Yotsuba&! vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/Artist: Kiyohiko Azuma
As good as the original Azumanga Daioh manga was, I never could escape the feeling that it something about it never really fell into place. Perhaps it was the fault of its newspaper strip-style presentation that limited what the characters were capable of and pressured each strip to end with a gag, but it felt like a sort of work in progress, that progressively improved over its run but never quite reached the gold. It did, however, serve to further develop Azuma's unique perception of life and his talent for creating lovably eccentric characters, and I'm happy to announce that these things have finally come to full maturity and fruition in his second major manga creation, Yotsuba&!.
Although Yotsuba&! is Azuma's first major project since the conclusion of Azumanga Daioh, it isn't exactly an all-new idea. It's actually a more fully realized reworking of Try! Try! Try!, an older work of his that never really made it beyond a 16-page short and a couple of brief webcomic stories. It's a collection of episodic adventures centering around a strange, innocent little 4-year-old girl named Yotsuba, her adoptive father, and the family that lives next door. Almost every episode centers around Yotsuba being introduced to a new event, concept, or activity, and her reactions to said event. It also explains the manga's curious title; the individual chapters are titled in the format of "Yotsuba & Moving" or "Yotsuba & Rain."
Although there are important differences between the two, fans of Azumanga Daioh will find themselves on familiar ground with Yotsuba&!. Both are slice-of-life comics that strive to find humor and wonder in mundane, everyday occurrences, and both feature an ensemble cast of quirky, eccentric characters. However, while AzuDai's main concept centered around the small trials of daily life in high school, I think the major underlying concept of Yotsuba&! is discovery. Each story revolves around it: as Yotsuba discovers things about the world around her, characters discover things about each other, and we discover things about them. There will be much for little Yotsuba to discover: she's a total innocent who has scarcely a clue about how the world works. Likewise, there is a lot for us to discover about her: she's an orphan from a foreign country who came into her adoptive father's care under circumstances that have yet to be fully explained, if they ever will be. Her origins may well be asides the point of this manga.
One of the reasons Kiyohiko Azuma is one of the more beloved manga creators of recent times is his ability to make everyday life seem both hilarious and wonderful, and this volume illustrates that point beautifully. Very little about Azuma's work is funny in and of itself; Azuma makes no special effort to tell funny stories or tell them in a funny way. His stories are made funny because they're so true to life. Every day, people misunderstand each other, end up in awkward situations, blow things out of proportion, or simply have bad luck and get embarrassed as a result. Although all of the characters mess up for our amusement, Yotsuba in particular is amusing, because she acts and speaks with that peculiar mix of honesty, immediacy, and childish logic that only young children seem to possess. She says things without thinking them through, claims to understand things when she really doesn't, promises to do things and then forgets immediately afterwards. This sort of stuff can be hilarious to witness, so much that entire radio and TV programs have been devoted to it, and met with phenomenal success.
But if anything will be remembered about Azumanga Daioh or Yotsuba&!, it will be the characters. Azuma has a talent for creating characters that are neither schmaltzy nor psycho, but could very well be people you know. Yotsuba's "dad" Koiwai has more than a little of the "twenty-something slacker" aura, but he genuinely cares about her and does his best to take care of her. The next-door neighbors include the sensitive, artistic, environmentally conscious Ena, the self-conscious, awkward Fuka, and the graceful Asagi, who despite being the oldest, gets along with Yotsuba the best. And then there's Yotsuba, who may very well be on her way to becoming one of manga's great characters. Children under five years old seldom enjoy much importance in manga geared towards older audiences, and rarely become fully realized characters in their own right. Yotsuba is at once a energetic four-year-old and a total innocent, which is one of the hardest types of characters to write effectively, but Azuma somehow manages to pull it off. Yotsuba isn't a silent, simpering sweetie-pie, she acts like a real four-year-old. She can be hyper, loud, obnoxious, pushy, and a bit of a troublemaker, but it's nigh impossible to avoid being caught up in her exuberance and honest joy. She never becomes annoying or grating; she's genuinely likeable and entertaining to read about. So it is with the other characters; they're all likeable, friendly, well-meaning people, but they're true-to-life enough that they could feasibly exist somewhere outside of cartoons, or even fiction.
Reviewers and fans alike will inevitably use the word "cute" to describe Yotsuba&!, which is a bit of a shame. It's not that Yotsuba&! isn't cute, but "cute" is the same word often used to describe titles like Sister Princess, Earth Defender Mao-Chan, and the characters therein. The "cuteness" of these titles is something almost fascist: it's frills and lace and all items in place. It's a sterile state of impossible perfection, where nothing that might sully this plastic purity is allowed. It's a whitewashed tomb. Yotsuba&!'s definition of "cute" is something else entirely. Yotsuba is a little girl who lives a careless, messy little life full of mistakes, but also full of heart. She blunders through her existence, throwing a child's love for life and for others at everything and everyone who dares stand in her way. It's hard not to laugh and feel better while reading about her adventures, and it's hard not to love her and her friends. Yotsuba&! is funny, it's heartwarming, and it speaks volumes for both the humanity of children and the efforts of parents. This manga has completely won me over, and I can only hope that the greater manga-buying public will try it out and become as enchanted as I was.
Added: Monday, June 06, 2005
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