December 14, 2009

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Yotsuba&! Volume 1

Written by Kiyohiko Azuma
Illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Yen Press (formerly ADV)

The Manga Gift Guides a whole bunch of us did back on Black Friday were a lot of fun and thanks to them, I tossed a whole host of them on my to-read list.

Yotsuba&! (I normally hate punctuation at the end of titles, but this one cracks me up) was recommended so many times I pushed it to the top of my list, and I'm glad I did. While some manga series take a bit of time to get going, Yotsuba&! hooked me from the start with its absolutely adorable protagonist and ability to make normal situations really, really funny.

The premise of the comic is that Yotsuba is a young girl moving into a new neighborhood with a doting young man who cares for her as if she were his child. He must have incredible patience, because Yotsuba has apparently no reasoning ability and runs around from one situation to the other, acting out her whims as she feels like it. When she does remember things, such as not talking to strangers, it's at the most inopportune moments, leading to even more zany adventures.

Rounding out the cast so far are three sisters and their mother as well as a giant of a man called Jumbo. The middle child, as seems common in comedy manga I've read, is the straight man in the story, being picked on by the other characters and getting the most frustrated by the antics of the rest. The other two sisters don't get a lot of screen time, but tend to react to the proceedings as though they're rather normal. Each of the additional characters adds a bit to the story, fulfilling their roles as needed in a screwball comedy.

Koiwai, the father, is the other straight man, used whenever Fuka is not around. He seems to alternate between doting love for his rather strange child and a resigned acknowledgment that she's trouble. He does his best to keep up, but she'll still wander off, get scared about appliances that damage the earth, or sleep on a display model. What's a father to do?

The setup works so very well, and it's easy to give each character a unique voice (Yotsuba sounds like Ed to me from Cowboy Bebop). Comedy such as this can be hard to express on the printed page, but Azuma does a great job with the material. Even particularly physical gags such as falling off a swing because Yotsuba has no concept of moderation work well, a tribute to Azuma's artistic talent. Everything from swinging at cicadas to sliding down banisters to slapping measuring tapes all come across with the motion they need to make the gag work.

But it's not all comedy (though it would be fine it if were), and that's also part of why I liked Yotsuba&! so much. There are genuinely touching moments between Yotsuba and her foster dad, such as when they sit watching the city or Yotsuba explains her actions in a way that only she can. They give us breather moments and also show that it's possible to do sweet moments at the same time as slapstick.

I didn't spend a lot of time talking about the stories in this review, but if you're curious, Yotsuba spends most of the first volume getting to know her neighborhood in the most comedic way possible. Part of the fun is watching the reactions of those around her as she takes everything so literally, so I am curious to see if Azuma keeps her in the same settings or varies it to keep the comedy along the same lines. I think there's a lot of good material to be mined from both, so I'll be interested in what future volumes hold.

Yotsuba&! might be my favorite comedy manga that I've read so far, and that's with some pretty stiff competition from Ranma 1/2, just to name one off the top of my head. I am so glad I got turned on to this series, and I hope you'll like it as much as I do when you check it out. This is a new (to me) manga series that gets my highest possible recommendation!