In the course of trying to explain otaku culture to the ignorant masses, the "slice of life" genre seems to be the one thing that takes most people by surprise. (You mean it's not all Princess Robot Bubblegum?) Unquestionably, I enjoy tits and gore and mech battles just as much as the next guy. But variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
We hear that stupid phrase all the time, and Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba&! certainly builds a case for just how varied our hobby can be. What sets it apart, however, is that it comes with an important lesson. Namely, that if you look a bit deeper, you'll find that not only does a little spice enhance the soup of life, but that all the other, seemingly ordinary ingredients of that soup are just as delicious in their own right. More than just a heartwarming manga about the everyday life of a little girl, Yotsuba&! is secretly an instruction manual. It's a guide to taking nothing for granted; to appreciating everything life has to offer.
This is the part were the hardened cynic the years have made you will scoff and proclaim that the world is a cruel, vicious and ugly place. And truth be told, it is. But as adults, we tend only to see it on the outside. If you've got the patience and vision to look beyond the gnarly teeth and venomous stingers that make up its exterior, you'll see that the world -- deep down -- is wonderful.
The kicker is that you already knew this. Instead of teaching you, Yotsuba only reminds you of something you've forgotten. That truly, as the series' tagline suggests, every day is the most enjoyable day. Hit the jump and
The text here reads: "These early days ... will you remember them?" It's a good question, and one that's more difficult to answer than you might initially suspect. Do you really remember what it was like to be a child? You might recall things that happened when you were smaller, sure. You might remember being too short to reach things, or too young to enjoy some of the privelages you have as an adult. But do you really, honestly remember what it's like to see the world from a child's persepctive? You probably don't, and that's what makes Yotsuba&! so brilliant.
Right from its first chapter, the idea is reinforced that Yotsuba is truly seeing our world for the first time. Not only is she a mere five years old, she's also a foreigner. The point is driven ever further by the fact that she and her adoptive father have just moved to the city from his mother's house in the Japanese countryside. Yotsuba has never seen a washing machine, never been to a mall, never played on a swingset. Nearly everything she happens upon is a new discovery, and every day of her ordinary life is filled with wonder.
Her naivety certainly makes for a potent dose of cute, but more importantly, it represents a kind of purity and innocence that's all but extinct in our real, grownup world. If it's escapism you're after, look no further. Yotsuba possesses an ability to find fun, beauty and wonder in the simplest of things, and it's something we all had at one point. We've just forgotten it.
Azuma does a magnificent job of accentuating this with his artwork. The style is typically simple, easy to follow, but when Yotsuba experiences something for the first time or becomes fascinated by her surroundings, Azuma makes it a point to illustrate the subsequent panels in amazing and realistic detail, thus forcing us to see things through Yotsuba's eyes.
This sudden and notable shift in artistic style shows us the hidden beauty and splendor inherent in even the most mundane objects and environments. It's fun and humorous to see the way little Yotsuba marvels at the sight of an apartment building, but in addition to upholding the idea that she's just a child who's seeing these things for the first time, it also reminds us that these "boring" objects can, indeed, be beautiful in the right light.
Furthermore, this comes with the added bonus of making the Yotsuba&! series an excellent tool for anyone who's trying to learn Japanese. Since Yotsuba is so young and unknowledgeable about the world around her, she needs to have everything explained to her, and done so in terms that are simple enough for a five year-old to understand. This allows the manga to effectively serve a dual purpose as a beginner's guide to the language, with the simple sentence structure of its dialogue and its everyday subject matter.
Azuma seems aware of this, having gone so far as to accompany what few Kanji appear in the text with small Hiragana characters so you'll know how to pronounce them. Yotsuba herself is just learning to read and write, and as she slowly sounds out words and phrases, you have the opportunity to learn right along with her.
But perhaps more importantly, this charming series isn't just a guide to Japanese. It's a guide to life itself. Take a look at the above image. When was the last time you were able to be so excited by something as simple as a few acorns? Ever find a frog in your backyard? You experienced this same sense of wonder when you were Yotsuba's age. Is it coming back to you yet?
For instance, let's say you've become a victim of our recently horrid economy and you find yourself broke and living on instant ramen for a few months. Then, let's say a friend treats you to cheeseburgers and beers one night. How awesome does that burger taste after you've been living on Maruchan? How refreshing is that beer? The answer is, those things are just as great as they've always been. You just forgot how to let them be.
For Yotsuba, there is fun in everything. "Every day is the most enjoyable day." Do you remember now? Can you recall when every day was like that for you? Why did those days stop? When did the world become so goddamn complicated and lame?
The sad truth is, it didn't. We just let it look that way because as grownups, with jobs and bills and obligations, we've forgotten how to appreciate things like the simple beauty of a cicada's chirp. We're no longer astounded when we visit the beach and think about just how big the ocean is.
That's what makes Yotsuba&! the best thing ever. Not only is it cute, funny, entertaining and useful for language students, it's important. Because it reminds us that everything is the best thing ever. That no matter how difficult or hopeless things might seem, there is beauty and fun everywhere you look. The people in Yotsuba's life are constantly teaching her things, but she has something just as important to teach them, and everyone reading. That life only sucks if you let it.
Don't let it.
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