Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh

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Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a couple of weeks ago, I sat him down to watch the first five episodes of Azumanga Daioh.

Prior to viewing, Watson knew only that Azumanga was a slice-of-life comedy series set in high school – I intentionally gave him no other information about the show and told him not to look anything up online. The following questions were given to him afterwards.

Note that the intent of this post isn’t to prove any particular point. I’m also not attempting to convert Watson to otaku-hood. Rather, we simply thought it could be interesting for a non-fan with limited anime viewing experience under his belt to watch a show and give his impressions. I picked Azumanga mainly because it’s a well-known series that I’m assuming most Otaku Lounge readers have at least some familiarity with… and also just because I thought it might be fun to see Watson’s reactions. (Should this post also prove fun for the readers, I’m fully committed to making Watson watch more anime and charting his responses. FOR SCIENCE.)

Now without further ado, onto the questions.

An occasional debate among the anime fandom is whether or not one needs any prior knowledge of anime or general Japanese culture in order to fully appreciate certain titles. While some anime obviously have more in-jokes and references than others, it’s been suggested by some fans that these things tend to only add another layer of potential enjoyment to said shows rather than act as a barrier to enjoyment for those ‘not in the know’. Azumanga Daioh happens to be an anime with a lot of cultural references and in-jokes, and you have very little familiarity with either anime or Japanese pop culture. Did you feel as though you were constantly missing something, or did your lack of general knowledge not especially bother you?

After watching the few episodes I did, I said that I could sum up my reaction to Azumanga Daioh in three words:

What.

THE.

FUCK?!?

So yeah, I was pretty sure that I was missing a lot. A lot of the scenes contained something that I could tell was intended to be amusing or meaningful in some way, but I had no idea why. As a result they just contributed to the general air of bemusement that I was experiencing.

That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable – some of it was funny, and in general I found it be a fairly pleasant way to spend an evening. But I pretty quickly gave up on expecting it to make much sense. I presume that the intended audience, whoever that is, would have the contextual understanding that was needed to ‘get’ the jokes and so on.

Based purely on what you’ve seen of the anime, what demographic would you assume Azumanga is aimed at? Would it surprise you to learn that the anime based on a shounen manga (aimed primarily at a teenage male audience)?

Yes, it would surprise me to learn that. I had thought that target demographic was firmly in the 11-17 year old female range, and probably at the younger end. The characters are almost exclusively female, they’re absurdly “cutesified” (if that’s not a word, it should be), and insofar as they have any motivations at all they’re the sorts of things which could plausibly concern high school girls. About the only way it could be any more obviously pointed in that direction would be if the entire school was doused in various shades of pink. I’ve heard that there’s a kind of anime which can best be described as “cute girls doing cute things”, and I’d say Azumanga Daioh has that in spades. It’s not like there’s anything inconsistent with that, right…?

Azumanga is obviously a comedy – arguably even an outright parody. Given this, were you in any way disturbed or offended by the depiction of Kimura, the male teacher whose main running gag in the show is that he is, to quote American manga artist and critic Jason Thompson, “vaguely pedophilic”?

… Oh wait, it turns out there is. That teacher felt distinctly out of keeping with the ‘vibe’ of the rest of the characters and setting, and I don’t think its accidental that he had a different and much more jagged set of character art associated with him. I was distinctly uncomfortable about him every time he showed up, and although I saw that he was intended to be a humorous character I didn’t find him amusing at all. Paedophilia isn’t much of a running gag, especially in a show which I thought was aimed at young girls. I don’t like what this implies about the creators of the show if it’s considered nothing more than harmless good fun.

You want to know something else creepy? After his introduction in episode 4 the male students in the class collectively praise him and say how much they like him, presumably because they’re in agreement with his expressed position towards high-school girls. This might be somewhat more understandable given the relative ages involved. But note that this is the only time male students have served as anything except background wallpaper. I don’t know exactly what to make of this, but it’s hard to make it look good.

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Given the choice, you decided to watch this title in Japanese with English subtitles. I then suggested you watch one episode in English dub so that you could have a chance to compare the two. What did you think of the voice changes?

Let me start by saying that before I decided on a version to watch I was told I ought to try and judge the anime on its own merits. And it was not an easy choice – I was initially attracted to the idea of a dubbed version because it would allow me to focus on what was happening, rather than constantly flicking my eyes down to the bottom of the screen. But I read pretty fast and I assumed that the original Japanese voice-actors would be the closest that could be found to match the creator’s intent. So that’s why I went for subtitles.

Getting back to the original question though, I found the change in voice acting very jarring. My first thought was “these aren’t the same characters!” Part of that might have been the strong American accents that were used, but the voice actors also sounded significantly older. The new voice acting conflicted quite a bit with the mental image of the characters that I had built up, and I can’t say I ever got used to it.

As an aside, you might be surprised about how obvious it is that Azumanga Daioh is a parody. Without having the contextual knowledge mentioned earlier, it’s not very clear if the show is parodying stereotypes about anime or playing them straight. At first I figured it had to be a parody, because it was hitting so many of the ‘WTF’ things that anime is known (incorrectly?) for. But then they just kept on coming, and the series never really seemed to get past hurling a handful of lolwut into your face every so often. Eventually I concluded that the show really was intended to be taken at face value.

Being a slice-of-life comedy, I have to ask – are there any specific scenes you found particularly funny, more so than others?

I quite liked Osaka’s ‘Contemplations’, which took her to a series of increasingly bizarre places about Chiyo’s hair and the properties thereof. And the reactions to Miss Yukari’s driving were also very funny, with the haunted expressions of her poor passengers. But there was one repeated scene in the opening credits which I absolutely loved despite the fact it was only a few seconds long. There were several things I liked about it, and I can’t decide which was more important: the sheer absurdity of it all, the glassy-eyed expression, the serene fixed smile, or the fact that it was a thousand foot tall cat lifting off on a pillar of flame. I just laughed out loud every time I saw it, and it was one of the greatest moments of genuine, uncomplicated fun in the show. Best scene EVAR.

Final question. You’ve now seen five episodes of Azumanga. Left to your own devices, would you watch any more of it?

Probably. On the plus side: it’s a lightweight, good-humoured show that seems like it won’t throw nasty surprises at its audience, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want. The humour and general absurdity make it easy viewing. Each episode is mostly composed of short vignettes and you can watch as many or as few as you like without fear of losing track of an ongoing storyline.

On the other hand, this same lack of continuity means that the series can never go anywhere. The characters cannot grow or develop and stories that take longer than a few minutes cannot be told. In short, nothing can happen. And this can be profoundly unsatisfying at times – for example Kaorin’s feelings about Sakaki will never go anywhere. Except in a dream or some special episode, I suppose, but we can be certain that by the end of that it’ll be wrapped up somehow as if it never happened. It’s a bit like eating puffed rice in a way: it might taste sweet and be easy to swallow, but there’s not really much there to bite down on. And this is a bit of a problem for me, because in general I expect a show to be going somewhere and to take place within an ongoing continuity even if each episode is self-contained. It can be quite frustrating to have watched several episodes and feel that one hasn’t really seen anything that was worth the two hours.

So I suppose I might watch a bit more of Azumanga – there are times I feel like switching my brain off and looking at something light and pleasantly inconsequential, and Azumanga Daioh fits that bill. But I don’t think I would devote a lot of time to it, and if there was competition for my viewing hours it would probably be the first thing I sacrificed.

Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions? Do you have any other questions for him? (Though not a regular reader of Otaku Lounge, I have it on good authority that Watson will be replying here to anything aimed specifically at him.)

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38 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh

  1. Well done, and a good choice.

    Hello Watson – from another Kiwi (with a *2nd* 30 years under his belt). I’ve been watching anime for a good ten years, and actually maybe another ten before that without really registering that I was. (pokemon, etc, on TV3)
    The first thing I ever watched *intentionally* knowing it was Japanese was the 2001 ‘Metropolis’. Quite a heavy-hitter, and it left me dazzled, astonished, and also fairly ‘WTF?’
    Gradually I discovered more, and began engaging with the HUGE collection at my local ‘Video Eze’. And that lead me to Azumanga Daioh. It has become my all-time favourite, I own the DVDs and the manga omnibus.
    BTW the manga is very easy to read – and the accents are all in Kiwi!,(Except for Osaka-san!)
    The orinator of A.D. is Kiyohiko Azuma – one of the most amazing artists I know of. Find and read a bit of his other manga online, ‘Yotsuba&’. No WTF at all (and no paedophile) – just a lovely story and characters that I hope will grow on you.
    And be amazed at what this guy can do with pen and paper!!!.

    Just one question – why did you think A.D. is a parody? I didn’t.

    PS – I’d like to think that somewhere, 15 or 20 years ago, you came across me in your school library.

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    • Hello Ged, and thank you for the kind welcome. It’s not impossible that you were running one of my school libraries, but I think the librarians were female so it seems a bit unlikely (if your picture’s magnificent facial hair is anything to go by).

      As for why I thought the show was a parody – well, I didn’t in the end. During the first episode I saw so many things that made me go ‘WTF’ that I thought it must be one, simply because it seemed implausible that any show that wasn’t a parody would keep doing this. But by the second episode it became clear that this wasn’t going to stop, so I came to the conclusion that it should be taken at face value and I just didn’t have the contextual knowledge to understand what was going on. I can only presume that the intended audience for this show would have less difficulty with that.

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      • If I may also chime in, I don’t think Azumanga is a parody either – or rather, I think it parodies certain aspects of Japanese culture, but without being an outright parody of anime itself. I do however think Azumanga could be plasubly viewed as a parody by other people.

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  2. Oh, and Watson – Azumang Daioh *does* go somewhere. Story arcs are completed and characters are developed – some in surprising ways. In fact – it reaches a *very distinct* ending where *all* the characters move on.
    And the manga is less manic and confusing. It’s also funnier (but more subtly so)
    The anime seemed to ramp up the silliness at the expense of depth and sensitivity. They have ratings in Japan too. – G.

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    • Good to know. To me it seemed that the characters were stuck in an essentially timeless realm of events with no import. I’m glad to hear that there actually were story arcs, perhaps I just didn’t notice them.

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    • >Azumang Daioh *does* go somewhere. Story arcs are completed and characters are developed

      I wouldn’t oversell the character development. Chiyo-chan probably shows the most personal development, and Sakaki-san probably shows the most development in circumstances, but it’s not a deep coming-of-age story.

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  3. First, as a rabid fan of Azumanga, I appreciate any effort to introduce the show to new viewers.

    But I wonder if the first five episodes were the right choice. The show takes a while to develop its characters and some of its finest moments happen late. And the series’ first outright gem episode (Chiyo-chans’s day) comes right in the middle. On the other hand I guess you gotta start it somewhere, and cherry-picking the best episodes isn’t fair to Watson.

    Also, though I think the characters don’t develop as much as some fans think, there IS a structure, but I don’t think its strength becomes evident until the viewer realizes where the series is actually going. It’s also impossible to describe without giving anything away. Sorry, Watson.

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    • I did wonder about the first five episodes, since many of the stronger episodes are indeed further along in the series, but yeah, cherry-picking seemed a bit unfair. (Also, if the stronger do indeed come later, then that should probably really be seen as the show’s own fault – and I say this as someone who does really like Azumanga. If the object of having Watson watch Azumanga was to try and ensure that he liked it, then I may have done some cherry-picking. Luckily, for the purposes of this interview it didn’t really matter if he liked it or not.)

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    • As I watch more of the show perhaps things will become clearer. That being said… as Artemis points out, if there’s something important going on I feel like it’s the show’s responsibility to make sure the audience realises it. The only structure that was even implied by the episodes I watched was that the characters were all students at high school. Presumably that has to end sooner or later (although Bart Simpson has been 8 years old for a surprising length of time).

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  4. I haven’t really watched Azumangah Daioh yet so I can’t really gauge Watson’s reactions to it, but I can see that it was pretty positive and that gives me hope. I like the idea of introducing a more otaku-oriented anime to newcomers, but at the same time it’s a risk I wouldn’t be too willing to take. I mean, imagine introducing something like Kill La Kill to someone like that. They’d be too distracted by the nudity to appreciate the story and they’d also stare at you sceptically for around a year or two. (Some of my friends still stare at me when I tell them I’m watching anime, because apparently anime automatically translates to Naruto or hentai…. and no- I did not try to introduce either of those to any one).

    At the same time I’d love to throw something completely immersed in cultural and in-jokes at a newcomer. I remember taking a risk with a cousin and showing her Gintama (eps 148-149) (And Gintama’s the kind of show that would probably scar the average viewer and outright offend a noob), but somehow despite the oddities and perversions (or maybe because of them) the show just clicked and she wanted more. I’d love to see Watson’s reactions to one of the weirder arcs of Gintama. Anyway, great read as usual.

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    • Haha, Kill la Kill would certainly be… interesting. I imagine most people not familiar with anime at all who started off trying that would take away some rather skewed impressions of the medium – and you’re right, there is already the tendency for some non-viewers to just assume that anime automatically equals either Pokemon/DBZ/Naruto or else pornography.
      Anyhow, if I do end up making this idea a sort of series and introducing Watson to a few other titles to get his responses, I’d want to go for a variety of genres, styles, and demographics, as opposed to sticking just with the otaku-friendly stuff. I’m definitely interested in Watson’s reactions towards the weirder stuff as well, but there are plenty of ‘normal’ anime that I think can still draw out interesting responses – assuming of course that I ask the right sorts of questions.

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      • I’ll look forward to that with all due caution. Seems like the water gets deep pretty quickly around here.

        But I think the point about asking the right questions is a good one. That might be an excellent topic for this community to discuss – what are the right questions?

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      • I approve of this idea. If you make it a series you should definitely give it an interesting name. (I’m trying to thing of anything not Sherlock related… dammit. it’s not working) . Well whatever, I’ll leave the creative effort of naming the series to you.

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    • I think one of the big reasons I got off so lightly with my introduction to this show was because of the way it’s composed. From my perspective each episode stands alone and is composed of several vignettes of 5 minutes or so each. This makes for conveniently snack-sized helpings of confusion – if you don’t understand whats going on in this scene don’t worry, there’ll be another one along shortly. And you don’t need to keep track of what’s been happening in order to understand that one! This makes it a lot easier to just roll with whatever weirdness is going on.

      The other thing that helped is that there’s not much in the way of ‘difficult’ content. Miss Sakaki might be a bit sad and lonely, but the worst thing that’ll happen to her is that a cat will bite her finger. We’re not going to have Chiyo-chan wake up to find Osaka standing over her with a knife, so I could feel reasonably sure there wouldn’t be any major shocks coming up and just try to enjoy what was going on.

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      • I’m glad you rolled with Azumangah Daioh and personally, I’ll be looking forward to Artemis experimenting on you with more stuff (subtly laughs evilly in a corner). I think it’s pretty interesting that you liked the stand-alone episode style, since personally I like continuity in the stuff I watch (for the reasons you mentioned in the post). I actually don’t like spending time on things I feel like will go nowhere (unless it’s a political or social commentary or a parody), and without an ongoing plot I get bored pretty easily. Anyway, cheers! I’m guessing you’ll be sticking around Otaku Lounge.

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      • Yes, usually I would prefer more continuity in what I watch. In this particular case I think the small segments helped alleviate the confusion I was experiencing – it was a lot of small bits of bemusement, rather than one big heap to digest.
        I suppose that another issue is my watching habits – I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this, so I can’t often sit down for an hour or two and just watch anime. If whatever I’m looking at isn’t over in half an hour, it needs to have a fairly durable continuity-hook so I can remember what was going on the next time I watch.

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      • FYI the original series first aired in 5-minute segments each weekday, which were compiled into the regular, 25-minute episodes on the weekend, which explains a lot about the format!

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  5. Kudos to you two for this great post! That was extremely interesting.
    Anyway, what struck me about your comments, Watson, was your…well, completely natural and correct reaction to the male teacher’s not-so-vague, in my opinion, pedophilia–and his male students’ support. I’m an anime fan myself, but there are a few anime, even popular ones like Kill la Kill mentioned above, that trivialize it.

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    • Glad you liked it! It was an interesting experience for me too. Like Artemis said, I’m not an anime fan and I don’t have any of the background knowledge the ‘average’ viewer might have. But although I found it a bit baffling at times, it was mostly fairly pleasant.
      … except for the paedophilia. At first I just couldn’t work out what that was doing in a show like this. After reading some of the comments about the post, I’m starting to think that it might be there as an attempt to parody other shows, Japanese culture, the anime meta-culture in general, or some combination of the above. Unfortunately, to me it simply doesn’t work in that role. It’s presented as just another amusing characteristic for someone to have, and I can’t get my head around treating the subject so lightly.
      To me, this seems like trivialising and normalising a potentially very serious issue. It makes me really uncomfortable about the people producing the show if this is seen as an appropriate way to deal with the subject. There are really two alternatives – either they’ve misjudged what their target audience will find amusing, or they haven’t. I can’t say either option is very encouraging.

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  6. First of all, I’ve enjoyed this show immensely, found myself nodding and chuckling at quite a few places.
    I also seemed to sense a couple of issues I’ve discussed in my posts here (and at least one was prompted by one of your posts, heh), so I think I’ll comment on them in particular.

    First Question: Informed Watching?

    Some works, especially comedies, are made as nothing more than references, and in such case, they obviously require prior knowledge. But when a story is truly great, and note the focus on story, then it should be able to stand on its own, and prior historic references only enhance it.

    Now, there are shows that are like this, but it’s a weakness – each piece of reference “times” the show, and makes it less likely to withstand the test of time, and if it truly detracts from the show should you miss it, then it’s often a downside, not an upside. Anime fans often tend to treat these so-called barriers as a good thing, as they reinforce their self-image as “true fans”, or, and this is the big one, tend to think anime as a whole requires a “proper mindset” and “prior knowledge” due to being a “distinct form of media”, onto which I say “Phooey!” 🙂

    Second Question: Demographics

    Yeah, sometimes people on some fora mention “K-On!” as a “Shoujo” and get massively shouted out… it’s unfortunate. Most of those “Seinen” shows are very much aimed at 12-16 year old girls in the west. Hanna Montanna is a perfect example.

    This also ties to the third question, with the pedophilic content – it’s aimed at boys, which maybe makes it even creepier.

    Third Question: Parody versus straight

    Yeah, that basically says all there is to truly say about these shows, how the fact they’re actually non-parodies, and how when you attempt to truly parody the culture they just run away with it and embrace it, missing the original intent, or reject it when they see it >.>

    I think Watson’s reactions make a lot of sense, and where they’re divorced from anime culture doesn’t say much about Watson, but about where the anime culture is.

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    • I really have little to add to this comment (although Watson may) – I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. Though I will note that one of the reasons for picking Azumanga over any other random anime title was to address a little of the first issue you bought up, as I was curious to see what Watson’s reactions would infer about the anime community in this regard. The whole ‘informed’ vs. ‘non-informed’ fan thing seems to be a bit of a hot topic lately, so I thought it would be good if I could choose an anime that dealt with that to some degree.

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      • Could have also picked TTGL/NGE or Madoka, the three shows that roused the ire of the fans and then my counter-ire, heh. Shows that people keep saying you need to be properly versed in anime to “properly appreciate”, but especially in the case of NGE, is actually one of the first shows quite a few of us older anime fans in the west had watched.

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        • I probably could have picked from any number of shows for that purpose, but I ended up with Azumanga mainly because I thought it would be one of the most watched and well-known titles of all of them. (I really like the show as well, so that was an added bonus – it made Watson’s answers all the more interesting to me personally.)

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