07 March 2008

Yotsuba Says the Darnedest Things

Several of this year's Cybils graphic novel nominees, especially in the younger age category, showed some influences of Japanese comics, or manga. One actually came from Japan: the fourth volume of the Yotsuba&! series, written and drawn by Kiyohiko Azuma.

That title is pronounced "yot-SOO-ba and...," because this comic is primarily about a little girl named Yotsuba and whatever wonderful new experience she has today. Each episode is titled something like "Yotsuba & Fishing" or "Yotsuba & the Newspaper." The exclamation point symbolizes the exuberance which Yotsuba brings to each new activity, whether it's going to the neighborhood market for eggs or trying to cheer up a neighbor about her love life.

It's not apparent in Azuma's line art, but the covers show Yotsuba's hair as green, with her four pigtails making her resemble a four-leafed clover.

Yotsuba's backstory is also not apparent in volume 4, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, which explains:

At the start of the series, Yotsuba and her adoptive father, Koiwai, relocate to a new city with the help of Koiwai's best friend, an impressively tall man nicknamed Jumbo. Yotsuba makes a strong impression on the three daughters of the neighboring Ayase family, Asagi, Fuka, and Ena, and many of her misadventures come from her interactions with them.
It's a mystery why Koiwai adopted Yotsuba and which social-services agency thought he'd make a good parent. He's a single slacker, and he seems to regard his daughter as a puzzle to play with. In the story that opens this volume, they're playing a version of "rock, paper, scissors" which involves batting her over the head with a rolled-up newspaper.

Not that I didn't want to do that too, sometimes. For me, Yotsuba's level of energy and cheer was best enjoyed in short, periodic doses. The name of "Tonstant Weader" occurred to me more than once as I read this volume. That said, in moderation I found the Yotsuba&! comics pleasantly entertaining. Here's one moment when Jumbo has brought Yotsuba and Koiwai ice cream treats in three flavors, and she can't figure out which one is best.

As this episode shows, in Yotsuba&!, unlike most stories written for children (at least in America), the joke's often on little Yotsuba. We laugh at what she says and does rather than with her. Cybils judge Snow Wildsmith informed us that cartoonist Azuma creates Yotsuba&! for Dengeki Daioh, "a manga magazine aimed at 20-something men." In other words, the original audience is Koiwai and Jumbo, not little girls like Yotsuba.

I can still see kids enjoying this comic, just as they enjoy the daily strip Fox Trot or other family sagas. In its quirky and good-hearted characters, its low-level everyday drama, and its unchanging core situation, Yotsuba&! reminded me of the family sitcoms that networks used to produce before everyone got his or her own TV set--in particular, The Courtship of Eddie's Father with Bill Bixby and Brandon Cruz. And that's not bad.


Anonymous said...

"yot-SOO-ba"? Why the accent? As far as I know there's no stress or tonal accent in Japanese. OK, occasionaly a bit of tonal accent, but only a bit.

J. L. Bell said...

Because I've heard the name pronounced by Americans only with a slight stress on the second syllable. Maybe that's mispronounced, but it seemed consistent.

My real intention in breaking down Yotsuba&! was that, in the context of comics, a collection of unpronounceable typewriter characters is usually a stand-in for angry profanity, rather than a cute way of pairing a child's name with her latest interest.