Yotsuba&! has an odd title that’s easily explained: each chapter features strange little girl Yotsuba getting excited about something that’s new to her. So we see Yotsuba & shopping! Yotsuba & rain! And so on.
Her appearance and behavior are so unusual, at times, that I’m tempted to speculate that she’s an alien, especially when I remember her green hair. (Translation notes explain that, in Japanese, “yotsuba” means “four-leaf”, and her hair color and style, four pigtails, make her resemble a clover.) We don’t know very much about her, only that, as the book opens, she and her adoptive father are moving to a new house.
The supporting cast consists of family friend Jumbo (a very large man, which everyone comments on immediately) and the new neighbors, a family of three daughters. Dad’s not particularly normal, either. During move-in, Yotsuba gets distracted and wanders off. His reaction is that “she’ll be back when she gets hungry,” as though she was a pet. His playfulness and imagination probably provide a good environment for the kid, though. Everyone accepts Yotsuba’s lack of experience and chips in to educate her as needed, whether it’s introducing her to air conditioners or doorbells or doing laundry or (the longest project) good manners.
Almost everything is a new experience for her, and her enthusiasm provides the appeal of the stories. Her wide-eyed innocence and seemingly inexhaustible energy makes for charming misunderstandings and comedy. She can be demanding — she can’t figure out a playground swing, for example, but once shown what it is, she gets on and yells, “Push me!” Often she stands, staring, when she doesn’t understand something, until someone takes pity on her and provides more information. Her naivete provides a new perspective on everyday items and events.
Author Kiyohiko Azuma previously created Azumanga Daioh. He beautifully draws everyday life and items, providing a grounding background. The detailed settings, such as the town streets, nicely contrast with the simpler character faces. And his sense of motion makes action sequences feel like a cartoon, they move so smoothly.
In the first book, after climbing to a shrine, Yotsuba and her dad look out at a stunning vista of the entire town, showing Azuma’s skill. The reader shares the characters’ sense of rest and revelation at their new view of their world. Yotsuba then points out their house. After a wordless panel, Dad grabs her head and turns her 90 degrees, saying, “Try again. It’s over there.” Even significant moments have their humor.
It’s relaxing and refreshing to read sequences in which Yotsuba does such simple things as wake up and have breakfast. Azuma is also very good at the energetic sections, as when Yotsuba mistakes her new neighbor for a dangerous stranger and takes off running, dodging those who get in her way. She’s a creature of instinct, with all the appeal of someone completely true to who she is and who has absolutely no filters. To her, calling one of the sisters next door “the unpretty one” is descriptive, not insulting, although it’s not taken that way.
Volume two opens with Yotsuba joining two older children in drawing at the park. She’s been trying to draw a picture of the huge Jumbo, quickly finding that her paper is too small to contain an accurate representation of his size. (I was surprised to see an all ages comic alluding to the question of the relationship between art and the object it’s trying to capture. There’s some deep potential there.) The chapter moves on to a discussion of what makes art good, as Yotsuba has been told her childish scribbles are good, but another child tries to be honest about how bad they are (because she’s using a different basis for comparison). The result is one of the few times Yotsuba is (briefly) crushed. Jumbo shows up, though, to remedy things.
In this book, she also goes on a water-gun rampage after watching a movie about killing, learning an important lesson about revenge; sets out to buy cake with the neighbors, where she’s made herself at home; tries to amuse herself while Dad sleeps in; and visits the pool.
In volume three, she plays with fireworks, rides a bus, buys and gives out flowers, and attends a festival. Her visit to the zoo is, as expected, adorable, as she feeds goats and sees animals, including an elephant. We also learn a little more about the relationships of the family next door. Several of the chapters turn on elements of Japanese culture that are likely unfamiliar to the reader, but then, they’re unfamiliar to Yotsuba, too, so we’re all in it together. Unfortunately, the minimal translation notes present in the two earlier volumes have been omitted from book three.
Book four focuses on the events of summer, like badminton, fishing, and the sounds of crickets, as well as regular activities like figuring out what to have for dinner. Dad and Yotsuba start by playing a version of rock-paper-scissors that involves the winner bashing the loser over the head with a rolled-up newspaper. (Appropriate, since Yotsuba can be puppy-like in her enthusiasm.) She doesn’t seem to mind, instead concentrating on try to win by telling him what to do, an earnestly realistic response.
The last book so far, number five, starts with one of the weirder-yet-plausible incidents of the series, as Yotsuba meets Cardbo, the robot made of cardboard boxes. The character design is genius cute. Yotsuba also does laundry, fights with one of her dad’s acquaintances, runs errands in the rain, takes a trip to the beach, and goes star-gazing in a chapter full of both slapstick and nighttime beauty.
Yotsuba is a sponge of a character, with infinite possibility as she learns about life. Watching her do so is both fun and funny, and the way she finds enjoyment in everything is inspirational. It creates an infectious feeling of shared joy in the reader. As her dad describes her, “She can find happiness in anything. Nothing in this world can get her down. Nothing.”
Unfortunately, although more than five books have been released in Japan, there are serious questions about the future of the publisher, ADV Manga, so it’s very uncertain when we might see more volumes translated.