It’s easy to say that, in recent years, children’s comics have become particularly popular. Between Dav Pilky’s Captain Underpants or Dogman series, Raina Telegmeier’s autobiographical graphic novels, or any of DC Comics’ successful Young Reader line, the youth market for comics is something that has had a substantially bigger boom than almost every portion of the “adult” comics market. Even with children’s titles that offer fun, whimsy and heroics as performed by kids, however, rarely do we get to see a story told specifically from the perspective of a child -- let alone told in such a fashion that nonetheless feels appropriate and fun to read regardless of the readers’ age.
One series that succeeds in that goal is Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, published in the U.S. by Yen Press. Perhaps because of my own love for the series, I personally believe that people have just been sleeping pretty hard on Yotsuba&!; while other comics aimed at kids, even those mentioned above, have the action, the jokes, and the bubbly cartooning, Yotsuba&! brings something new to the table: the simplicity of enjoyment through the eyes of a child.
[Note to readers new to manga: each page is read from right to left, top to bottom! Each image in this story should be read accordingly.]
Yotsuba&! began as an ongoing feature in Japanese anthology title Dengeki Daioh in March 2003, following on the coattails of his acclaimed feel-good, 4-koma -- 4 panel -- strip Azumanga Daioh, a story set largely within a high school and following the funny and mundane antics of a group of high school girls. It was no surprise to anyone when Azuma followed that strip with Yotsuba&!, with the latter offering a similar formula of feel-good stories and slice-of-life vibes, but with the additional enjoyment of everything being through the lens of how Yotsuba sees it; meshing his signature playful cartooning with a more hyper-realistic art style.
Yotsuba herself, for those unfamiliar with the manga, is a young child — noted most for her big smile and bright green hair fashioned into four pigtails; a play on her name, which literally translates into “four leaf clover” — who lives with her adoptive father Yousuke Koiwai in a new town. Yotsuba Koiwai is, in a word, nothing short of precocious: greeting everything with charm, never letting anything get her down, and meeting each day with a full speed ahead attitude and taking in life in a way that only a child can.
Yotsuba and Yousuke don’t populate the entire series by themselves, of course. Beyond the core pairing, there’s an additional small but essential cast playing a big part in Yotsuba’s everyday life: her dad’s best friend Jumbo; the mother and three daughters who live next door, offering different personalities for Yotsuba to react to and play off; and a small handful of recurring members of the community that Yotsuba imprints herself on almost instantly.
The concept is a simple one, but that almost seems like the point. More than any other comic that I’ve ever come across, Yotsuba&! is less about showing childhood silliness or naivety for its own sake, or to laugh at the child from a knowing, older point of view, and more about putting focus back on what it’s actually like to see the world through a child’s eyes, regardless of how long ago that may seem for the reader.
The title almost gives it away for those who are careful enough to look for it -- “Yotsuba&!” being a placeholder for chapter titles that run “Yotsuba & [topic],” with the topic changing each and every installment, offering a direct correlation to how Yotsuba interacts with the world. Each story plays as Yotsuba discovering or experiencing something new and exciting — hence titles such as “Yotsuba & The Festival”, “Yotsuba & Cake”, or “Yotsuba & Revenge” -- with each chapter marking the passage of a portion of the day. Regardless of what comes at the end of the ampersand, the reader can be assured of it being written as a grand adventure of discovery and joy, whether it’s a trip to the grocery store to buy a special “only sometimes” lunch of instant Ramen, or passing the time on a rainy day. That’s the beauty of things when you’re a child, though, isn’t it? Everything is an adventure and every day is an entirely blank slate and the passage of time is something that feels not only fluid, but full of possibilities.
With this mode of storytelling leading to little in the way of overarching plot, the structure instead lends itself to an infinite number of possibilities that seem almost impossible for the reader to predict. As a result, while Yotsuba’s ability to turn the most mundane and otherwise boring days that most adults would take for granted may initially seem like a concept that would normally become stale or repetitive, the reality is something more wonderful. The only constant of the series is the characters, and everything else is reliant entirely on an endless sense of wonder found only in the mind of kids.
One of the main components to this comes from Azuma’s artwork, which dances somewhere between expressive cartooning based on abstraction and exaggeration of the characters and their emotions, and an impressive technical level of realism in the surroundings for those cartoonish figures. In contrast to Azuma’s earlier Azumanga Daioh, often noted for its adorable -- if not surprisingly simplistic for the creator, illustrations -- Yotsuba&! features exquisitely rendered backgrounds full of finesse and fine detail, right down to the texture of a paved road or the divots in a light post -- things we often take for granted when looking at the world on a large scale as adults -- co-existing in the same panels as the more outlandishly rendered cast of characters.
If you think about it, though, that unlikely combination -- seemingly contradictory to adults -- only makes sense! The stories, usually told from the perspective of Yotsuba (but with the reader as observer, not participant), show the world as something as big, exciting, and elaborate as it constantly seems to a child, while family members and friends are something more soft, familiar, and more palatable to interact with.
Going further than simply a unique approach towards depicting the familiar and unfamiliar, however, Azuma uses visual cues to guide the audience in their understanding of the emotional cues and reactions central to each moment being depicted. This is true on the micro level as well as the macro; almost every panel is a scene contained, reading true-to-life and with more than enough information in each panel for the readers to know exactly where their eyes are meant to go. Even close-ups feel purposeful, often driving the humor or intensity of emotion in a way that feels fun and childlike rather than needless or overbearing.
This ability to effortlessly portray the world through a child’s eyes goes further than the visual aspects of the series. Yotsuba’s view of her close friends and loved ones is also something that easily kicks readers back to childhood: Jumbo -- Yotsuba’s dad’s best friend -- for example, is a frequent visitor (and occasional babysitter) in the Koiwai household, yet the relationship between Yousuke and Jumbo is never really explained. How did they meet? How did they manage to end up in the same town? How long have they known each other? While those types of questions are the first thing to come to mind for adult readers, Yotsuba is just happy he’s there at all in all of his abnormally tall glory -- hence the name, of course -- and, usually, with treats or fun games.
That same childlike ignorance (or, perhaps, simply an ability to focus on what’s important at that very moment; let’s not condemn Yotsuba’s approach) carries over into her relationship with the next door neighbors, Ena, Fuuka, Asagi, and their mother. As opposed to her interactions with “Daddy” or Jumbo, with her neighbors, familiarity provides enough comfort to allow Yotsuba to provide brutal honesty to the point of comedy. After becoming acquainted with her new neighbors, Yotsuba treats their family as she does her own; often showing up unannounced, asking for treats, and even taking to calling their mother “mommy”.
Though everyone embraces this behavior with open arms, it often provides a good laugh for the reader when hyper-familiarity and a childlike naiveté of social interactions leads Yotsuba to point out with impressive bluntness that someone doesn’t draw well, for example, or that someone else is wearing a ridiculous outfit -- both examples of conversations that could otherwise be silenced or put forward with more nuance if written by any other YA author, both approaches that would rob the series of some of its most amusing moments, and a welcomeness to embarrass its characters that makes the series so much more charming to readers.
While many children’s comics have been dismissed as somehow less worthy of attention or less interesting than those aimed at older audiences, Yotsuba&! feels as if it transcends any potential relegation into genre or age-group pigeonholing, not simply by quality of content or artwork, but ultimately through the way in which it so clearly evokes the universal feeling of being a child. By managing to bring that experience to life in an unexpected but honest manner, Azuma accomplishes one of the biggest successes of children’s comics in Yotsuba&!, in the process conjuring up a particularly important lesson from that time in our lives: that we should always strive to enjoy everything that we can.