Yotsuba&! is one of those titles that I sometimes feel a little bit schizophrenic about. In some ways it is the closest to portraying pure joy out of all the manga series that I’ve read. It is also one of the few series that I laugh out loud while reading. But if I think about this manga a little too much, I start feeling a little unsettled. Yotsuba&! is one of the few series where the gap between the original audience in Japan (readers of the magazine Degenki Daioh) and the marketing of the comic as all-ages, suitable for kids manga in the United states. Sean Gaffney goes into this discussion in his post about Yotsuba&! and Strawberry Marshmallow.
Sometimes people tend to play down the original audience of manga, and shonen series are marketed as shoujo or vice versa. While I certainly don’t think that readers need to remain in silos invented by Japanese manga editors, I think paying attention to the original audience of a manga can be useful when thinking about how to critique it, since it speaks to the intent of the author. While Yotsuba&! is funny and touching, there are some odd elements in the manga that can be a bit disquieting that reflect this disconnect between the audience for the manga in Japan and the audience for the manga in America.
Yotsuba&! shows the single father of our quirky 5 year old protagonist surrounded by girls. There’s his daughter, but the only females he mainly has contact with are the young girls in the Ayase family next door. He occasionally runs into their mother, but he’s basically interacting with either young girls, teenage girls, or his wacky bachelor friends. There are no women Kowai’s age in the series. The image of childhood portrayed in Yotsuba&! is very idealized. There are always festivals for Yotsuba to attend, and new experiences for her to react to in her charmingly literal and often over-the-top manner. But Yotsuba’s world is mainly confined to the family next door. She isn’t shown reacting to other kids her age. She doesn’t go to school, but remains in the sealed bubble of her neighborhood. If she interacted with a bunch of other 5 year olds, her intrinsic ignorance about the world around her and inability to conform to social norms might be seen as a reason to call social services instead of laughing.
Childhood by its very nature is full of change. But I can’t even imagine an older Yotsuba. She remains static and unchanging, the eternal five year old. There’s plenty of lazy summer days, ice cream, and cicada hunting in Yotsuba&!, but none of the aggravating aspects of childhood or parenting are introduced. Everything’s so perfect, the experience of fatherhood is romanticized and presented in such a encapsulated way that the single men who read the comic can see this idealized portrayal of a life with a daughter where the presence of a wife or mother is absent. Yotsuba&! is undeniably funny. Azuma is a talented cartoonist. But I find that there’s something a little hollow at the core of this manga simply due to the way childhood is both romanticized and then used as a consistent punchline.