Monday, July 9, 2012

Just Another Manga Monday #9

Our featured manga this week is よつばと!, or Yotsuba&! in English. It's eleven volumes (so far). I own all of them but honestly I'm writing this before I've read the latest two. I'm taking a break since I read through the first nine too quickly and want to savor the last two.
But first! If you look a couple lines up you may notice that surprisingly this edition of "Just Another Manga Monday" is not written by Julz or Blue Shoe. In point of fact (you can never say "in point of fact" enough) this is my first time writing on the topic of manga. I haven't read many different manga but the ones I do like I read a ton of. Yotsuba&! is one of the chosen few.

The manga follows the misadventures of a strange, young Japanese (or is she?) girl named Yotsuba who recently moves to a new house with her father (or is he?). The stories are often laugh out loud hilarious. I don't like to read overly serious manga, and in the others I like there are always humorous parts, but I've never read one that caused me to burst out in a startle-my-wife level of laughter before. It's a manga unlike one I've seen. It's light hearted but never too goofy, it's thoughtful but never too serious. It's a manga that you can read any time and just feel better. This is all due to the eponymous character of Yotsuba.
Yotsuba is six years old, incredibly positive, and insatiably curious. All the stories center around her adventures and how they affect the people around her. The cast of characters is small and only consists of her father, her father's very few friends, and the family next door. It's drastically different than any other manga I read in that it has no overall plot. Each volume is broken up into stories. The first one has seven. And they actually are stories, not chapters. Each one is just a glimpse into the life of Yotsuba and the antics she gets up to. Sometimes one story will lead into another. For example, in one they plan to go camping and in the next they go camping, but just as often you'll go from eating ice cream to catching cicadas. For me, I crave continuity, but even though it sounds disjointed there is enough that connects the stories to prevent them from feeling too episodic.

Yotsuba&! isn't without it's flaws. Maybe flaws is an unfair word since the manga succeeds at what it sets out to do: share with you interesting stories from Yotsuba's life. That part is great but when I started the series I expected it to be more. In the first couple volumes you are presented with some mysteries: Where did Yotsuba come from? Where's her mother? Why does she randomly use English words? Hints are dropped which add to the mystery and my curiosity. Then those hints stop and that whole mystery is abandoned. Was it ever supposed to be a mystery? Is the author saying "it doesn't matter where she came from, just laugh at her going to the convenience store by herself."? Like I said before, I crave continuity, and I hoped this would turn into that overall plot that Yotsuba&! lacks. This probably only bothers me because I'm used to reading story driven manga. Even the episodic ones I read have an overarching story (Mushishi for example). I brought this up with my wife who is also a Yotsuba&! fan and she said this wasn't unusual for manga. I guess I don't read enough. Paul pointed out when I described this to him that it sounds like a newspaper comic. I guess it is in a way. I could draw a ton of parallels between this and Calvin and Hobbes. The benefit of Yotsuba&! being in manga format is that each story isn't limited to four panels. I'm digressing.

Many of our readers are studiers of Japanese or at least interested in Japanese culture. So am I, which is one of the main reasons I love Yotsuba&! so much and why I heartily recommend it to any likeminded people. Since I grew up in the northeastern US my childhood was pretty different to the kids of Japan. Even though I would never trade my summers of barbecuing with the neighbors or trick-or-treating on Halloween, I still wish I could somehow share in this collective childhood that it seems like a lot Japanese people have. There are the staples like catching cicada, or visiting the grandparents in the 田舎, or joining in a festival, or watching the fireworks in summer (well, I guess Americans have that one too). By reading Yotsuba&!, in a way I feel like I can get a sense of what it's like. Even if you don't care about any of that, at least Yotsuba is funny.

I rate Yotsuba&! four silver moons and one half star (my own personal rating system). It's good, I think you'd like it.

By the way, even if you've never heard of Yotsuba&! I'm sure you've seen one of the characters, ダンボー:

Originally from Yotsuba&!, someone from thought it was cool and made him their mascot. He's become quite famous from photographers taking artsy pictures of him.

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