Doki Doki School Hours isn't an Azumanga Daioh clone, but it's hard to avoid comparisons. Both shows are school-based comedies about the day-to-day lives of their teachers and students. No more, no less. School isn't a backdrop for alien invasion or reincarnated samurai, but the very basis of the series. The reason for this is that both shows are based on four-panel manga, like Western newspaper strips such as Peanuts or Garfield, so are thus at heart nothing but a string of gags. Plot? What plot? They even come from the same animation studio, J.C.STAFF. Doki Doki School Hours appeared three years after the success of Azumanga Daioh and owes a stylistic debt to its predecessor, although in fairness Tamami Momose's original manga was published in Bamboo Comics back in 1997, predating Azumanga Daioh by two years.
The difference is that Azumanga Daioh felt real. That show set out to recreate your school days and succeeded breathtakingly, from which everything else blossomed. On the other hand, Doki Doki School Hours doesn't convince on that level and isn't even trying to. It feels like stand-up comedy, perhaps a sixth form revue or the Edinburgh Fringe. I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong, but my disbelief wasn't suspended for a moment. Mika-sensei's class are too obviously comedy characters playing to the gallery. Surely no classroom ever had such a high freak count.
No fewer than three students have issues with their sexuality: (1) a boy with a crush on another boy, (2) a girl with a crush on undersized women and specifically on Mika-sensei, and (3) a narcissistic transvestite with a crush on himself. There's a teenager who looks and acts like a middle-aged salaryman and a hardcore otaku who's devoted his life to drawing manga. They're funny, but they're not even trying to be realistic. A greater sin is that some of the characters blend into one another. Even after watching thirteen episodes I couldn't say for sure which girl's Nagane and which girl's Kobayashi. In fact some of the most memorable characters are the supporting players, such as the manga geek's number one fan or Mika-sensei's rather too adoring father. His daughter complex isn't actually creepy, but he wouldn't have to go far to get there.
The lead character is Mika-sensei, the 27-year-old homeroom teacher who looks barely ten. She's 148 cm tall with a childish face, figure and personality. Her students mother her like some kind of classroom pet. She's cute, put-upon and likeable, but again hardly convincing. As the lead character of an anime comedy, she's great. But a teacher? Are you kidding me?
The actual episodes feel more like a stage show than an anime. It's very revue-like, with plot disregarded in favour of a bunch of walk-on walk-off sketches in which the cast take turns to wander up and deliver character throwaways. I can just imagine my old university friends performing this stuff in our Bristol Dramsoc-Revunions sketch shows. Oh, and everyone plays to the gallery. They all know each other's quirks. The scenes' punchlines tend to come from the sardonic Greek chorus of other characters watching in the background and delivering knowing commentary.
The result is a show more lightweight than dandelion fluff. Azumanga Daioh put a lump in your throat by the end, but this is too artificial and self-aware ever to be more than merely amusing. It's funny. It's easy to watch. However it always feels like Just Another Anime, with nothing to pull you back for a return visit. Furthermore a few of the later episodes spend too long on flights of surreal and probably parodic fantasy that sadly aren't funny. It's as if the anime's creators had lost confidence in their own formula, which would be a shame. It may not be Citizen Kane, but when it's on form Doki Doki School Hours is cute and entertaining.
The art is simple to the point of crudity, with strange blocks of green in everyone's eyes and lots of visual tricks that work better in manga. It also helps if you can read Japanese, since there's often a lot of on-screen text. It's not unattractive animation, but it's cheap. I should also admit that I haven't seen all of the episodes, having only seen the TV series. In Japan, the thirteen episodes were released across seven discs, each of which had an additional OVA episode tagged on. The original series is called Sensei no Ojikan and the OVA series is Sensei no Ojikan Gold, but in English the whole thing was simply bundled together and renamed Doki Doki School Hours. Bizarrely a literal translation of the original title would simply be Teacher's Time or Teacher's Hours, with the Doki Doki bit (which is Japanese for "oooh, I'm excited and/or nervous") having been plucked out of nowhere to make it sound more anime-like.
Overall, this show is remarkable mostly for its refusal to try to hook the audience with plot or serious emotion. It's very obviously the latest show from the people who brought us Azumanga Daioh, but it's not trying to be a clone. I can respect that, although the results are mixed. It's pure gag fodder and on that level not unsuccessful, if you can swallow the basic implausibility of a freakshow cast. We've all watched far worse.