Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 25th 2010
Six-year-old Yotsuba Koiwai is constantly discovering new things about the world around her—although her work-at-home dad has to make sure she stays out of trouble as well. This time, Yotsuba tries to plan a schedule for her daily activities, takes a sip of freshly brewed coffee (yuck!), gets her first teddy bear, and goes on an excursion with the sisters next door to see a hot-air balloon competition. It's all very exciting for a six-year-old, especially when Yotsuba gets to ride in one of the balloons. How will she react when she takes to the sky for the very first time?
To tell the truth, Volume 9 of Yotsuba&! isn't very funny.
And that's exactly what makes it so great.
With middle age now fully bearing down upon him, Kiyohiko Azuma seems to have reached a new stage as a manga-ka, taking a more contemplative approach to his work. Gone is the frivolous prankster who pioneered the cute-girls-doing-cute-things aesthetic in Azumanga Daioh, or even the author of the early Yotsuba&! volumes where it was just one cute girl doing cute things. Instead, these latest chapters carry the ruminations of an artist entering his forties, looking back on life and the ups and downs of childhood. Luckily for us, Azuma is imaginative and talented enough to express a child's sense of wonder—and thus awaken that same feeling among his readers too. And it is that wonder, that wide-eyed innocence, that is Yotsuba&!'s greatest gift to the world.
Naturally, these stories are at their best when Yotsuba takes center stage, evoking the nostalgia of one's own childhood misadventures. In the first chapter she runs around trying to follow a homemade schedule—her own make-believe take on "playing office." But Yotsuba's encounters with the real world are even more entertaining, especially when she tries her dad's coffee (didn't we all do this once, only to find it painfully hot and bitter?), and again when she storms a teddy bear store. What is striking about all these moments, though, is that they're framed through an outside observer's eyes—perhaps Azuma himself, watching this pure-hearted creature make the most of her youth. In that sense it's not really a child's-eye-view, but more of a grown-man's-eye-view, reminiscing about a world he can never return to.
The idea of the man's-eye-view is further reinforced in the book's one substandard chapter, "Yotsuba and Yakiniku," which somehow spirals into a bull session where Dad and the guys talk about Important Guy Issues. This change of focus is something of a misfire on Azuma's part, and the same might be said of the following chapter where the girls next door come to visit and shift the center of attention away from Yotsuba. Without her in the lead role, the series often ends up drifting into long dialogue scenes devoid of humor or action.
Fortunately, things gets back into focus with the last two chapters, as Yotsuba experiences a once-in-your-childhood event: hot air balloons. There is, of course, the requisite humor as she plays among the balloon field's tall grass and tries some offerings from the food stands, but it is the actual balloon ride that showcases the series at its most heartwarming and inspiring. That feeling of rising up into the air, of entering an entirely different world, is something that Azuma (in all his contemplative, middle-aged wisdom) captures perfectly. And the way the whole volume ends—not on a punchline or exclamation point, but on a gentle, idyllic scene—makes it even sweeter.
If these charming moments seem to exist on a higher plane of existence, it's probably because Azuma's artwork has also evolved in conjunction with his storytelling. Although Yotsuba and friends are still drawn in a cute, simple style—with distinct traits to help tell them apart—the realism of the background art provides a stunning counterpoint to the character designs. Although the backgrounds are heavily based on photo references, Azuma's hatching and gradients add a delicate, hand-crafted touch to each scene. Even more impressive, though, is the visual pacing from panel to panel: although the layouts are strictly rectangular and rely on objective third-person shots, Azuma can fill any scene with emotion through pacing and rhythm. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the balloon ride, which spends two lovingly rendered pages on a slow-motion up-up-up sequence (and then surprises us all when something unexpected goes down-down-down). Yes, cute characters and pretty backgrounds can be taught, but the magic of making art and story work together? That only comes through years of practice.
If there's one thing that's banal and ordinary about Yotsuba&!, it's the dialogue, although one can hardly blame a six-year-old for talking like a six-year-old. Most of Yotsuba's lines involve yelling and pointing out the obvious, which can be more of an annoyance than an amusement (although she does earn a few laughs for her linguistic gaffes, which are slickly translated into goofy English phrases). Attention to detail is also evident in the treatment of sound effects, which are kept in their original Japanese form but are annotated with both transliterations and English equivalents. Footnotes in the margins also explain any signage that appears in the artwork, and a thorough glossary goes over various aspects of Japanese culture that crop up in the story.
Although the series is immensely enjoyable, there is a terrible lie that people tell about Yotsuba&!. They say that since it's rated All Ages, kids are going to love it. Oh, kids may like it, and wish that they had a friend as crazy and funny as Yotsuba, but it's only the grown-ups who would truly understand and love it. With Kiyohiko Azuma maturing as an artist, his mode of expression has become more refined in these later volumes, progressing from kid-centric sketch comedy to a warm, nostalgic portrayal of childhood—the funny times, the frustrating times, the relaxing times, and the uplifting, unforgettable times that stay with you for as long as you live. So go ahead, lie to everyone and say that Yotsuba&! is great for kids. But they'll have to "outgrow" it before they can really grow into it.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A
+ Masterful art and sincere storytelling join forces to evoke the sweet, simple joys of childhood.
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