March 16, 2010

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Yotsuba&! Volume 2

Written by Kiyohiko Azuma
Illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Yen Press

The cutest kid in all of manga (at least that I've read) is back in another set of adventures where she learns about the perils of art criticism, things that scare people, and even becomes a swimming instructor!

Wander around with Yotsuba as she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, looking at things in a way that no one else does.

Comedy in comics is a funny thing. If you aren't careful, you'll fall as flat as the pages its printed on. Your jokes can be too obvious or require too much prior knowledge. They might be based deeply in sarcasm, possibly turning off some readers. Another peril is going the opposite way and making the jokes so cute and sitcom-like that you cause the reader to roll their eyes.

This last danger might have been the fate of Yotsuba&! in other hands, but Azuma finds a way to blend cuteness with humor from blunt truths and mixes them up in a way that makes this story work as both a comedy and as a touching reminder of the innocence of youth.

The jokes are funny, such as when Yotsuba decides her father needs a beard and cheerfully gives him one with a magic marker (that won't come off). Yet there's a sense of deep devotion and love that comes through when the "Yotsubox" (I just love that name for her toy box!) must have a picture of her father on it in order to be complete.

In other cases, the jokes might stem from uncomfortable humor, such as when Ena's friend, who is just as blunt as Yotsuba but in a less appealing way, states that Yotsuba can't draw. The contradiction of Ena being nice and Miura being truthful bothers Yotsuba and reminds those of us who are adults of the difficult nature of being a child and learning the ways in which we tell little lies every day. That seems impossible for Yotsuba to process, as we see. Azuma couches all this in humor and things work out in the end, but I like the way he also gives us a touch of sobering reality here and there.

Reality is not a part of the chapter where Yotsuba goes into noir mode, using a water pistol to avenge the "deaths" of Jumbo and her father (after killing them herself, of course). She interrogates everyone in the Ayase house, killing them as she goes. This leads to all kinds of hysterical exchanges, such as people being half dead and Yotsuba spouting words she thinks are useful for this sort of game. Of course, Asagi is playing a game of her own, as per usual, with tragic results for our green-haired heroine.

The whole story is absolutely silly, and shows the best this manga has to offer. Azuma is having fun and so is the reader, and that's the primary point of Yotsuba&!--to have fun watching this group of people enjoy the good things in life, no matter what.

Everyone in the series is more playful than normal, at least when Yotsuba is around. Her father encourages her imagination and Jumbo does things no rational adult would do (like flinging her in a pool). Mrs. Ayase is particularly patient, indulging her whims, allowing her run of their house, and even letting her call her mom. Asagi has a wicked streak in her, but seems delighted to bedevil Yotsuba whenever she can. As the series plays out, it's so nice to see people allowing a child to be a child. No one here wants Yotsuba to grow up--she'll do it when she's ready.

When Yotsuba meets "normal" adults, it's a lot of fun. Watch her trick a lifeguard! Listen to her out-talk a salesman or baffle Muira with her actions. One thing I'd like to see in future volumes is a bit more interaction with those who don't understand her nature. That's comedy gold, waiting to be mined.

Azuma's drawing style for this series is extremely lighthearted. People's eyes are large, mouths wide, and their bodies are more outlines than perfect drawings. It works well within the context. If you see Yotsuba draw her eyebrows down over her face well beyond human ability, you know she's mad, but mad in a way that just looks so absolutely cute. Eyes are drawn in all sorts of ways, from spirals to cat-like to blank stares, all to aid in the comedy.

Azuma doesn't try to be realistic, as it would spoil the mood. So Yotsuba can look like a crawling snake, a dancing fool, or a fish, as she needs to be for the story. He's not taking his artwork too seriously, and that fits this manga perfectly. There's a sense of wonder to the stories themselves, and the lighthearted approach to the art aids in that creation of a world where things are just a bit easier than our own and imagination can rule the day.

Filled with little touches that range from the smile-inducing to the laugh out loud moment, Yotsuba&! is both funny, cute, and willing to tug at your heartstrings, all at the same time. I adore this manga, and recommend it to everyone, but especially to those who still have an inventive, inquisitive five year old lurking in their hearts. Yotsuba&! is written for anyone, but especially for those of us who never quite grew up. You know who you are, and you know you'll love this series. Go read it!