Yotsuba is a five-year-old girl. Her goal: to live life day by day, finding out just how wonderful and weird the world is. Yotsuba&! is a manga written and illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma. The protagonist is a young girl that just moved to Japan with her father. Her innocence, enthusiasm, and friendliness will win her new friendships and new adventures every day. With her lightheartedness, she creates an atmosphere of joy and fun for everyone – including the reader.
The series started in 2003, published in the monthly shōnen (aimed at teenage boys) manga magazine Dengeki Daioh and later collected in – to date – 15 tankōbon volumes.
Conveying emotions with a clean art style
Azuma created the comedy manga Azumanga Daioh earlier in his career. The style was restricted to the 4-panels format, a layout common for Japanese comedy strips. However, he chose to adopt a freer style for the manga of Yotsuba. The layout is adaptable to the story, with larger panels when the scene needs more attention or space. Instead, it shifts to a more concise rhythm when the situation calls for it. For example, if Yotsuba is just realizing something the reader sees her expression go from confused to terrified or enthusiastic.
The manga’s art style is clean and simple: there are lots of main characters but each is instantly recognizable. While the background can often be detailed to give the feel of a real neighborhood, expressions are kept to a minimum, in a style that is similar to the one Fujiko F. Fujio used in the manga Doraemon. This makes them funnier and have more impact. When Yotsuba laughs she laughs her heart out; when she cries she looks heartbroken, even over a broken toy. The empathy that the reader feels is one of the features that make the manga feel more alive as if Yotsuba was a personal friend of the reader.
A glimpse of Azuma’s creative process
In a 2014 interview, Kiyohiko Azuma explained how Yotsuba and her manga came to life. The idea for the character of the little green-haired girl was already there before Azumanga Daioh started. However, it began as more cartoonish, like the art style of the first volume show. Azuma wanted to represent her being “different” in her proportions as well, making her more exaggerated and vibrant than the adult characters. This idea got toned down over the years, as the style of the manga got more realistic and leaned on the documentary side. He avoided using common manga tropes as well, both in the personality and looks of his characters.
Realism is a topic that is very important to Azuma. The research takes a big part of the creative process: this includes asking his assistants’ children to bake pancakes and taking notes of their movements or taking photographs in places that Yotsuba will visit (for example, the farm). Visualizing her in different contexts is also very important, as the author comes up with ideas on the spot. As Azuma said:
I’ve constantly got Yotsuba software installed inside me in order to draw Yotsuba. […] Like, if I go to a farm, I’ll look at it in terms of, oh, Yotsuba would slip and fall down here, or whatever. […] The Yotsuba inside me sometimes even makes me do stupid stuff that I imagine must look pretty odd to someone watching me.Azuma Kiyohiko, on Yotsuba&!, 2014
Enjoying every day the everyday life
The manga is episodic: each episode is called “Yotsuba & (something)“, giving a hint of the big event of the day. The chapters often take place one day after the other, mentioning past happenings or plans that will later take place in future chapters.
Yotsuba comes from Hawaii, and her father says that she was adopted. The manga starts as Yotsuba moves into her new house with her father, mister Koiwai, after having lived with her grandparents in the countryside. In general, the manga strays from serious topics to keep its light-hearted nature. Yotsuba quickly makes friends with her neighbors, a group of three girls of different ages. Between them, his father’s friends, and her imagination, she is always busy, and not many days pass without her learning something wonderfully new. Be it fireworks, the making of udon, or the cry of cicadas in autumn, everything is worthy of attention and wonder.
Yotsuba&!‘s main feature is this light-heartedness. It is a manga that never gets heavy, perfectly keeping the balance between huge adventures (such as going to Tokyo, to a farm, or camping) and small daily life activities. The focus on children’s wonder is similar to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, or the Italian movie Momo. Yotsuba’s motto is Itsudemo kyō ga, Ichiban tanoshii hi. In other words, “Today is always the most enjoyable day“.