So, even though Trigun is my favorite anime of all time, I have a really soft spot in my heart for Azumanga Daioh. I might describe it as a perfect show, with its simple story about six girls making their way through Japanese high school that somehow manages to be alternately hilarious and touching.
I’ve been re-watching the series for the last week, and it’s almost as good as I remember. I have to say that I’m honestly very pleased with the diverse cast of characters (there’s a certain wicked subversion in the fact that the cast is almost entirely female with one token male character whose primary characteristic is his creepy obsession with high school girls; it’s pretty nice to see the typical tokenism reversed so that the male character gets a one note personality for a change), even if they really do fall into a slew of standard character types that are common in Japanese fiction.
The comedy of the series generally revolves around the silliness that teenagers typically engage in, though it’s often heightened by just a touch of absurdity. Sakaki, the tall shy girl who can’t help being popular because of her natural athletic talent, has an affinity for cute animals, but is apparently cursed with a very poor rapport with anything that walks on four legs. A standard running joke involves her attempting to pet a stray cat that she often sees on the way home from school, and without fail the cat bites her hand. The scenario in itself isn’t very funny, but Sakaki’s dogged determination to pet the cat sells the joke every time. She sees it, floats awkwardly towards the cat, hoping that this time will be different, and just as she’s about to stroke its fur, the cat’s jaws open wide and clamp down on her fingers. The joke gets amplified further as we’re gradually introduced to other cats, and we find that this isn’t a case of Sakaki simply obsessing over one temperamental cat, but that she genuinely can’t charm any furry creatures. Late in the series, when she finally meets a cat that does like her, it feels like a real triumph for the character, since we’ve seen that over the course of her entire high school life she’s just never had luck with the animals that she most wants to be around.
On my recent viewing, one thing that did occur to me was how much the show tends towards the moe mode of anime. Moe is a term for the feelings of protectiveness that a story or character attempts to elicit in the audience. Typically this mode is evoked through the use of overly kawaii (cute) characters with infantile characteristics. Chiyo-chan, a child prodigy who’s been skipped straight to high school from grade school, is the most obvious example of a moe character on the show, as her immaturity in comparison to her friends is often highlighted. I’m not well-versed in more recent anime, but I have heard that moe affectation has become a more common trope in recent years (with people who don’t find it appealing often vocally detracting the style for being vaguely pedophiliac; this assumption likely emerges from the problematic blending of moe elements with more typical male gaze pandering, which is a pervasive problem in most anime). It’s strange to recognize moe in a series that’s over ten years old now, particularly one that my friends and I found so charming when we first watched it. The fact that Azumanga is a series that never seems to fall into the trap of objectifying its characters only makes the moe more jarring, because even without an element of sexuality, I find moe a more troubling style now, considering the implicit infantilization of characters designed with the style in mind.
And while moe is probably a more insidious thing, I can’t help finding the presence of Kimura even more troubling. Kimura is the literature teacher at the girls’ school, and his defining trait is his overtly creepy obsession with high school girls. He’s extremely vocal about this predilection of his, often interrupting his own class to lecture the students about how he would prefer they wear their gym clothes. When I was younger, Kimura’s presence struck me as weird, but the extreme nature of his quirk seemed in line with the general exaggeration that all the characters demonstrate in their personalities. Now, he’s just uncomfortable to watch. While he rarely ever succeeds in his attempts to perv out over the girls (he’s an uncomfortable fixture in the summer episodes where the students practice swimming for their gym class), the casual openness about his fetish clashes with every other thematic element of the show. This show is an exaggerated slice of life comedy about some girls going through high school with a generally lighthearted escapist bent. Kimura’s presence only serves to remind me that harassment is a real problem that women face, and I just can’t bring myself to laugh at him (especially when it comes to the subplot involving his crush on Kaorin, a girl who idolizes Sakaki; it’s just painfully unfunny to see a girl put into such uncomfortable situations with a man who’s established in a position of authority over her). It’s even worse when several episodes attempt to depict Kimura as an essentially decent man who just happens to have one very pervy quirk; whatever his personal proclivities might be, it’s just not cool that his casual abuse of his position is treated as just a bit of weirdness when we can recognize that an identical situation in real life would be viewed with fully deserved scorn and disgust.
Moving away from the show’s flaws (and again, I think these flaws are more indicative of systemic problems with gender in Japanese culture), one thing that I think it does exceedingly well is evoke a sense of nostalgia for childhood. Periodically, the show breaks from its usual absurdist tone to inject a bit of earnest reflection on the main characters’ gradual transition into adulthood. In these moments Azumanga Daioh seems to be fully embracing a common theme in Japanese storytelling, mono no aware (being aware of the ephemeral nature of things). This story is one about growing up, but pointedly it’s nearly devoid of all the hassles that you would expect high school students to deal with (despite being set in high school, we very rarely see the characters doing all the hard work that goes part and parcel with Japanese education). We follow these characters through the most joyful parts of their childhood, with only brief moments to reflect that these good things are passing by never to be experienced again. It’s part of the reason that I think Azumanga remains so appealing, despite its more apparent flaws.
It’s a fantasy about innocence.