I’ve been negligent about participating in the Manga Moveable Feast, but I’ve finally found the time to write an article for it. This month focuses on suitable comics for children, and the title chosen was Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma. You can read more about this month’s feast here.
Yotsuba&!, pronounced Yotsubato (よつばと, or “Four Leaves and… !”) in Japanese to include the ampersand, is a comedy-driven comic written by Kiyohiko Azuma. It was published beginning in March 2003 and still runs in Dengeki Daioh magazine.
Yotsuba&! was made available to English-speaking audiences by ADV Manga; however, Yen Press took over the license and republished the volumes in 2009. You can buy it through the 3rd-party sellers on Amazon for pretty cheap. In fact, you should buy it.
Yotsuba&! is a comic about a young girl named Yotsuba who moves to a new neighborhood with her father. The comic follows the eccentric, everyday trivialities of Yotsuba as she interacts with her father, neighbors, and town.
It’s a fairly simple story that requires barely any explanation. It’s a comic about a girl who does stuff, akin to how Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway basically boils down to a story about a lady as she goes around her daily routines. As strange as that sounds, Yotsuba&! is a comic about dealing with the hilarious things that occur in daily life (even if some of those things might be caused by a weird, little girl). With chapters titled “Yotsuba and Drawing,” “Yotsuba and the Culture Festival,” and “Yotsuba and Typhoons,” it’s really just a comic about everything and a girl. Basically, what the title says: Yotsuba & !.
There are three things that I wish this essay to achieve:
1) Explore where Yotsuba&! is situated in the Japanese comics industry and the minds of its (adult?) readers.
2) Look at how Kiyohiko Azuma has developed as an artist and how that is illustrated in Yotsuba&!.
3) Explain why Yotsuba&! (in relation to Azuma’s other works) says a lot about writing comic comics.
To begin, let’s look a bit more at Yotsuba&!‘s method of publication. As I said previously, Azuma’s comic is serialized in Dengeki Daioh (電撃大王, King of Electric Shocks) magazine, and has been running since March 2003. Azumanga Daioh, for which Azuma is most known, also ran in this comics magazine.
Before I continue, I feel the need to explain how magazines work in Japan. Somewhat similar to American television ratings, the Japanese comics industry targets its comics to demographics. In America, these tend to look like “Male 18-30″ or “Female 45+.” In Japan, comics demographics are similar but are categorized by name. Basically, they’re split into four categories: boys (少年, shounen), girls (少女, shoujo), young men (青年, seinen), and young women (女性, josei). Most comics are targeted to one of these four demographics, though the actual readership can vary wildly (eg., older men can read comics for girls).
So, with that in mind, Dengeki Daioh caters to a specific demographic. If you check the Wikipedia page, it notes that the magazine is aimed at boys (shonen). However, you’ll note in the History of edits that this was changed from young men (seinen) back in 2006, supposedly when the magazine shifted to a monthly schedule.
Based on the actual comics we see in Dengeki Daioh, we might posit the magazine to cater to somewhere between the shonen and seinen readerships (Zac Berteschy argues for the same interpretation in 2005). The cover images above illustrate that most of the stories found in these issues revolve around bishoujo (美少女, beautiful young girls) protagonists. The image below, which is a 2009 calendar celebrating Dengeki Daioh‘s popular female leads, highlights the same point.
I take a look at Dengeki Daioh‘s stories and readers because Yotsuba&! has been constantly criticized for being a story about a young girl in a men’s magazine, and then subsequently is defended as a suitable — and specifically innocent — comedy for guys (one good piece is by Jason Thompson on Moé: The Cult of the Child). The underlying tone in this criticism, of course, is that Yotsuba&! might be seen as a moé or bishoujo comic, which spontaneously taints it. I’m not going to argue for or against these demographic-genres, but Dengeki Daioh is certainly a magazine aimed at a younger audience than other seinen or adult magazines (such as Comic High! — which contains titles such as Chu-Bra!! and Kodomo no Jikan or Comic LO, which publishes erotic lolita titles).
Instead of situating Yotsuba&! in the context of bishoujo comics, instead I will argue that it is a comic for (young) adults. Which might be a little ironic, given that the Manga Moveable Feast is meant to shine the spotlight on comics for kids. And with the all ages rating for Yotsuba&!‘s release in the U.S., it would make sense as a satisfactory choice. However, I will argue against this notion, and instead uphold that Yotsuba&! is meant for the audience that it targets in Japan. It’s a story about a young girl, but the humor is in the relationships she maintains in an adult world. When she interacts with kids, (older teen and adult) readers laugh at the ridiculous situations, expressions, and reactions that emerge. When she interacts with adults, older readers laugh because they connect with the adults in the comic, who also see Yotsuba as pretty ridiculous. Of course, Yotsuba&! is also about “all the rest” (&!), and the short stories that we see of the adults in her world are just as funny because older readers can relate.
Yotsuba&! is a comic for adults. Not in the sense of perversion or ecchi perspectives. Instead, it’s a comic that older readers will understand, and with which younger readers — while they might enjoy it — will have a more difficult time associating.
2 + 3
If you know anything about Kiyohiko Azuma, you should recognize his name from the cover of Azumanga Daioh, which — as I previously mentioned — also ran in Dengeki Daioh starting in February 1999. If you do a quick scan of Azuma’s Wikipedia page, though, you’ll notice that he has done other earlier work. These include:
Inma no Ranbu (1997)
Try! Try! Try! (1998–2001)
Try! Try! Try! is actually the predecessor to Yotsuba&!, and follows pretty much the same characters with Yotsuba as the protagonist. Wallaby is a story about a girl who sews a stuffed wallaby in memory of her recently-deceased classmate, Warabi. His soul comes to inhabit the toy animal, though the girl never understands that it is her friend (because the name Wallaby in Japanese, ワラビ, is the same as わらび, the boy’s name… if that wasn’t already obvious). And Inma no Ranbu (淫魔の乱舞, The Lust Demon’s Boisterous Dance) is an adult, erotic comic about female warriors getting sexed up, illustrated by Azuma (though he published under a pseudonym, for obvious reasons).
It’s interesting to look at the spectrum of Azuma’s titles and how they define his career. The character designs are fairly set in stone if we begin with Inma no Ranbu.
The backgrounds are nonexistent (what’s the point in an erotic comic, right?), and the facial expressions are fairly plain. The art style overall is minimal with strength in the line work, though it barely varies.
Wallaby shows improvement. Definitely not in the background art, as it barely exists in this comic as well, but Wallaby represents probably the primary space where Azuma practices his facial expressions. The character designs are still a bit wonky, but they improve going into Azumanga Daioh. The background art, however, improves dramatically, as Azuma makes distinct decisions to create a world for his characters to inhabit. Almost in complete contrast to Wallaby, Yotsuba&!‘s backgrounds and peripheral images (such as objects that characters interact with) are fine-tuned and extremely detailed.
The only copy of Try! Try! Try! I could look through was a one-shot from 2001. The style mirrors that of Yotsuba&! if you compare it to the original chapters, which is a bit interesting, since it seems that Azuma’s solidified his art style by 2001.
However, Yotsuba&! is an interesting case if we want to move away from talking about just “art style” and talk about “comic style.” And to do that, we actually have two things to work out: “comic style” as in 1) comics, and 2) comedy.
Azumanga Daioh, while popular perhaps because of its anime adaptation, ran in Dengeki Daioh as a 4-frame comic (四コマ漫画, 4-koma manga). The 4-koma has a long history in Japan before World War 2 (you can read more about it at Wikipedia). All of Azuma’s other comics are in ordinary format, including Yotsuba&!. So what does it matter that Yotsuba&! is not a 4-koma?
First, let me remark on Azuma’s other comics. Comic artists in Japan constantly have to battle to find the right balance between text (the words on the page), image (the drawings of characters and place), and structure (number and arrangement of panels). Azuma’s early works, such as Inma and Wallaby, suffer from having an imbalance between these three comic elements. Azumanga Daioh‘s 4-koma structure, on the other hand, enforces a balance between the elements that Azuma masters and through which he creates hilarious situations in every column.
Yotsuba&!, though, is not a 4-koma comic. It is structured like an ordinary comic. But for reasons to be explained, it finds an excellent balance between these text, images, and structure.
From here on, I will argue that Yotsuba&! secretly hides a 4-koma-like structure in how it organizes its humor.
The 4-frame comic is organized as kishoutenketsu (起承転結, or “intro, development, turn, and conclusion”). Each of the four “stages” of the narrative development in 4-koma represents one frame of the comic, and one full joke is complete at the end of each set of four.
Again, Yotsuba&! is not a 4-koma comic. However, while each chapter is set up as a distinct plot (eg., Yotsuba plays with her dad) with its own jokes, every page in itself contains a joke or funny moment. Now, I could list off the jokes on every page, but I feel like you’ll just get the point by going out and reading the comic! But I can, at least, explain what I mean about the “secret 4-koma structure.” By working on Azumanga Daioh, Azuma adjusted the way he told jokes to fit the 4-koma format, but in doing so he perfected telling jokes by aligning one frame with another. Reading Yotsuba&! feels like reading a 4-koma with varying numbers and sizes of frames. You can read Yotsuba&! and pick out different jokes, and for the most part they fit into 4-koma-like structures. However, the continual jokes do not hinder the narrative; instead, they help with character development, and each chapter of Yotsuba&! seems like a handful of 4-koma gently woven together into a more film-like form.
In fact, you can see Azuma doing a special rendition of Yotsuba&! in the 4-frame comic format between chapters 27 and 28. And the great revelation is that it doesn’t feel any different from reading the comic as regularly written and drawn.
Improving on Azuma’s earlier work, Yotsuba&! also illustrates that Azuma has figured out how to create impressionable comics. What I mean, basically, is that when Azuma wants to let his characters’ personalities shine, he can give each moment an impact. Usually these impacts consist of Yotsuba becoming really surprised…
… but these moments are constantly hilarious. These quick changes in emotion — spanning across two frames — are, I believe, a direct impact of Azuma’s work with 4-koma, as you’ll usually see that kind of comedic dichotomy between the 2nd and 3rd or 3rd and 4th frames of 4-koma. Yotsuba&!‘s humor is aided by Azuma’s love of sound effects, which actually pervade and dominate all of his works (eg., see the image from Inma above). I love how he uses them in a lot of Yotsuba&!‘s early scenes, especially ones where there’s not a lot of necessary noise (like waking up in the morning or working quietly), to emphasize the personalities of his characters.
Interestingly, the hard-hitting humor that pervades a lot of Yotsuba&!‘s early chapters begins to dissipate in Azuma’s later work on the series. It’s not that the humor disappears, but we get to see a lot more humble moments shared between the characters, particularly in collected silence. In my opinion, I think the reason for the change is that Azuma realized the popularity and worth of Yotsuba&! as a comic that represents more than just “a comic for guys,” that it reflects a lot about the relationships between the characters in the world he has created. And it’s moments like these…
… that I think define what Yotsuba&!‘s all about: loving daily life and the awesome moments that humor us.