By Jason S. Yadao
I absolutely adore Yotsuba&!.
Okay, we’ve gotten the review portion of this post out of the way. Besides, whether you’ve been a regular reader of this blog and saw my manga gift guide last holiday season or happened to notice my “Five Things We Love” piece in Friday’s Star-Advertiser, you already knew my feelings about the series. I admit that my non-anime/manga-related workload these days is preventing me from watching much anime and reading much manga — hence why this blog hasn’t been updated nearly as often as Wilma and I would like — but every new volume of Yotsuba&! leapfrogs to the top of my “to read … eventually” pile.
Yet the August edition of the Manga Movable Feast poses an intriguing question in having its participants chew on Yotsuba&!: What exactly constitutes “kids’ manga”? To me, kids’ manga is manga that appeals to the inner child in any reader, whether it’s an actual child, some guy in his 30s who writes about this stuff as part of his job description, or someone in between or beyond that range. Other views are floating around out there, though, several of which I’ve seen for myself in the past and which I’ll explore now.
1. The Japanese definition: Doraemon. Back in 1969, Japanese children met Nobita Nobi and his giant earless robo-cat from the future, Doraemon, for the first time in a series of educational magazines from Shogakukan. As of July 30, the latest movie featuring the adventures of Nobita and Doraemon, Doraemon: Nobita no Ningyo Daikaisen, made $36.3 million at the Japanese box office — the third-highest-grossing anime property there behind the latest Detective Conan and One Piece movies. More than 40 years and millions of children later, the Doraemon juggernaut, whether in its original manga form or its current anime incarnations, continues to hit on all cylinders.
Doraemon is an ideal children’s story. Nobita’s an unexceptional boy — bad at sports, a bit of a dim bulb, always the subject of other kids’ jokes. Doraemon, through the magic of his four-dimensional pouch, always has some gadget that can help Nobita out of any jam … but alas, these gadgets don’t always work as expected, leaving them in an even more comedic predicament than before. The series promotes the power of an active imagination, the idea that fantastic things like interdimensional doors and propeller helmets can exist if one puts his or her mind to it.
There’s just one obstacle to enjoying this series in English, and it’s quite a formidable one to the average reader: actually finding copies of it. I was fortunate enough to find a good number of the 10 bilingual volumes published by Shogakukan English at Hakubundo (our local Japanese bookstore) about three years ago, and I’ve seen the occasional stray volume pop up at Book-Off, but they’ve been out of print for a while now. Unless another publisher decides to pick it up — already a hard sell because of its age, length and limited appeal to U.S. manga publishers’ coveted 13-25 age demographic — I don’t see it happening. A shame, really.
2. The Barnes & Noble kids section definition: Mega Man ZX. Many of us “in-the-know” manga fans will howl in protest, but let’s face it: Series like Mega Man ZX, based on established, mainstream licensed properties, are the way most kids are going to get into manga in the U.S. They may not even see it as “manga” per se — just black and white comics with more stories about their favorite characters in new adventures. Other examples include the Legend of Zelda books, Yu-Gi-Oh! (to a certain extent, although those tend to skew more toward older kids), and, reigning over all, the mighty Pokemon.
As for the quality of such manga: It’s about as good as one would expect adaptations to be. Good and evil clash repeatedly, the hero (in this case, Vent the delivery boy) learn valuable lessons about themselves, villains leer and taunt and threaten to take over the world, sacrifices are made, and lines like “I’m going to fight! I’m not going to lose to anyone else!” get shouted back and forth numerous times. There’s nothing exceptional, but when there’s already a built-in audience, all that really needs to be done is to provide a workable story that holds people’s interest, and everything that follows is just gravy. In the case of Mega Man ZX, that story’s wrapped up in the modern mythos of the Mega Man universe to be immensely confusing. (When you need a flow chart at the beginning of the book just to explain the relationships among the characters, you’re in trouble.)
Don’t get me wrong — I loved Mega Man back in the day. I’m enough of an old-school gamer to remember when Mega Man 2 came out for the old Nintendo Entertainment System (or the NES, as all the cool kids in the know called it). As such, I can remember a simpler time in franchise canon: Dr. Wily wants to take over world; Dr. Wily builds bunch of nefarious robots, each conveniently crafted with a unique skill; Dr. Light’s creation, Mega Man, goes around tearing apart said robots, supplementing his own arm cannon with those skills in the process, and eventually defeats Wily (until he returns for the inevitable sequel with an all-new cast of nefarious no-gooders). But this is contemporary Mega Man, where Mega Man X, Legends, Battle Legends, Zero, ZX, and about a bajillion other spin-offs have hit the market, and the series canon rivals that of Kingdom Hearts, with careful study of dozens of Wikipedia pages to get all the characters straight.
So yeah, I’m not really a fan of the content. But hey, if other people buying stuff like Mega Man ZX and Pokemon mean we older fans get stuff like lovely Phoenix Wright artbooks and Oishinbo anthologies, then I’m certainly all for it.
3. The Borders young readers section definition: Happy Happy Clover. Licensed properties too commercial for your kids? No problem. Perhaps the other end of the spectrum will work better: manga that are so sugar-sweet innocent and inoffensive that parents wouldn’t have second thoughts in getting them for their kids. That’s certainly the case with Happy Happy Clover, a series where the appeal could be summarized in one exclamation, expressed in ‘Net speak: OMG TEH BUNNEHZ SQUEEEEEEEEE. (Translation: There are fluffy bunnies everywhere, and they are an absolute delight.)
Those of you inclined to shun anything heart-meltingly cute will want to stay far away from Happy Happy Clover. As the title implies, Clover the bunny isn’t just happy at times, she’s happy happy. Sure, she runs into trouble every now and then (as well as the mischievous Cinnamon Fox), but she always comes out on top in the end. Besides, the bunny has a heart-shaped tuft of fur, a four-leaf clover in her ear and the twin powers of friendship and family behind her. If that’s not a harbinger of warm, fuzzy feelings, I don’t know what is.
Compounding the cute are all of Clover’s bunny classmates: Mallow, the new, shy, floppy-eared bunny in Crescent Forest who immediately becomes Clover’s best friend; Kale, with his six incredibly adorable brothers; and Shallot, the studious one with a serious crush on Mallow. Under the guidance of Hoot the teacher-owl, Rambler the adventuring rabbit and Hickory the flying squirrel, the gang learns valuable lessons about responsibility and caring for the environment … but they also can have fun sometimes and go on adventures to places like the swamp and the nearby farm.
4. Yotsuba&!. And now, our feature presentation, the kids’ manga that, in Japan, isn’t a kids’ manga. Much of the discussion among the MMF bloggerati has focused on how the series’ home anthology is Dengeki Daioh, a publication geared more toward college-age men. Put in that context, Yotsuba&! does seem a bit creepy — a cast of cute girls, the oldest of which is a university student, that often crosses paths with single older guys seems at first to be the very definition of “moe blob” chic, characters toward which hard-core Japanese otaku — who also happen to be single older guys – direct doting, loving feelings. It’s as if the characters were their own daughters … that is, if they had the social skills to get married and have offspring, which they usually don’t.
I had none of those thoughts when I first read Yotsuba&!. Still don’t. The first thought I had when I saw Yotsuba was, “Oh, hey, Chiyo-chan clone.” (And then I started singing Chiyo’s cooking song to myself, because that’s just what you do when you think of her.)
Yet despite her similar appearance, Yotsuba wasn’t like Chiyo. Chiyo was the epitome of a child prodigy in Yotsuba&! artist Kiyohiko Azuma’s previous hit work, Azumanga Daioh. But Yotsuba is just the uber-child personified — impulsive, inquisitive and carefree, yet fiercely obedient to her father. That obedience proves to be a detriment when one of her new neighbors, middle Ayase sister Fuuka, helping Koiwai look for a wandering Yotsuba, finds her, only to see her run off because she was told not to talk to strangers. It’s here that we learn that Yotsuba isn’t exactly normal, what with her ability to push everything she does, like swinging on a swing or role-playing as a cicada, to enthusiastic extremes. And I was hooked — I wanted to know what Yotsuba would do next, and how she’d interact with her new neighbors.
So how did Yotsuba&! transcend those roots to become an all-ages manga in America? Think back to how I defined kids’ manga earlier: The character of Yotsuba allows us to get in touch with that inner child of ours. It’s something that we can show kids because everything that happens is all in good, clean fun, whether in a drawing session; trips to the beach, pool or festival; or even just as simple as stringing two cups together and pretending they’re a telephone. I don’t think we should feel ashamed in calling Yotsuba&! a kids’ manga, even though its original intent may not have been as such. Good stories transcend age labels, after all.