Azumanga Daioh: The Omnibus

by Kiyohiko Azuma

Cover image

Publisher: ADV Manga
Copyright: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007
Printing: November 2007
ISBN: 1-4139-0364-5
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 683

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Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王, per Wikipedia) was a series of four-panel strips by Kiyohiko Azuma (あずまきよひこ) published in the monthly magazine Dengeki Daioh (月刊コミック電撃大王). The title doesn't mean anything in particular; it's derived from the author's name, the word "manga," and the magazine name. It follows three years in the lives of classmates at a Japanese girl's high school and was originally published over four years. This omnibus edition includes all four years and as far as I'm concerned is definitely the best way of reading it.

The primary focus is comedy. The class teacher, as becomes immediately obvious, is lazy, bizarre, and basically insane. She and Tomo, the hyper-energetic student, both have a tendency to say whatever comes into their head and explode into wild emotion at the drop of the hat. The rest of the cast is wonderfully varied: Sakaki, who is obsessed with cute animals; Osaka, who doesn't think like anyone else; young precocious Chiyo, who's rich, hyperintelligent, and way ahead of her grade; and other, more minor characters. Despite the four-panel, joke-driven format, Azuma manages a surprising amount of characterization over the course of the series. He also avoids nearly all of the standard comedy tropes (social embarassment, sexual embarassment, mean-spirited teasing) that so often drive me away from manga and anime, and from comedy in general. There is some embarassment and teasing, and certainly a lot of exaggerated emotion, but it felt more intelligent, thoughtful, and respectful than most of this genre.

Sakaki is far and away my favorite character throughout and a good example of comedy that maintains a respectful tone. She's a tall, pretty, athletic, quiet girl who quickly acquires a reputation for being horribly mature and "cool," when secretly she's obsessed with cute things and with animals and just too quiet and uncertain to contradict anyone's assumptions. But where in other comedy this could be a setup for endless embarassment, Sakaki applies a quiet, determined creativity to her life. She never stops trying to pet the neighborhood cats, even though they always run from her or, later, start biting her. I think the quintessential Sakaki moment is when she figures out she can pet the cat while it's biting her hand. By the end of the strip, when she finds a dog she can spend time with and a cat who loves her, the build-up has been so effective that those strips are genuinely touching.

Osaka is another highlight and the source of some of the surrealism that livens the strip from time to time. She's a somewhat spacey transfer student (from Osaka; that's her nickname, but everyone forgets her real name, including the school) who thinks at right angles to everyone else. This leads to some hilarious misunderstandings as well as a great subplot in which Osaka gets a bizarre idea about Chiyo-chan's braids and can't shake the feeling that they're independently alive. One of my favorite types of humor is the startling non sequitur, and Osaka is an endless source of them (only some of which have to be mangled in translation).

The art style throughout is simple line work with often exaggerated expressions, but it's quite effective at portraying the emotional slapstick at the heart of a lot of the series humor. The one major complaint that I had was how difficult it was to tell many of the characters apart. Sakaki is usually distinctive from her height (and likewise Chiyo-chan), Nyamo (the gym teacher) from her hair style (although I caught onto that late), and Yomi from her light hair color. But the rest of the students are often very difficult to tell apart, and sometimes even hard to tell apart from their teacher. Usually it doesn't matter, but I occasionally could have used more distinctive features.

The translation seemed fairly good to me, although of course it's hard to tell without being able to read the original. As with many commercial manga translations, occasionally Japanese jokes that are judged too culturally obscure or dependent on language to make sense in English are replaced with English "equivalents," but those replacements mostly worked for me where I was aware of them. There unfortunately aren't translation notes for the first two volumes, but the last two have end notes that mention when such substitutions are made or explain references that were left intact, and those explanations seemed reasonable. I wish they'd been available for the whole omnibus, and I wish they'd found space on the same page as the comic for them. My personal preference would be to leave the Japanese joke intact and explain it in a footnote or side notes, but notes are a good fallback.

Humor is a hard thing to judge and review, and there probably isn't enough else to Azumanga Daioh to rescue it if the humor doesn't work for you. But this humor is intelligent, kind-hearted, and occasionally surreal, a combination that won me over more than I was expecting. I particularly appreciated the lack of constant social embarassment, which seems to be the core of far too much humor in both Japanese and US entertainment. If the subject matter sounds at all interesting, consider picking this up; the omnibus is quite inexpensive for a lot of material and I found it much more enjoyable than I was expecting from the descriptions.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-09

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21