of genius, but it doesn’t have to be. Its only concern is entertainment and at this it succeeds. It is a safe avenue for those unfamiliar with manga tropes. While it has many of the usual Japanese comic quirks, the more esoteric references one might find in other titles are largely absent. Anyone interested in physical comedy, comic strips like Calvin and Hobbs and those wishing to refresh their brain after something difficult will find joy between these pages. Then they will split their seams like a teddy bear being hugged too tightly.
Interestingly, Azuma is still writing a subtle, hauntingly beautiful work in the same vein called Yotsuba! (14 volumes). The level of sophistication is still low but the characters are masterful. A must-read if you enjoyed this.