Dean Talks Anime:
Azumanga Daioh and the “Death of Anime”
By Christopher Kinsey
There was a period of time not too long ago where I had a falling out with anime. Partly it was my own changing life but there was also very little being translated that interested me. It was around the 2006-2008 period when I fell out. At the time the translation industry was getting pummeled by a glut of material and the rise of pirate sites like Crunchyroll. Tokyopop was taking a beating, restructuring and generally either losing licenses or trying to prop up domestic US creators. ADV Films was underway to finally closing shop in 2009. But for all the clashes in the industry the thing that drove me away was the titles of the time. What were the popular and most anticipated titles at the time? Fate/Stay Night, Di Gi Charat, Negima, Rozen Maiden, School Rumble, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to name a few. Those titles seemed to be the face of anime at the time, and none of it appealed to me for the most part.
But I wasn’t completely away. I had genuine interest in some series like Darker than Black and Baccano! I even enjoyed Haruhi Suzumiya before they decided to make more of it. But there were more and more high school hijinks with cute girls being shoved into just about every anime. Negima was the worst offender of all, haphazardly shoving reverse Harry Potter into a wacky “My schoolteacher is a kid, and we all love him” creep fest. Looking back on it I wondered what was the common link to all of these things that drove me away, why had this trend emerge and where did it start? The only answer I came up with was Azumanga Daioh.
Now for those who don’t know Azumanga Daioh was a fun and short little 4-koma comic series created in 1999 that had little slice of life or silly tales of some girls in high school. The twist being one of them is “Pulling a Doogie” and coming to high school at a really young age. There had been scores of gag-manga before it but this seemed to have something the others lacked. The artwork was detailed and wonderful. The jokes were generally funny and appealing. The characters were cute without being obnoxious. And it came out right when memes started to really gain traction as our internet entertainment of choice. Panels were easily chopped up, digested and turned into relevant interests and jokes everyone could get immediately. However, for being such a short 4-koma series it received an anime in 2002 that got just as much care and attention that the manga did. Unlike many 4-koma based anime it was paced well, animated well and took the extra effort to not lose the subject’s strengths by making an overarching narrative. It was a calm and nice place to rest when you’ve been bombarded with action for the years leading up to this.
In the same year as the anime was produced we had some great hits. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, RahXephon, Heat Guy J among others. But it was still a lot of action, and understandably so. Most of the anime shown on American TV was geared towards action so cartoon comedies couldn’t shine on Adult Swim. It was a formula that worked, so we got a whole lot of action oriented anime. As a matter of fact in the coming years there was a lot of great stuff to come, and with the success of shows like Azumanga Daioh there was a diversity in settings and genres that made its way over here. But it wouldn’t take long before someone tried to take what made that series great, but take all the wrong parts from said series and make a trend that still haunts to this day.
So there was a rise in shows about cute girls going through mundane things. Some were funny and interesting (Towa Oshima’s High School Girls), others were boring (Tamami Momose’s Doki Doki School Hours) and some were moving towards a body pillow based economy (Mutsumi Sasaki’s Happy Lesson…but that one is arguably harem, I’ll admit). But fast forward to 2007 when Lucky Star is premiered. According to the press at the time, this series was poised to take Azumanga Daioh’s crown of 4-koma based comedy anime. However, instead of focusing on sharp artwork and jokes anyone can get along with, they mixed in an art style where everyone is permanently half-chibi monstrosities and every joke about being a layabout loser otaku ever. The average episode dealt with your typical daily life situation but turned terrible in an instant when Konata turns up because her video game and anime habits are literally the “worst thing ever”.
And it worked, oh-ho-ho did it work. Azumanga set in motion the popularity of slice of life and Lucky Star destroyed it by adding in the relatability of every NEET shut in who decided life wouldn’t be so bad if they were a little high school girl, which was apparently all of them. An ugly mish mash of “soothing” mundane action and “wacky” lewd and stupidly nerdy behaviors blended into a frothy mix of shilling for other properties that just killed my spirit. And it never really got “wacky”. Just slipping in references or blatantly talking about their terrible habits with media and you’re supposed to go “Man, that girl with the ahoge gets me and my generation maaaan” then rush out to buy DVDs worth about three months of your apartment’s rent because Japan doesn’t play when it comes to return on investment on print runs. This series echoed the idea of the normal life of some high school girls and twisted it into another vehicle for otaku to reign supreme in instead of just being something for another type of audience.
Not too long after this series we got even more shows about nothing, usually pulled from 4koma style slice of life tales, and it was served up hot and fresh. Many times they didn’t work outside of the 4koma format! Sunshine Sketch was an adorable comic, but it played out like watching paint dry on the television. I found nothing bad about K-On! As an inoffensive comic about an all-girl rock band it was fine, but TV sucked out anything you could call pacing and charm. And on top of that the ripple continues as almost every season we pile up variants of the theme that did well before it. Sound! Euphonium seems to hit all of the beats as in K-On! but with a different music style. It’s become a mill. Just have cute girls doing something mundane, make all the money.
Looking back it’s Lucky Star that must have been my last straw. It made me dive into my old DVDs of the glories of the 80s and 90s and (almost) never came back. I remember when I used to write these articles at another site I was genuinely mad at the series when I reviewed it. I got mad at the whole medium. Sometimes during that time I would be tempted by something that I could genuinely find an interest in like Code Geass or Slayers Revolution only to be kicked right back with the likes of Queens Blade or Strike Witches dominating fandom’s eye. Sure, those weren’t slice of life stories but it certainly showed me time and again that anime had decided to sell to the streets in Akihabara rather than tell stories to the world.
But things can heal. There is so much content now it’s hard to look at a season and find absolutely nothing that could interest me. I certainly still have issues with series trying to nail all the tropes that will make the average Japanese nerd open their wallets for merchandise, but business is business and given the chance I’d sell out too. Kiyohiko Azuma didn’t. These days he continues to write and draw the charming and detailed real world of Yotsuba&! The series itself is instant calm of the world as seen by a five year old girl, her family and her friends. I cannot blame him for what transpired after Azumanga Daioh. There is even a wholesome little spinoff called Nyanbo! in which cardboard box cats act out little stories that are very in line with the kinds of stories little kids make up when playing with their toys.
Added to this is the idea of taking down otaku idolatry in a slice of life setting. It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular! is the idea that the otaku high school gal isn’t sweet, innocent, charming or immediately exceptional. Instead she’s an isolated loner delving into her own fantasies on how the world works because she’s trying to view it through the eyes of media, mostly otaku hobbies. It was refreshing when this series didn’t just come out as an acclaimed manga, but that it got a full anime series basically not celebrating geekdom, but questioning it, parodying it and showing a kind of fan that you never see as a protagonist in this kind of story. When you can make commentary, make fun of, and shine light on the darkest corners of your fandom, at that moment you know it’s safe to come back into the fold. Because if you can make it with that kind of story you know the fandom is willing to make anything as long as it’s interesting.
It took a while, but anime is fun for me again. I’ll gladly admit that.
Dean The Adequate learned that perhaps, just perhaps, he could learn to love the anime game again. It’s a harsh love still filled with the likes of Kemono Friends and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid at every corner turning what should be light fare into either terribly twee but made for adult men, or regressing comedy to outright gross situations between minors, respectively. “Why don’t you share your hobbies with your parents?” the websites said. Well when Dean was a lad still under his parent’s roof it was because of sex and violence between adults, not the off chance you’ll stumble into a pedophiliac’s idea of a great school night. We’re onto you Japan. She may be 6000 but she’s still getting you sent to prison.