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Yotsuba&! Volume 1
posted August 15, 2005
ADV Manga, $9.99, 232 pages
Kyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba&!
manga reads like a love letter to the way kids can be at the age of 2-5, when they are in most ways functioning human beings but function in a world that's impossibly huge and easy to accept for its more benign surface qualities. The volume begins with Yotsuba and her slightly slacker-ish dad moving into a new house next to a family with three teenage girls. The pair moves in with the help of their impossibly large friend "Jumbo." Yotsuba wanders around her new neighborhood and draws a picture. Jumbo visits once. A bathroom door gets locked. The merits of air conditioning are debated. People go to the store. Such activities are pretty much all you get in the way of driving plot events. The stories in Yotsuba&!
unfold at an unbelievably laconic and luxurious pace, driven by Yotsuba's bursts of energy like gas into a slow moving balloon. The throughline for most becomes the way she struggles to understand things, sometimes by misunderstanding them first. In those scenes and in its general appearance, the book seems to be standard cute-cartooning, with the lead more exaggerated than the others both in design and through her actions.
The pacing must be remarkable, because almost nothing happens here. The stories also fail to be noticeably observant about its characters. It has
to be the really clear cartooning and the moment to moment work that holds our interest. Once you shake them free for inspection, there are a few great little moments. It's hard to feel Yotsuba is being annoying during the move when you see how Azuma depicts her lifting boxes, all grim seriousness and tiny arms locked into place. One wouldlaugh at any kid hitting herself in the face with a swing, as Yotsuba does early on. Later there's a great scene where Koiwai (the dad) takes an outdoor inflatable meant to frighten birds that scares Yotsuba and starts shoving it into her face as she yells until he's told to stop by store personnel. Azuma seems to understand that kids are hardy; they can bring amusement for essentially being clumsy and not all that smart.
There are some hints that there is more to the girl than meets the eye -- the hair color, the mystery of how she became Koiwai's, even the obliviousness with which the father treats his daughter's frequent disappearances. I guess Yotsuba could turn out to be otherworldly in a straightforward way. I think most people who enjoy domestic comedies will like this modest effort just the way it is; all little kids have moments when they feel like aliens.