It's a manga series that revolves around schoolgirls and, errr, that's it. No giant robots, no demons or supernatural powers, no fated romances, no angst-ridden teens, just a group of schoolgirls going through everyday life. And it's superb.
Azumanga Daioh vol 1 introduces us to the shockingly unprofessional Miss Yukari and several members of her class, starting with 10 year old child prodigy Chiyo, tough looking and athletic (but secretly sweet) Sakaki, over-energetic Tomo, sensible and level-headed Yomi and Sakaki's number one fan Kaorin. This roster of characters is bolstered further as the book progresses by likeable games teacher Miss Kurosawa, pervy literature teacher Mr Kimura and spaced out country gal Ayumu 'Osaka' Kagusa, as well as a few other minor characters.
Although this sounds like a large cast for a series of four-panel comic strips it never actually seems to be when you read it. Very good authors are able to create rounded and believable characters without actually describing them that much, you learn about them through their actions and their reactions and you almost feel as if you know them. Kiyohiko Azuma is one of the authors that can do this, his characters are easily recognisable and perfectly realised, and this is what makes Azumanga Daioh so damn good. The characterisation is excellent, and pretty much free of stereotype, there is no real plot as such but you learn a lot about the characters over the course of the book.
Four panel manga comic strips don't often make their way to western shores so they always seem a bit unusual, but Azumanga Daioh is nothing like any other manga you have read. The artwork is simple but striking, and the jokes are very funny, often building up over a number of strips. What is noticeable though is that it is mostly free of the usual schoolgirl manga clichés. There is no gratuitous nudity or psychic powers, there is hardly any sexual humour, there is surprisingly no romance either, instead it is a sitcom, a sweet series of innocently funny jokes that comes as a complete breath of fresh air. Anyone who has been to school anywhere in the world will find it funny, it avoids all of the drama and instead sticks to the fun a group of friends have whilst getting through school. The jokes are for the most part universal, and for me the star of the show is Miss Yukari, the completely immature English teacher who acts more like a kid than her students do. The spaced out Osaka is extremely funny too (especially her surreal dream sequences), and I really liked the way that although Chiyo is a child prodigy the author has imbued her with a sweet naivety that makes her truly likeable.
It is hard to imagine anyone not liking Azumanga Daioh, but there are a couple of minor annoyances with the book. Firstly is the lack of a glossary to explain the few Japanese terms that westerners may not be familiar with and the second is the translation of Osaka's 'country' accent. The American translators have given her a Texan drawl, but the strength of the accent changes between strips, and this is a little annoying. Kaorin is also a bit of a one-joke character. On the other hand though it is still incredibly hard to fault the content of the strips themselves, which despite the cultural barrier always makes sense and rarely loses the meaning of the joke.
Reviewing this book is extremely difficult as there is no story to look at, but nonetheless I recommend Azumanga Daioh more highly than any other manga I have read. It is packed with likeable and believably human characters and draws its humour from normality, something that is very refreshing. I have read this book more than any other manga I own, it is so easy to pick up and read and is easily the most accessible manga available. OK, if you are really into your sci-fi or fantasy, or like plenty of drama and action, then you may not think this would be your cup of tea, but give it a chance. This is a manga that anyone will enjoy, whether they like manga or not, whichever genre they like, and is an absolutely essential purchase.
Not a great deal, the final ten pages are packed with adverts for other manga series and an ADV survey, but there is a nice ending page with a picture of Tomo and a 'Characters' page which has little caricatures of all the main characters. The best thing is that - unusually for manga released in the west - the first four pages are in colour, this is common in the Japanese release but printing costs usually sees them reproduced in black and white here. A nice addtion.