Yotsuba&!, vol. 6
By Kiyohiko Azuma
Rated All Ages
Yen Press, $10.99
Yotsuba&! has become such a phenomenon in the manga world that it is impossible to write a truly objective review. Everybody loves the little green-haired kid!
The phenomenon might be a little harder for those new to manga to understand. The basic premise of the comic—cute kid misunderstands things in a humorous way—is so simple as to be universal. It’s the underpinning of countless newspaper comic strips and children’s books, and Yotsuba&! never strays too far from that premise. What makes it special is that it is done so well, with solid writing and beautiful, clear artwork.
In the first volume, Yotsuba was puzzled by ordinary things like air conditioners. She would see an object, wonder what it is, and then apply her own logic to the problem, always winding up with a crazy misunderstanding that was gently corrected, with many amused looks, by the others around her.
By volume 6, Azuma seems to have run that well dry, and the stories are more ordinary kid-and-family stories. Yotsuba does a recycling project, taping discarded objects to an old T-shirt. Yotsuba gets a bike. Yotsuba rides all over creation to deliver a bottle of milk to a friend. She just seems like a sweet kid who lives with her father and likes to go hang out with the older kids next door.
There are a few qualities that set Yotsuba&! apart from, say, Dennis the Menace or Rose is Rose. For one thing, the setting is very noticeably Japanese. Yotsuba&! is a slice-of-life manga in a pedestrian setting, so we get to see a lot of images of ordinary people at home, which is somewhat unusual in manga. While many artists keep the backgrounds vague, Azuma treats us to detailed interiors and sweeping urban landscapes, complete with carefully delineated buildings and crisscrossing wires. My favorite part of this volume was the story in which Yotsuba rides her bike cross-country to bring a bottle of milk to a friend, along paths and through fields and neighborhoods, the landscape spreading around her on either side.
Yotsuba herself always seem to be on full power, unlike the people around her. It’s not that she is hyperactive so much as earnest and eager, always straining to head out on the next adventure. One difference between Yen Press’s editions and those produced previously by ADV is that in the Yen book, Yotsuba’s words appear larger in the text balloons, so she seems to be yelling a lot of the time.
One of the interesting things about this series is that Yotsuba is drawn in a noticeably more cartoony, less realistic style than everyone else. Her head is big (bigger than her father’s) and perfectly circular, her body is smaller in proportion to her head than those of other characters, and her eyes are often reduced to circles. Everyone gets the circle-eyed look once in a while, but Yotsuba has it most of the time. It’s as if the iconic smile face grew pigtails and a body. If you apply Scott McCloud’s theory, that means that the reader is supposed to identify with Yotsuba herself. That opens up a range of interesting speculation, given that the series runs in a comics magazine for young men in Japan, that I’m choosing not to pursue.
Here in the U.S., though, Yotsuba takes on a different context. Its all-ages rating makes it a natural for kids, and the clear linework and simple situations also make it easy to grasp the story visually. Azuma describes his characters with great economy, giving each one a distinct look and personality without distracting the eye with a lot of details.
As many readers know, Yotsuba&! was originally published by ADV, which started their manga program with a flood of releases and then slowed their output to a trickle. They published the first five volumes of the series, with decreasing frequency, and then, despite louder and louder clamoring from readers, never published any more. This will remain one of the great mysteries of manga publishing—why, with people practically climbing the walls for these books, they didn’t just go ahead and publish them.
Anyway, Yen rescued the license and has started it fresh, with new translations and redesigned editions of the first five volumes. The translations definitely are different, although which one is better will be a matter of individual taste. The ADV editions have translators’ notes at the end, the Yen editions do not. On the other hand, Yen retains the original sound effects and Japanese script in the art (translated in the margins between the panels), as well as honorifics, which will doubtless please purists. Yen also wins on production values, with high-quality paper and glossy covers making for a very handsome set of books.
Yotsuba&! is one of those atmospheric manga, like Aria, that you can read for relaxation. Each chapter is a self-contained story, so you don’t have to work too hard, and the biggest conflict in the book is Yotsuba taking off on her bike and getting grounded. It’s a great choice for escapist reading for kids or kids-at-heart.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)