Sunday, 9 November 2014

Azumanga Daioh Omnibus review

I’ve read two series by mangaka Kiyohiko Azuma and unsurprisingly it’s his two most popular series: Azumanga Daioh and Yotsuba&!. I have no recollection as to why I picked up the omnibus edition of Azumanga Daioh as I don’t think I knew of Azuma before I made the purchase. Likewise, I only bought the first volume of Yotsuba&! after finishing Azumanga Daioh. Really though, none of that matters because I’m glad I discovered Azuma and his work. He is, quite clearly, one of the funniest comics creators working today and nobody does slice of life storytelling quite as exiting, refreshing and insightful. The most enjoyable thing about his manga is that he doesn’t take slice of life as meaning introspective or melodramatic manga. He conveys a wide range of emotion but never strays too far from humorous elements. It’s excellent, accessible humour that deals with a wide range of subjects, yet it all feels so effortless. I would be surprised that there aren’t more people doing this kind of work until I realized that it must be rather challenging to make manga so good look so easy.

When it comes to plot, Azumanga Daioh really doesn’t have much going on. That’s fine because it’s not a manga in the same vein of which most comics readers are familiar with. The series is technically yonkoma, a four-panel comic strip. The panels are traditionally the same size and shape and are stacked vertically with the first panel being on top and the final panel being on the bottom. There are two strips per page and like all manga, you read the right strip first before moving on to the left one. Like a lot of Japanese art forms there is a very specific structure to the yonkoma.

It’s interesting to compare Azuma’s four-panel strips to similar comic strips found in North American publications. It’s different from famous strips like Peanuts, Bloom County or Calvin & Hobbes because the effectiveness of some strips depend more heavily upon being read at the same time as other strips taking place before or after them. Certainly the American comic strips also had storylines but the individual strips making up a larger story had to stand on their own as they were originally serialized in daily newspapers. Some of the yonkoma in Azumanga Daioh simply don’t work well as individual strips. After reading several strips it’s not surprising to hear that the manga was originally serialized in a magazine titled Dengeki Daioh where several strips were grouped together to form chapters. Azuma’s name and the title of the magazine also served as the basis for the manga’s title.

Yet the manga strips are also different from serialized adventure comic strips. When it comes to adventure strips there are some which were serialized in Sunday newspapers but others that also ran in daily newspaper. I’m thinking specifically of the latter but unfortunately the only example I can come up with right now is the Star Trek comic strip from the late 70s and early 80s. In Star Trek the story would continue each day in strips made up of (mostly) three panels and with a full page on Sundays. That kind of storytelling is very choppy due to repetitive panels from one day to the next. Azumanga Daioh is quick and punchy but it has more focus on the individual strips because of the goal to make a gag of them. The individual strips don’t concern themselves with advancing the plot. It’s difficult to describe how Azumanga Daioh simultaneously reminds me of gag strips and adventure strips while also being a separate kind of strip altogether.

Azumanga Daioh is as concerned with the structure of each four panel gag as it is about tying those gags into storylines of various lengths. Azuma is actually good at doing both though and the omnibus collects a fair amount of individual gags and gags that depend upon the strips preceding it or following it. I mentioned earlier that plot doesn’t matter much, and it doesn’t. The plot of the entire series is about a group of girls attending their final three years of high school and studying for their college acceptance exams. That’s it but that’s all the series needs because the focus is never really on anything for longer than Azuma needs it to be in order to tell his jokes. In the case of this particular manga, the plot is simply a form of set dressing to allow the presence of specific kind of characters and letting them run wild. The simple structure which is equal parts rigid (the four panel yonkoma) and supple (the story’s high school setting) gives Azuma the freedom to focus on characters and that’s where the manga really succeeds.

Like most successful American comic strips the humour is derived from how well the reader knows the characters. Good characterization acts as a short hand for making jokes. A particular character in one situation is funny while another wouldn’t be. Writers form situations around specific characters and the combination of characters and events (or characters with other characters) result in humorous interactions. Azumanga has five main characters (all students) with three main supporting characters (all teachers). Along with a few more supporting characters and the high school setting, Azuma is able to provide a wide range of different kinds of jokes but based on his characters he also develops some standard strip formats.

Early on there are strips that focus on Yukari-sensei standing before the class in front of the chalkboard. The bottoms of the panels are framed by the students’ heads, shaded. It’s used throughout the entire manga and often to good effect as Yukari seems to speak to herself just as much as she speaks with her students. I particularly like how it makes the reader feel like they’re one of the students sitting in class.

Azuma breaks from the four-panel yonkoma format of the strip on occasion.

There is a short description of the main characters on the back of the omnibus edition that reads as follows:

Sakaki - strong and silent with a soft fuzzy center
Chiyo - a towering intellect wrapped in a ten-year-old package
Tomo - The Mouth
Yomi - should stop eating if she wants to lose weight
Osaka - well, she’s . . . different

At first glance the characters seem one-dimensional and that’s ok because the narrative format is such that simpler is better. Still, the characters are better defined as the manga progresses and soon you know them so well that you can anticipate the kind of strip you’re about to read just by seeing which characters are in it. I particularly enjoy how the girls influence one another. The character interactions are one of the things that make this manga so great. Consider Chiyo, the pre-teen prodigy of the series. She’s easily the smartest of all the students in her class but she is also incredibly caring. When her dimwitted friend Osaka learns the secret to splitting chopsticks without breaking them she appropriates it as her personal good luck routine. While finding this particular behaviour odd Chiyo chooses to split chopsticks when her friends are writing an entrance exam. In fact, she buys disposable chopsticks in bulk and proceeds to split them expertly over and over.

A popular form of humour is observational comedy. There are quite a bit of jokes in this book that make observations on Japanese subject matter. For fans of anime and manga it might be easy to follow the more obscure jokes. For newer fans of manga they’ll get most jokes but they will have difficulty understanding some of the more complicated jokes. It’s not a major criticism of the work since most of the jokes are easily understood because the information necessary for understanding the gag are present in the four panels. Likewise there are certain elements in the humour that transcend different cultures or language barriers. One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about Japan. As a slice-of-life story there are many elements that seem strange or simply different from what we know but the further you get in the book the more you become familiar with it all. I’ve read a lot of manga but most of it has been science fiction or shounen and so learning about house gifts, kotatsu, watermelon splitting, Osaka humour and American humour has been delightful.  The laugher helps with the learning curve.

Osaka is already not the brightest of people but she's even less aware of her
surroundings when she just waking up. 

It’s always a little tricky to talk about humour comics because you can’t really retell the jokes effectively. Explaining gags takes away what makes them work in the first place. That’s why I chose to focus on the structural elements of the manga as they’ll likely be as new and different to English reading audiences than the content itself. Azumanga Daioh’s strength is its characters. They don’t really change much during the course of the manga but we get to know them so well they really don’t need to do much towards the end to make us smile and laugh. That’s not the say the humour isn’t consistent throughout, it is, but you get to know Tomo and the gang so well you want to spend more time with them. Nearly anybody who picks up this manga will find it delightful as the pages are just filled with laughs it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself. With all four volumes collected into one omnibus edition, including insightful translation notes, it’s a bargain you can’t pass up. 

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