School is officially out and summer is in full swing. Sit down, relax and escape the heat with Molly’s “Because It’s $@%^ Hot Outside III”. Join me as we explore the world through the eyes of a child in Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!
Now you must be thinking “Molly-sensei, there’s a typo after the title. You must be an ignorant fool to leave such an elementary mistake unfixed.” My dear Watson, it is you who is the fool. The “&!” at the end of the title has significant meaning to the outline of the story. The “&!” is the driving force behind the characters’ actions. We wouldn’t have Yotsuba&! without it.
But, just what is it that makes this series tick? Kiyohiko Azuma is a master of capturing the innocence of childhood on paper. If you’ve ever read or seen his previous hit, Azumanga Diaoh, you’ll agree that much of his success was owed to his simple, yet playful artistic style, casual yet realistic script and last, but certainly not least, the facial expressions. He can capture the innocence of childhood in an array of faces that range from surprise, disgust and pure child-like euphoria. Though Kiyohiko’s signature face is that of a child that never did process what you said.
The story of Yostuba&! isn’t so much a story but a statement:
“Today is Always the Most Enjoyable Day”.
Yotsuba, an innocently enigmatic 5-year-old girl from a land “to the left”, is learning the ropes of everyday life from her adoptive father, Koiwai, his friend Takashi “Jumbo” Takeda and their next door neighbors, the Ayase sisters, Asagi, Fuuka and Ena. Every day is a new adventure for Yotsuba as she stumbles into new situations and exciting revelations. Originally from a short one-shot “Try, Try, Try”, Kiyohiko decided he wanted to bring back his lovable cast of characters, revamped and touched up, to endure the long term series treatment.
I’d hardly say Yotsuba&!(Alt. Title: Yotsubato) has any form of plot. The story proceeds much like a visual diary. Many events occur the same day or the following beginning at the advent of the Japanese school system’s summer vacation, taking you right through to the coming of autumn with many cultural events spotlighted throughout. Yotsuba learns about the significance of neighborhood temples, the importance of manners and basic word usage (not her strongest point)
That brings me to the writing. I have a personal partiality towards the subtly and nuance of certain writing styles. I love to search for a deeper, more profound meaning underneath the shell of the words. Yotsuba&! is about as subtle as a flying mallet. Kiyohiko captures the innocence of a child’s speech with out mulling around in unnecessary prattle and underlying meaning. If you have a 5-year-old cousin or a baby-sit a friend’s toddler, you know how children do not have a filter. Their mental process is like that of a goldfish= there isn’t one. Yotsuba, spoken like a true 5-year-old, spits out the first thing that comes to mind even if has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Her world is ice cream and “Tsuku Tsuku Boshi” cicadas.
As much as Kiyohiko lends his attention to the realism of Yotsuba’s script, he doesn’t simply ignore the “adults” of Yotsuba&!. He has a good idea of how various personalities handle Yotsuba’s playful nature and keeps them consistent throughout. How his characters interact with Yotsuba is how Kiyohiko manages to create some sense of diversity in his otherwise mundane and overly realistic cast. With that said, why don’t we do a run down of the cast.
Koiwai:AKA Pants Man. Yotsuba’s adoptive father. Despite Yotsuba’s history being a generally untouched subject, Koiwai does tell us in the beginning that she was an orphan that he picked up while on a trip. Koiwai is as casual as it can get, sitting around his house in his boxers and no real sense of shame. He works from home as a “Honyakuka” (a translator) which Yotsuba mistakes for a “Konnyakuya” (a person that makes “Konnyaku”, a Japanese health food). Koiwai, despite being new to the fathering business, tries his best to be a good parent, though he comes across as more of an instigator for Yotsuba’s sillier actions.
Jumbo: Koiwai’s childhood friend. As the name implies, he is abnormally large. Something of a Jack-of-all-trades, he boasts interests in star-gazing, fishing and Cicada hunting, though he works as a florist in his father’s shop when he isn’t bumming around Koiwai’s house. He often takes Yotsuba and friends on field trips in hopes of winning the heart of the eldest Ayase sister, Asagi. Jumbo is what you would call the ironic straight man of the cast, despite his stature being the running joke of the series.
Yanda: Koiwai and Jumbo’s friend. Possibly the closest thing to a villain in Yotsuba&!, he is Yotuba’s arch enemy. Though he is mentioned right off in the first chapter, he doesn’t make his grand appearance until chapter 30. Always characterized as a “bad man” when he comes up in conversation, Yanda is never warmly welcomed by Yotsuba. He enjoys teasing and taunting her and, in turn, scarring her for life. It started with Yanda bribing Yotsuba with candy and soon after taking it back. It then proceeded to snowball when he eats her ice cream and prank calls her. Now, whenever something bad happens to Yotsuba, she quickly pins the blame on Yanda whether he was involved or not, screaming “$@%^ YOU YANDA!!”. He’s a normal guy, living pay check to pay check and feeding off frozen meals. Yanda’s only excuse to visit Koiwai (besides pestering Yotsuba) is to mooch for food.
The Ayase’s: Yotsuba’s next door neighbors. They quickly befriended the strange child when she would invite herself to their house for ice cream on a daily basis. The mother is a dead-pan faced woman who enjoys Yotsuba’s antics and can handle her with great ease. The father is rarely in the story. It is implied, by the way his daughters speak of him, that he is dead when in reality he is just a salary man working during the hours Yotsuba comes to play.
Ena Ayase is the youngest of the three sisters, being only a few years older than Yotsuba. She quickly took to being Yotsuba’s play mate though she still doesn’t quite know how to react to her little friend’s odd quirks. Fuuka is the middle child, being in high school. She’s a sensible girl with good manners though she would probably be considered the closest thing to a tom-boy with her questionable sense of style (t-shirts with odd prints and shorts. One had a very recognizable character from Daioh. I dare you to spot it.) Koiwai and Jumbo often make fun of her for her bad puns. Asagi is a college student and the oldest of the bunch. Like her mother, she handles Yotsuba’s antics very well and enjoys her constant energy. She must also field Jumbo’s constant failed attempts at courtship.
The secondary cast is very small with only three and a half notables. The first is Ena’s artistic yet androgynous friend, Miura. She absolutely cannot understand Yotsuba and has a hard time dealing with her speech patterns. The second is Miss Stake. Despite her given name being Hiwatari, her nick name was derived from the “mistake” she make while introducing herself to the class. She doesn’t make as many appearances as Miura, but her eccentric personality makes her role, though small, plenty amusing. The third is Torako, Asagi’s college friend. She doesn’t take to Yotsuba’s odd personality very well at first but warms up to her quickly, allowing her to call her by the nick name “Tora” (Tiger). Like Miura, she is artistic, claiming she would rather be behind the camera rather than in front of it.
Finally (and this is what I meant by “half”), we have Danbo. A robot built of cardboard for Ena and Miura’s school project, Yotsuba mistakes it for a real robot that feeds on money instead of fuel. Yotsuba quickly befriends it to no surprise. Danbo has to “fly back home” when Miura, the life inside the robot, gets tired of amusing Yotsuba and wants to take it off so she can eat. Though Danbo isn’t pivotal to the story, it acts as a cute distraction from hanging off of Koiwai’s shoulder.
Having gone through the meat of the context, why don’t we move onto the art. Often criticized for being overly simple with inhuman and over the top expressions, Kiyohiko leans toward a clean and consistent style. Though his characters possess no extreme features, this allows the reader to take notice of his eye for amazing and immaculate detail in his background work. Everything from his temples to his greenery gives off a serene, summery vibe which gives good contrast to Yotsuba’s high energy adventures.
If you’ve noticed, everyone, save for Yotsuba, stays fairly in line with the normal Japanese middle class look. Despite Jumbo’s immense size, he’s a pretty average guy. Because Yotsuba is thought to be some form of foreigner, her look is fairly drastic for the realistic cast of characters, given her iconic four-leaf clover hair, derived from her name (Yotsuba- Lit. four leaf). It is also implied that her hair is green which is outrageous within the setting of Yotsuba&!. Overall, though, the cleanliness of the characters and the dazzling scenery only lends to the calming and endearing effect of the manga.
So, why recommend this for summer specifically? The overall vibe of the hot Japanese summer days and the buzzing of the Cicada brings the scenery to life. And just when you were getting comfortable, Yotsuba stirs up trouble and gives us a laugh or two. The realistic situations within the story gives it all a nostalgic feel. It makes me wish I could be a kid long enough to enjoy everything summer has to offer.
Kiyohiko captures the imagination and innocence of childhood in a mature way , making this manga better suited for the older crowd. Like any child, Yotsuba learns from watching those around him and copying what they say and do. Her innocent mistakes make a better comedy now that we can understand why our parents laughed at when we said “ballerima” wrong… Wait, only me?
This ongoing 2003 series is something to keep your eye on when you’re bored with watching your cat chase a laser pointer. Join Yotsuba on her many misadventures as she learns about the simple wonders around her and perhaps you’ll come to see your world with the eyes of a child. Perhaps you’ll see things the way Yotsuba would.
With this, I bring this slightly late edition of “Too $@%^ Hot Outside to a close. See you in July!