Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 28th 2010
Yotsuba reminisces about a ranch. Yotsuba goes out to eat with her dad. Yotsuba goes to Fuuka's cultural festival. Yotsuba plays in a typhoon. Yotsuba house sits. Yotsuba pulls a float in the town festival. Yotsuba picks up acorns. The end.
If the above sounds unspeakably dull, then you've figured without the one word that recurs in every sentence: Yotsuba. Well, every sentence except the last one. And that's the only one that isn't fun.
Yotsuba&! doesn't have a plot. It never did, and likely never will. Each chapter consists of our plucky little heroine executing a task—and usually making a hash of it. The chapters are largely independent, and change occurs on a geologic pace...if at all. It's those qualities that often get Yotsuba&! lumped into the "cuteness for cuteness' sake" category. It doesn't belong there. Yotsuba&! is cute. Incredibly so, both visually (Yotsuba is not to be trifled with on that front) and behaviorally (ditto). But it isn't cute for the sake of being cute. It's cuteness with a mission: to remove, however temporarily, the scales of age from our eyes and allow us to look at the world once more with the wonder of children. It has completed that mission, with insight and gently pointed humor, volume after volume. This volume not excepted.
If that sounded a little defensive, that's because there is good reason to be. After seven volumes and nearly as many years, and as loath as its fans (myself included) may be to admit it, Yotsuba&! is starting to wear out its welcome. We know the series has bigger themes to fry than adventures in souvenir-delivering and house-sitting. Several questions have been begging to be asked for eons now: Who is Yotsuba? Why is Koiwai raising her? And why is he so darned oblivious to the opposite sex? This volume skirts around the edges of a couple of the questions, including a cute bit where Fuuka's classmates briefly mistake Koiwai for her guy, and brushes up against a bit of adult-ish business involving Jumbo's unfortunate crush on Asagi, but it steadfastly refuses to address anything more important than, say a cake shortage directly. It's a dance we've seen before and, frankly, after 1600 pages it should have finished, gotten married, had a few kids and retired. It is fine to deal with larger issues piecemeal in the background, but Yotsuba&! has pushed them so far back they aren't even in the background; they're off the stage altogether.
I remember reading a foreword, written by Charles Schultz for some Calvin & Hobbes collection or another. In it Schultz praised Bill Watterson's artistic splashes of water and Calvin's dinner-roll shoes. "Bill's art is fun to look at," he said, or something to that effect. "Comics are a visual art; people forget how important it is that they be fun to look at." At the time I thought it was faint praise. Not any longer. Kiyohiko Azuma's art is also fun to look at. Yotsuba's unromanticized childishness and the adeptness with which he filters the world through her eyes indicate genuine writing chops, and his skill with combining innocence and working humor is nothing short of unnatural, but the true reason Yotsuba&! functions as a graphic novel fountain of youth, despite its own advanced years? Kiyohiko Azuma's art is fun to look at. He draws simple but hilariously accurate expressions, instantly likeable people with instantly visible personalities, detailed and pertinent settings, and of course nigh-on perfect sight gags. And he can take all of those fun drawings and sequence them, expanding time and space to evoke with startling accuracy feelings not felt since childhood—the fierce joy of braving a rainstorm, the new world seen from atop an adult's shoulders—as well as some never felt at all (the float episode is the closest many of us will ever get to participating in a festival).
Yen Press picked up Yotsuba&! in 2009 after ADV Manga dropped it, but were it not for the logo and the ads in back, you'd almost never know it. Sound effects are still left in situ with unobtrusive translations nearby, cultural notes are still crammed in itty bitty type between panels, and the overall package is still attractively subdued. There is the back-cover synopsis—written as if by Yotsuba—but it doesn't hurt your brain too much. Certainly not enough to pass on the series.
This far into the series, there is no escaping the impatience that comes with its insistent avoidance of anything that doesn't fit into Yotsuba's foreshortened gaze. That impatience, of course, comes from the adult in us. And Yotsuba&! has a facility for making that adult immediately feel like a cad for it. Those little glimpses Yotsuba catches (or misses) of grown-up business do their part, as does the series' hilarity and beauty. Just try begrudging the series its reticence on matters teen-plus while Yotsuba is grafting herself onto Jumbo to create Mega-Yotsuba or experiencing, with startling clarity, the joys and terrors of fence-walking. The book has its weak spots—the acorn chapter is genuinely pointless—but they quiver, pale and frightened, before the joie de vivre stamped on every other page.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ Elevated above its patience-testing lack of ambition by great art and a continually refreshing viewpoint.
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