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:
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.
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.)