Cool Things: Azumanga Daioh

So we’ve covered gunslingers in outer space and Meiji era romantic swordsmen, what remains to give a full bodied, even handed overview of manga and anime, this month’s focus here at Nate Chen Publications? Oh, yes, of course.

High school.

Now many Americans have fond memories of their high school days. But in our culture college is probably the more important educational milestone. While fewer people go to college, it is where a lot of people seem to form their first meaningful lifetime relationships outside of their birth families. Roommates, sports teams, fraternity or sorority friends or just people who took the same classes you did, college is where you meet them. Sure, you have some friends from high school who might stick around, if you’re lucky. But for the most part, in America, college is where independence really starts and tends to be our high water mark for growing up.

In Japan, it’s high school. College admission exams are exponentially more difficult there, often consuming most of a student’s free time in their last year of high school so, at least in pop culture, the first two years become a frantic rush to accumulate experiences and meet those people sharing your interests. Then you bond together and set your sites on a life path and work towards it as a group.

This theme is made so much of in Japanese pop culture that I have to conclude it’s what actually happens on at least a semi-regular basis. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sell it so frequently. But the way it’s typically presented in Japanese pop culture is probably not the way it really is.

There is one work I’ve ready that has the ring of truth to it, though, and that’s Azumanga Diaoh by Azuma Kiyohiko.

If you’ve read/watched any manga/anime at all you know that the Japanese have a slightly higher tolerance for abnormal elements like superhuman martial arts, mind readers, spiritualists and the like in their entertainment and fusing these elements with high school is a very common approach to story telling. Azumanga Daioh is not that.

High school manga or anime are also considered a great format for stories of all out competition with sports teams or game clubs or even movie making groups doing all in their power to win a major competition before exams crash down and end their high school days. Azumanga Daioh isn’t that either.

Lastly, even in America we recognize the unique romantic atmosphere of high school. There’s cute members of the opposite sex all over the place to be chased, gossiped about and rejected by. The Japanese are just as fine writing high school romances as Americans. But Azumanga Daioh doesn’t waste its time with romance.

Azumanga Daioh is what’s known as a slice-of-life drama. It follows its central characters around as they arrive in high school, get to know each other, do funny, stupid or otherwise entertaining things and eventually graduate.

I know, I know. This sounds boring. Somehow, it isn’t.

I really wish I could explain this manga better. It’s roughly the equivalent to a comic strip, what’s called “4-koma” in Japan. Most of the stories are told in a series of four panels that serve to basically tell a joke. But in each of those jokes a surprising amount of character development goes on.

This is significant since Azumanga Daioh (and slice-of-life in general) is not a sitcom. The genre is driven by its characters and not the situation they are in. What Kiyohiko does is he builds a set of very understandable, deep and relatable characters and then lets us live with them for three years until they graduate (high schools in Japane have a 3 year curriculum spanning 10th to 12th grade, just one of many differences between Japanese education and the U.S.) By the end we really feel like people like Osaka, Chiyo and Sakaki really were our classmates. That’s a particularly impressive achievement if, like me, you were homeschooled…

The Japanese pop culture obsession with high school may not always make sense to Western readers. But it is that very fact that makes Azumanga Daioh a great example of it for people dipping their toes into manga and anime. It seems as if this is what they’re really expecting to get, what they really want out of high school. It’s an idealized take on the formative years of young people, from the perspective of Japanese culture.

Plus it’s consistently funny, occasionally heart touching and not that hard to get a handle on. Maybe saying it’s a story about girls who go to school for three years, become fast friends and graduate to move on to bigger things doesn’t inspire you. But all dreams need foundations. And, in a very real way, that’s what Azumanga Daioh is – a foundation for bigger things.

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