Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: Yotsuba&! Volumes 1-12 by Kiyohiko Azuma

Cover of Yotsuba Volume One, featuring a small, green-haired girl clutching an enormous bouquet of sunflowers. The flowers are taller than she is.
The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMG you guys YOTSUBA&! is my new favourite I love everything about it it’s the sweetest comic in the entire world and just thinking about it makes my heart happy Yotsuba is the best and so are all her friends I love that they’re GENUINE friends too in defiance of all the tropes that ruled my childhood reading list comics needs more of this especially children’s comics oh man do I ever wish I’d had YOTSUBA&! when I was a kid she enjoys everything and she’s so determined to see the wonder in the world and maybe that’s because she’s an alien but the series hasn’t touched on that in ages so let’s just treat her as a small girl the art is so expressive and motion-filled and I looooove all Yotsuba’s obsessions she gets REALLY REALLY INTO THINGS and the older people in her life are awesome at nurturing whatever she’s currently into and helping her discover new interests too I basically just wanna be like !!!!!!!!!!!!! whenever it comes time to rec this comic !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! because it’s so awesome !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! it’s my new favourite !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and I’m a giant pile of feels !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! if you're sighted please read it then come find me and tell me how much you loved it because you’re gonna love it unless you hate kids and/or you have no soul it is THAT GREAT I'm making it a near-universal rec I'M GOING THERE AND I NEVER GO THERE.

The Sensical Version:

When the world gets really, really heavy, I go in search of some fictional relief from it all. I often turn to the sort of books that leave me a quivering wreck, since I appreciate the chance to cry over something outside my everyday experience, but on rare occasions I’m lucky enough to find something that’s uplifting and genuinely nice.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have discovered YOTSUBA&! in June, right as I reached the point where I had to disengage myself from a certain nearby country's news media lest it destroy my mental health.

YOTSUBA&! [Amazon | The Book Depository] helped me put my head back together again. The comic's tagline is “Enjoy Everything,” and the titular character lives that idea to the max. Yotsuba is a small, green-haired girl who’s just moved to a new town with her father, Koiwai. She doesn’t know anything about anything, but she’s determined to learn whatever her dad, his friends, and the three older girls next door can teach her.

And it’s delightful. Seriously, there’s nothing mean-spirited about it; a big change from a lot of the media I consumed when I was Yotsuba’s age. It took me until several volumes in to realize that right from childhood, I’ve been conditioned to expect a particular formula from little-kid-befriends-older-people stories. The little kid is always a nuisance. She always pushes herself in where she’s not wanted, and she either ignores or fails to recognize the social cues that tell her she should butt out. Yeah, she’s cute, but she’s gotta be knocked down a peg before she can really move forward as a person1.

Except this is not that story. Yotsuba makes heaps of genuine friends. Her neighbours Asagi, Fuuka, and Ena (who’re nineteen, sixteen, and maybe ten?) never turn her away. They all sincerely enjoy spending time with her. Their mother always welcomes her into their home and allows Yotsuba to call her Mommy instead of Mrs Ayase. All the Ayases invite Yotsuba to go on outings with them and meet their friends, who quickly become her friends because this is one of those glorious comics where people listen to one another instead of dismissing "weirdos" out of hand.

Back at home, Koiwai nurtures Yotsuba’s curiosity by letting her try whatever activity strikes her fancy, be it cooking pancakes, painting, or photography. He sets her up with a bicycle she can use to explore the neighbourhood. When she latches on to a new obsession, like sea animals or milk, he makes sure she's got access to materials that can help her learn more about it. And when he disciplines her, it’s to help her grow into someone who respects others the way they respect her, not to crush her into some standard Good Child mold as dictated by Society.

Likewise, the people she runs into out in the wider world greet her questions with patience and tolerance, even when they’re startled by her bluntness and lack of general knowledge. They recognize that curious kids are a joy, not an annoyance, and their support lets Yotsuba expand her knowledge base into religious festivals, noodle-cooking techniques, and the proper way to ask someone if you can take their picture, among other things.

All this makes YOTSUBA&! by far the nicest, kindest story I’ve read so far this year.

I mean, there’s not even an antagonist! Koiwai’s friend Yanda is an ass to Yotsuba when they first meet, but even he quickly switches from giving her a genuine hard time to trying to engage with her interests. (Yotsuba, being an unworldly five-year-old, refuses to reevaluate her opinion of him.) I’m inclined to think Yanda is mostly just a guy who’s not used to dealing with kids, and who gets a bit better at it as he spends more time hanging around Koiwai’s house, stealing hot water for his ramen and trying to bribe Yotsuba with awesome stuff like bubble machines.

In the absence of anyone more fearsome than Yanda, the series’ tension comes not from conflict but from the thrill of discovery. Yotsuba’s young and clueless, but she’s so eager to get a handle on anything life throws her way. Curiosity drives her to experiment and learn. The series is called YOTSUBA&! because each chapter title reflects Yotsuba’s enthusiasm for whatever she’s into today; “Yotsuba & Reunions!”, for example, or “Yotsuba & The Ranch!”. She’s constantly looking for new things to like, and she’s ever keen to tell her friends what she’s discovered so they’ll have a new interest, too. It’s absolutely adorable and, as I said, remarkably lacking in cynicism or ill-will. Yotsuba wants to know things. The people around her want her to learn and tell them what she’s learned. And even when she has nothing new to report, they nurture her interest in the activities and experiences she’s already discovered, like her enthusiasm for milk or her obsession with Danbo the cardboard robot.

Yotsuba also has a good relationship with Jumbo, Koiwai’s closest friend, but it’s important that the majority of the relationships she cultivates are with other girls. Asagi, Fuuka, and Ena each introduce her to their best friends, Torako, Miss Stake, and Muira. While Torako and Muira are initially a little taken aback by Yotsuba’s approach to life, they soon come to appreciate the way she charges headlong into new experiences. They invite her along on outings and greet her with good cheer when they run into her out on the street.

And you know what else is great? Not a one of ‘em cares Yotsuba is adopted or questions Koiwai’s ability to raise a small girl on his own. Jumbo tells the neighbours about the adoption when they ask where Yotsuba’s mother is, and nobody ever mentions it again. The text doesn’t deal in jibes about how Koiwai isn’t her “real” dad, because he obviously is. Their lack of a biological connection is a total non-issue, and Koiwai's often slapdash approach to housework doesn't mean he can't be a good dad.

This is all far more dynamic than I’m making it sound. YOTSUBA&! sparkles with humour and adorablility at every turn. Every single chapter made me grin so wide my face hurt for ages afterwards. Either Yotsuba does something adorable, one of her friends makes a heartwarming gesture, or the characters experience something awe-inspiring--or all those things happen at once. My favourite volume is 9, in which Asagi and Torako invite Yotsuba, Ena, and Koiwai to attend a hot air balloon competition with them. I took as much joy in the majesty of flight as the characters did, and I thrilled to all their smaller adventures in between balloon launches.

The whole series is hilarious and sweet and I love it so muuuuuuuuuuuuuuch. I can’t wait until my library buys Volume 13 so I can gulp it down as fast as my reading speed will allow.

  1. Anne’s relationship with Marilla in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is a good example of this, though Anne is older than Yotsuba. It wasn’t until I reread the series as an adult that I recognized just how much of her exuberance Anne is required to let go of in order to succeed.


  1. This sounds very cool! I was going to buy a couple of volumes for my niece (turning 12) but then came across a couple of very affordable used volumes of Cinamoroll (so cute!!) so I had to get those now and I will save the Yotsuba idea for Christmas. I think my niece is the perfect kid for some of these messages. :)

    1. Oh my goodness, your niece is going to LOVE this series! I can say that without even knowing her, because the comics are that wonderful.