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.

Rurouni Kenshin

Manga is more than just a variation of comics – it’s a learning experience! A great example of this is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic Rurouni Kenshin. The title character is an Issin Shishi veteran of the Meiji restoration, one who lived as a killer, an elite fighter sent to eliminate the most dangerous opponents of the revolution. What’s so interesting about this story is that it doesn’t take place during the Bakamatsu, but rather afterwards.

All soldiers need somewhere to go when the war is over but people rarely plan that far ahead. The Bakamatsu was no exception. So when the long days of fighting are over Kenshin is left with nowhere to go and no idea how he goes from a hardened killer to the citizen of a peaceful country. Like many long veteran soldiers, Kenshin finds he loathes fighting and sets out to live in peace. He exchanges his katana for a sakabato and vows to never kill again.

Unfortunately, back in the day Kenshin had quite the reputation and a decade after disappearing into the mists of history Kenshin finds that someone has stolen his name and is using his old reputation for their own ends. Living in peace is not enough to satisfy, it seems. Kenshin must ultimately seek redemption for his misdeeds. He will find it only in humility, service towards others and diligently performing housework for women who will never learn to do it on their own. Everything from the way he lives to the way he speaks, referring to himself in a diminuitive fashion and addressing most other people with the highly respectful “dono“, point to the change in Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin is a shonen manga to the core – it has lots of action, lots of humor and an emphasis on making the community you live in a better place.  Every time Kenshin swings his blunted blade he does so in the hopes that the ideals he fought for during the Bakumatsu will be upheld in the new era but, unlike many works about the past, Watsuki makes no attempts to sugarcoat the reality of the Meiji era. Yes, there were patriots out there on both sides of the conflict. But by and large most people were seeking their own gain.

As a weekly comic that ran for five years, Kenshin had a lot of time to look at the various forms that took. Disreputable merchants looking to buy power over people, disreputable teachers looking to play the wealthy and well intentioned for their own ends, well intentioned men branded criminals so others wouldn’t take the heat, virtuous men who turn to violence and crime in the search for petty revenge. All these and more are things that Watsuki and Kenshin stare down through the pages of their manga. Each one is overcome by relying on three simple rules:

  • Serve humbly.
  • Fight for the oppressed.
  • Teach others to do the same.

Rurouni Kenshin is a great yarn about a country, an era and the people that made it. It’s not going to give you anything like a comprehensive idea of what the time was like but it will give you a starting place. None of the historical events mentioned in it are made up, although much of the story taking place around those historical facts is pure fantasy. But there’s still one thing beyond sketchy that Kenshin teaches.

Heroes, it seems, look the same no matter what the culture or the era.