Yotsuba&!, volume 13, by Kiyohiko Azuma. Translated by Stephen Paul. Yen Press (New York): 2016.
I have on my shelf a twelve-volume set of Kiyohiko’s instant classic Yotsuba&!, right underneath my twelve-volume set of Sailor Moon. The twelfth volume had ended in 2013 on a more-or-less satisfactory note, and no more volumes came out for about three years, so I simply assumed the series was over.
I am happy to be wrong. The thirteenth volume appeared in Japan in November of 2015 and in America in May of 2016.
Beginning in 1999, Kiyohiko Azuma established himself as a master of the so-called “slice of life” (read: plotless) genre with his four-panel comic strip Azumanga Daioh, which follows a group of airheaded teenage girls and one preadolescent genius through their three years of high school. Azuma’s quirky brand of humor proved popular, and the manga was later adapted into an anime series that aficionados generally consider to be a classic.
That series was highly influential and largely responsible for what is now sometimes derogatorily known as “CGDCT” (cute girls doing cute things) anime. Most CGDCT is both mindless and mind-numbing, and most of it has neither Azuma-sensei’s incisive sense of humor nor his sense of restraint. Typically, it counts on a male audience possessed of low standards as well as an endless appetite for moe and perviness.
But even though Azuma-sensei created a genre that needs to die a sudden and painful death, I really like his work. That’s high praise from me, because I hate slice-of-life in general and CGDCT in particular. But the man is really, really good at both.
Yotsuba&! (pronounced “Yotsubato”) is his second instant classic (he also worked on the magical girl series Magical Play … but I forgive him for that). It is also a slice-of-life series and even, arguably, a CGDCT, though it steers clear of the usual formulae.
Yotsuba&! is the story of a five-year-old girl … and that’s really about it. She plays with the next-door neighbors, runs around town, goes on trips, learns new things, and manages somehow to be utterly charming and engrossing while doing so.
The minimal backstory is as simple as the non-plot: this guy named Koiwai, a thirty-something slacker who works as a translator (of what, we’re not told) was out of the country on a business trip and just happened, on the way home, to pick up a little girl and start raising her as his daughter. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal in real life, but it doesn’t matter here because it’s merely an excuse to explain why everything Yotsuba encounters is fresh and new to her. What with her mysterious origins, the first few volumes even hint that she might be an alien or fairy princess, but the series eventually drops those suggestions and establishes her as merely an energetic five-year-old.
The cast is made up of various colorful characters who spend most of their time on the page reacting to whatever Yotsuba is doing. There’s her lazy and indulgent dad, and there’s his best friend the seven-foot giant “Jumbo,” who’s awkward with women but great with kids and has a habit of spontaneously planning outings to entertain them. Yotsuba frequently runs next door to play with the Ayase sisters: Ena, a prim and proper ten-year-old who quickly becomes Yotsuba’s best playmate; the socially awkward high-schooler Fuka, who serves as Yotsuba’s foil and usually gets caught up in her schemes; and the fashionable college-age Asagi, who is also Jumbo’s unrequited love interest.
These characters make up the central cast, but several others make appearances throughout the series, such as Koiwai’s understudy Yanda, who becomes Yotsuba’s sworn enemy when he eats her ice cream. My personal favorite among the cast is Ena’s best friend Miura, who though tomboyish in appearance and manners is scared to death of animals. She has an amusing rivalry with Jumbo: being the only one to recognize his crush on Asagi, she can easily manipulate him, and he tries to one-up her in childish ways.
This thirteenth volume is more of the same. Yotsuba brings Asagi rocks and sticks as souvenirs from a camping trip, and then she drags Fuka with her to the park to play in the sandbox. Most of the volume is dedicated to a visit by Yotsuba’s grandmother, a character previously mentioned but not before seen. Grandma is something a battleaxe, but with a soft heart underneath. Since the volume is largely dedicated to a new character, that means previously established characters get small roles or don’t appear at all. For that reason alone, I think it’s slightly disappointing, but overall, this has the same spirit and the same level quality as the volumes preceding.
As a series, Yotsuba&! is successful partly because of its excellence as a character study. Writing children convincingly is hard, so a lot of authors cheat by implying or stating outright that their child characters are precocious. In manga and anime, most don’t even bother to try writing children believably, so child characters typically act like miniature adults. By contrast, Yotsuba is entirely convincing as a five-year-old with her boundless energy, inability to grasp abstract ideas, tendency to imitate grownups, frequent malapropisms, and also her occasional unexpected use of big words. A lot of observation of real children probably went into the creation of the character; Azuma focuses on the cuter side of childhood, of course, but also includes the less flattering parts, such as the selfishness and tantrum-throwing.
If it were merely a character study, however, it would be technically impressive but not especially interesting. The secret to its success is in the message it conveys, which is captured in its slogan, Itsudemo kyō ga, ichiban tanoshii hi, loosely translated as “Enjoy everything.” To Yotsuba, everything, even the simplest or most mundane thing, is fresh and exciting. Some chapters involve fishing or camping trips or games of pretend, but other chapters revolve around everyday objects. Yotsuba&! invites the reader vicariously to experience Yotsuba’s childlike wonder and thus to see the world through new eyes unclouded by ennui.
The work to which I’m most inclined to compare it is G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive, which has the same basic message. But Manalive is about an adult who retains his childlike wonder by fighting for it tooth and nail, going to extreme lengths to prevent himself from ever becoming jaded, even (in the most absurd sequence) circumnavigating the world on foot in order to take new joy in his family. Yotsuba&! is comparatively gentle. Although Azuma-sensei probably had to exert a lot of effort to create this series, Yotsuba herself needs to exert no effort to take new joy in everything, nor to impart that same joy to the others around her, nor to convey a little bit of it to the reader. Yotsuba&! is like a Manalive that can relax instead of strain, and in spite of its plotlessness, it makes for a relaxing, charming, and engrossing read.