I have discovered the joy of Yotsuba&!
Yotsuba&! is a Japanese manga by Kiyohiko Azuma (links to Azuma-san’s Japanese blog), featuring a strange little girl called Yotsuba. Yotsuba’s name literally mean four leaves – 四葉 – and her hair is coloured green, so she looks a little like a human four leaf clover. Yotusba is apparently an orphan who has been adopted by Koiwai, who works as a translator. Each of the stories revolves around Yotsuba’s encounters with the world around her. Other key characters are Koiwai’s gigantic friend Jumbo, his work colleague Yanda (whom my husband and I detest almost as strongly as Yotsuba does), and the family who live next door. Occasionally, Yotsuba encounters other characters on her adventures, too.
In Japan, the manga appears in the monthly magazine Dengeki Daioh. So far, the stories have been collected into 11 volumes, all of which have been translated and published in the west.
How did I come to discover Yotsuba? I had seen pictures of an articulated model called Danbo, or Danboard, usually emblazoned with the Amazon.co.jp logo, on Flickr. I had looked on eBay to see what they were and how to get one, but at the time I thought they were pretty expensive. Then a few weeks ago, I bought a Kotobukiya model kit, and built my own.
I still didn’t really have any idea what this robot made from cardboard boxes was, but I had fun sticking decals on my model.
My husband became intrigued by this character I had introduced into our home, and we both started to research where it had come from. Armed with the name Kiyohiko Azuma from the model box, I discovered that he is a manga artist and Danboard is a character from the Yotsuba&! series.
The next thing I knew, my husband had started to buy the English translations of the manga compilations, and that was it. I fell in love.
The manga are beautifully drawn. The characters are very cartoon-like in appearance, but the backgrounds are incredibly detailed. I can’t imagine how long it must take Azuma-san to draw each frame. I think it’s a combination of that detail, that brings back to my mind the realities of Japan, and the believability of the characters that have made me fall in love with the story.
As an example, this is a blurry picture of a street view that I took from the shinkansen:
In it you can see loads of telecommunication cables stretching out from a pole, and a variety of styles of buildings, as well as the pavement-less street and a car. This is what Japan in the suburbs is like, away from the tourist trail. Cluttered, higgledy-piggledy and festooned with cables.
Azuma-san uses similar imagery as spacer frames in the manga. The first time I read one of the books, I felt like I was back in Japan, it was so precise in its detail.
The story is brilliantly executed as well. Yotsuba is a very believable 5-year old, innocent and quick to pick up on phrases her dad and his friends use, often repeating them at inopportune moments and causing him embarrassment. There are laugh out loud moments, but also moments of extreme pathos. There are a couple of stories in the series that I found quite upsetting. I won’t spoil it for anyone by talking about them here, but my reaction was purely down to the fact that I had read a good number of the compilation volumes and so was fully invested in the characters.
The great thing about the stories is that, through the eyes of Yotsuba, the reader learns all sorts of things about Japanese culture, traditions and society.
Danboard appears quite a way into the story. Again, I’m not going to spoil it, but here’s a panel I found on someone’s Tumblr account, where one of the girls next door, Ena, introduces Yotsuba to Danboard:
For my birthday this year, one of my presents from my husband was an amazing Revoltech Yotsuba model. It comes with two interchangeable heads and accessories, so you can bring Yotsuba to life.
First I introduced Yotsuba to my Danboard model:
They seemed to get on a treat.
Next she met my husband’s Zaku II Gundam:
She was less impressed with him:
As a birthday treat to myself, I decided that I would use some of my birthday money to buy a Revoltech Danboard model as well. I didn’t want an Amazon.co.jp one, though. I wanted one that looked like Danboard in the manga. So I searched for one of the “taihen yoku dekimashita” models. When you read the manga, you’ll understand!
I found one being sold by a Japanese woman who lives in New York, and a week or so ago, the package arrived.
So now my Yotsuba&Danboard! family is complete!
All I need now is for Azuma-san to write/draw some more of the manga and get a 12th volume out there!
Or maybe the next step is to buy some of the Japanese compilation volumes next time we’re out there (which is only 132 days from today)…
If you’re into Japanese manga and haven’t read Yotsuba&! yet, I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you know what I’m on about, then you know what I’m on about!