You won't find a reviewer anywhere who doesn't rave about this show. I bought and watched it happily enough, but for most of its run I was slightly bewildered. It's lovely simple fun and often hilarious, but I couldn't see why everyone was going apeshit for it. It's based on the manga equivalent of a four-panel newspaper strip, the Japanese equivalent of Peanuts or Garfield, and it's just 26 episodes of character gags about a mismatched bunch of schoolgirls. There's no plot or story, just charm and lots of humour.
However once I'd finished it, I understood. Since it's entirely character-based, you really get to know these girls. This might look like the kind of show you could watch in random order, but in fact that's not true. We follow the cast through three years of high school, from their initial meetings to their emotional graduation (which is emotional for the audience too). The characterisation never stops developing. For a show that's apparently just light comedy, by the end it'll get to you.
There's Chiyo-chan, the child genius who leapfrogged several years of school and is thus dwarfed by her classmates. She's so loveable that her cuteness can affect people's minds, but she's also a slightly frantic, overwhelmed little girl in a world that's often a bit too much for her. Tomo charges around at 1000 mph with enough enthusiasm for twenty cheerleaders but the brains of a diced carrot. Kaorin really, really likes Sakaki. Yomi is the 'normal' one. Kagura comes across as a slightly dim sports freak who just wants to beat Sakaki at anything, but we eventually learn that underneath the aggression she's kinda sweet.
Then we have the weirdos. Sakaki takes a good two years to start engaging with the world. No one troubles her because she's tall, athletic and intimidating, but secretly she's obsessed with rainbows and fluffy bunnies and can't stop herself from stroking cats which want to eat her fingers. Even stranger is Osaka, the space cadet whose brain doesn't work quite like anyone else's. She can function in the real world, sort of, but she has huge hypnotic eyes, possible psychotic tendencies and a genius for derailing any conversation in seconds with non-sequiteurs.
The teachers are no less distinctive. Kurosawa and Yukari are like inseparable sisters who can't stand each other, with a relationship that goes back to their own schooldays. It doesn't help that Yukari is more stupid, petty and self-obsessed than her entire class put together, mostly interested in food and winning bets with Kurosawa. Oh, and her driving traumatises Chiyo-chan for life. Finally there's Kimura-sensei (the only male cast member) who lives to ogle schoolgirls and shambles around slack-jawed like a refugee from Night of the Living Dead.
Remarkably, this is a show about short-skirted schoolgirls with no fanservice, panty shots or romantic angst, unless you count Kaorin's comedy crush on Sakaki. The school has boys, but it's a rare episode when one of 'em even speaks. The show's always amusing, but I have to pick out episode fifteen as one that had me absolutely on the floor. I was in tears of laughter. Chiyo-chan's challenge in the Borrowing Race... I had to pause the disc, I was laughing so hard.
The animation is what you'd expect from a modern show like this - simple, obviously computer-coloured and charming. It's also less stylised than I'd expected given its four-panel roots. Garfield this ain't. It's mostly realistic, except when going into cartoonish exaggeration for comic effect. My only gripe is that it's sometimes hard to tell apart the characters. Tomo, Kaorin and Kagura are barely distinguishable, as are Kurosawa and Yukari.
This is the kind of show where you're truly shocked to learn that there are people who dislike it. I've heard that schoolchildren sometimes aren't fans. It's so well-observed and true to their daily lives that they don't see the point and prefer stuff with robots or magical transformations instead. Other criticisms I've heard are: "just another gaggle of helium-voiced Japanese schoolgirls" or "too weird for me; I don't see charming eccentricities but mental illness". If you're put off by the former then I'm sorry for you, while as for the latter... well, yes, that's school. Azumanga Daioh may not be heavy drama, but for what it is it's fantastically done. In its own way, I don't think I've ever seen a more masterfully crafted show.