Welcome back to our impromptu and sporadically scheduled pandemic guide to anime. If you’ve missed any of our earlier entries, you can find them all here; for our introductory post you can go here.
Having run through many of the most famous choices and most popular genres, it’s now time to switch things up. Up until now we were covering numerous series at a time, collecting them according to broad themes with an eye towards offering up some viewing lists that might take the edge off being stuck at home, in the pandemic, a bit more than most people might be used to. Now that we’ve ticked off hundreds of hours of not just the all-time greats but shows that casual fans may not have heard of, we’ve established a backlog that should keep any sort of fan stocked up for a good long while.
Now, then, we can focus on individual shows—or, at least, not pile so many of them together. All the usual caveats apply. With few exceptions, these are shows that are much better watched with subtitles than with English-language translations, because most English-language dubs are (sigh) still done on the cheap and in a hurry, sometimes resulting in voiceovers that sound more like high school readings of the show you’re watching than professional products. And even the greatest shows out there can’t possibly appeal to every viewer: Art is subjective. One person’s animation masterpiece might be a grating jumble of too-sloppy lines to another, and a plot one person might feel was pulled from their very own life might strike others as implausible nonsense. We’re only here to weed out the crap and present the stuff that you probably won’t regret giving a try, even if it’s not your usual cup of tea.
With that we’ll ease into our new pace of just one or two winners per go, rather than the previous grab bags. It has absolutely nothing to do with the difficulty of summarizing and offering key critiques of several dozen recent series while attempting to stuff them all into just four or five posts, so stop looking at me like that. That’s what you’re thinking, right? That I’m keeping the new posts shorter because I’m trying to evade that sort of workload? That’s an offensive accusation and I won’t stand for it. We’re focusing on just a handful of series at a time so that we can enjoy them more properly. It’s an artistic choice. I’m being arty, you jerks.
We’ll start off with a couple great “school days” series that are nothing but fun. The first is a drop-dead gorgeous look at childhoods you might wish you had yourself. The second is a high school comedy so full of goodhearted fun that it might actually make you wish you were back in those days yourself. It’s a trick, though. High school was terrible, and you only wish you had friends as great as these.
In a rural town so small it barely ranks as one at all, the local school has dwindled to five students—three of them from the same family. All five are in different grades but share the same classroom in the leaky-roofed schoolhouse, where a single teacher (the older sister of the youngest student) attempts to muddle through a mostly self-study curriculum. And that’s it. There are no stakes in Non Non Biyori. The biggest fears are getting lost when exploring the woods or mustering the courage to go through a short tunnel on the way to the candy store. The greatest philosophical debates are usually voiced by first grader Renge, pondering questions like, “If a ball has a bumpy surface, does it still count as round?”
The charm of Non Non Biyori is its depiction of an idyllic rural life, both a childhood wonderland and a relentless source of boredom. There are more tractors on the roads than cars, and it’s miles to the nearest “real” store (though a tiny candy shop still exists, selling convenience-store snacks and cheap kid-oriented trinkets.) We are introduced through the eyes of Hotaru, a fifth grader who moves from Tokyo to this back-of-the-middle-of-nowhere when her father’s employer transfers him there. She’s bewildered by her new surroundings, and terrified at the thought of attending a new school and attempting to make new friends.
The local kids, though, are immediately entranced. Someone from the glamorous Tokyo? A place with movie theaters, and restaurants, and clothes shopping? A family who used a moving truck to move in? Wait—and has locks on their doors?
That’s it. From there Hotaru is introduced to the local versions of fun, and the only four girls in school show off secret forts or play whatever games come to mind.
The success of a slice of life show like this depends on its ability to create believable characters with their own wants and needs, and Biyori succeeds in showing the surprising complexity involved with being a child. Being in first grade is not the same as being in fifth; being in elementary school is not the same as preparing for high school. Renge, the youngest, might be a genius or might simply be weird; at her age, there are no such lines to draw. Eighth grader Komari is self-conscious of her short stature—which immediately colors her relationship with the much taller, more mature-acting Hotaru. Komari’s slightly younger sister Natsumi is tomboyish and full of energy; their older brother Suguru doesn’t say a word. Ever.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of hints of rural despair, as the school’s barely-teacher tries to keep awake enough to at least keep the classroom to schedule, or as she and “Candy Store,” the proprietor of the only kid-oriented store in town, drink and mull their lives. The children weave their way around buckets collecting the water dripping through their school’s roof, Komari is now at an age where “idyllic” rural life feels confined, and itchy, and at least a little shameful. But that’s not where the show dwells. The show is a homage to the rural childhood that so many suburban and urban adults regret not having, and especially to the nonsensical fun of just doing kid things for kid reasons.
It’s sleepy, it’s funny, and satisfies the one criteria of a truly great story: It makes you want to know what happens next, even when nothing is “happening” at all.
This one’s a bit of an outlier, in that I can’t point you at a place to watch it. As far as I know, it’s available only as a DVD collection. The point of this series, though, is to act as a guide to the best anime has to offer, not a guide to how to watch them. If it comes back into wider circulation, jump at the chance to see it.
Azumanga Daioh is a straight-up school comedy with no twists or gimmicks. It’s also one of the few times I’m willing to use the word charming without wanting to punch myself, but it fits the bill. It’s agonizingly charming, in the best of ways, blended with a mix of nonsense and—and this is a real kicker, given how rarely it can be said—an English dub that is near-perfect. Watch it in English and you’ll still get almost every joke and punchline.
A group of high school friends, all girls, floats through their high school years having fun, having fights, stressing about tests, and learning life lessons from teachers who barely have their own lives together but who can still pass as plausible role models to anyone five or 10 years younger. That’s the whole plot, and if you want more than that, then bow out right now and go watch your giant robot porn or whatever, you uncultured heathen.
For those unfamiliar with the tropes of All School Anime, Azumanga ticks them all off with happy abandon, introducing you to the highlights of (mostly) every (Japanese) high schooler’s fondest (or most disastrous) memories.
There is the Sports Fest, the yearly festival in which each classroom competes in the full array of track and field-based sports ranging from relay race to three-legged race to tossing the most balls into baskets to the must-do, always-dreaded scavenger hunt. (The teachers may or may not have money riding on their teams.) You will need to know about the Sports Fest when watching anime. It comes up.
There is the Culture Fest, the yearly festival in which each class and school club attempts to put on the most lavish, impressive display or performance or booth, and which nearly always devolves into multiple classrooms going with the tried-and-true “classroom cafe” or the crowd-pleasing “haunted house.” (Our classroom briefly contemplates the obvious combination, a haunted house cafe.) You will need to know about the Culture Fest when watching anime. If there’s a school-based series that doesn’t lean on it, I don’t know about it.
There is the Beach Episode, in which our group of friends go to the beach to smash watermelons and halfheartedly “study” during their break. (Driven there by their somewhat-freeloading teacher, resulting in several more checks in another box: Lifelong trauma caused by learning that your teacher cannot drive and should absolutely not be allowed on public roads.)
There are school trips, and going to a friend’s house for the first time, and meeting their enormous fluffy monster dog—it’s all covered. If you had to be introduced to school-themed anime with just this series at hand, you’d do fine and then some. It references nothing, there are no in-jokes, there’s nothing you “need to watch first.”
Chiyo is a tiny girl who skipped five grades and is a learning powerhouse, but who is still young enough to fall for jokes that other high schoolers wouldn’t. Sakaki is her near-opposite, a very tall teen who intimidates those that don’t know her but who is secretly an admirer of all things cute; while the other girls all wish they could be tall and glamorous like her, she idolizes Chiyo’s unrelenting adorableness and mourns her own not-cuteness. Lifelong friends Koyomi and Tomo are polar opposites, with the more responsible Koyomi being constantly teased and and retaliating against the hyper-hyperactive act-first think-never Tomo. Ayamu shows up in the classroom only to be immediately nicknamed “Osaka” after her hometown; she is a daydreamer. She likes sea slugs.
There is no romance in Azumanga—well, almost. Kaorin has a raging teen crush on Sakaki that frequently has her tongue-tied, but it is unrequited (and, alas, the object of her affections never so much as notices).
It’s also very family-friendly, often using even its own innocence as a source of jokes. The only bit that might not be is the occasional presence of one male teacher who is widely considered a pervert for his obsessive interest in teen girls. The worst act he gets away with is sitting in on a P.E. swimming lesson, before he’s quickly kicked out again, and it’s very likely that younger kids will breeze past those scenes without understanding that subtext—and, unfortunately, that older kids will recognize the polite wariness with which the most perceptive of the girls dodge his suspicious attempts to befriend those students.
Everything else is family-perfect, even the scene in which Osaka asks, with urgent intensity, what happens in America where families wear their shoes indoors when the father, and the brother, and the whole family accidentally steps in dog poop on their way home, or the scenes in which Kaorin imagines her heroine Sakaki carrying her off on a white horse after defeating a gang of fake-nose-and-glasses-wearing hoodlums, or Sakaki’s ongoing efforts to find some stray cat, somewhere in the world, who will not bite her when she tries to pet it.
It’s hard to pin down what makes Azumanga Daioh one of the top school comedies of all time. It will bring you to melancholic tears in one scene, and in another a character will dream of a cat that is also a rocket, or mull whether they could get away with dressing Chiyo as a rectangular “plaster wall monster” for their haunted house cafe. That’s probably the explanation: Like Calvin and Hobbes (Azumanga was originally drawn as a four-panel gag manga, after all), it breezily manages to do everything, all at once.