MMF: Yotsuba&! the American Audience

September 1st, 2010

Yotsuba&!, Vol. 1When it comes to reviewing manga in English, I appear to be an anomaly. I read more manga in Japanese than in English and many of the series I most enjoy, I read as they are serialized in the magazines. I prefer to read my materials untranslated, even (especially) if it means it will take me three months to read a novel, instead of two days.

As a result, I have a hard time seeing past a series’ origin. I know the audience for which the series was originally intended, and I find it awkward to pretend that that does not affect the story.

Yotsuba&! was, as many other people have pointed out, a series that was serialized in Dengeki Daioh magazine. Unlike those many people, I actually read Dengeki Daioh for many years and now still read it from time to time. Which is why I cannot pretend that Yotsuba&! is a book for children. Dengeki Daioh is/was also the home to such heart-warming stories about adult men and the pre-pubescent girls they love as Blood Alone and Gunslinger Girl. Call it shounen or seinen, this is a magazine for otaku men, who think that LovePlus (or a soda can) is a viable alternative to a relationship with a real human and who like to imagine themselves with a little girl sitting on their lap. And look at her underwear from time to time.

It’s also been noted by many people that when manga comes to America, most of the gender/age lines blur or completely fade. Stories targeted to the college age set in Japan are inexplicably targeted to young teens here, then censored for being inappropriate. Stories for children, because of the obsession with underwear and nudity one encounters as part of the “humor”in manga, and because of the Puritanism of America, all of a sudden find themselves with Mature Content warnings.

So when it was announced that this month’s Manga Moveable Feast was being hosted by the Good Comics For Kids crowd, my head exploded. I do not, no matter what the good people of Yen Press and other manga bloggers say, consider Yotsuba&! a “Good Comic for Kids.” I get why people can say that. Yotsuba is a delightful child. The comic is light-hearted, it has characters of all ages and personalities, so there is likely to be *someone* any age group can identify with. It’s a fun story; you can see young Dads of young children laughing and smiling, think of their own kids when Yotsuba does something wacky. Mom next door represents Moms wondering what the neighbor’s kid is thinking. Asagi, Fuka, Ena, Yanda and Jumbo all provide masks for ourselves, whoever ourselves may be, so that we can smile and watch Yotsuba and laugh with her…or at her, whichever makes us happiest.

I love Yotsuba&!. I love it in Japanese and love it in English and hope everyone reads it. It’s something a kid *could* read, especially with an adult to share the amusement.  But I can’t call it “for kids,” because it’s not. Tora Dora! is not “for kids,” neither is To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, and this isn’t, anymore than Akikan was.

Manga reviewers have taken the girl from the farm and want to pretend that, while she’s standing on 42nd street looking at her options, none of them are less than savory. That’s cool. More power to them. I’ll stick to knowing who is reading it in Japan, and why. And that’s cool too.

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20 Responses

  1. Candy says:

    Yotsuba is one of the few manga I’d hand to people who don’t know what manga is feeling that it’s pretty safe for anybody to read.

    I started reading it back in college (I feel so old now) and I love it and I agree with you in the fact that you say there is something in yotsuba that anybody can identify with even if it’s targeted in japan for males.

    I recently got my boyfriend reading it, he’s actually borrowing all 7 volumes I have right now (I need to get the lastest from yen press now) and loves it. It is something everyone should read at one point and time but sadly because of the subject matter people probably will bypass it for the next naruto, the next bleach, and so on and so forth.

    Also is it just me reading to much Yuri/fanfic or do Asagi and Torako give off somewhat Yuri vibes. It could totally be me and making couples up in my head.

  2. @Candy – No, it’s not you. Almost everyone thinks that. Except the people who don’t. ^_^

  3. I feel the same way. But it’s not just about the fact that Yotsuba&! is published in a shonen/seinen magazine for otaku men, it’s also the way the story is written. The whole manga is about laughing at the wacky antics of a kid and the people around her who get pulled into it. It’s not a kid’s perspective, it’s an adult’s perspective. Kids aren’t going to get why not being able to say global warming is funny because they don’t know how to say it themselves and they don’t understand what it is.

    In the end, it’s a manga about a kid that also happens to be tame enough that you could let a kid read without fear. It’s not for kids, it’s for people who’ve put a few years between themselves and being a kid.

  4. Excellent points, Daniella! I hadn’t considered that, but I agree now that you pointed it out.

  5. Glenn says:

    I position Yotsuba&! as a family comic book. One where the 12yr old can enjoy it and then pass it on to mom and she can get a kick out of it too. Frequently, Ill hear the mom crack up and point out something in the book and say,” you used to do that.”

    I also think what is relevent to this discussion is the age of the “kid”. Id never put this in front of a 6-8yr old, they wouldn’t get it and I have a lot of other comics to entice them with. But a tween or early teen is a good match.

  6. @Glenn – That’s a completely valid approach to the issue. And I can totally see it working.

  7. Anonymous says:

    But you like Yuri even though it was made for heterosexual men, not lesbians. How do you reconcile that one?

  8. @Anonymous – You mean, except for all the many, many Yuri stories written by women for woman?

    There is no need to reconcile. Why can’t I enjoy a thing regardless of who it is for? I enjoy Yotsuba, despite the fact that I am not a pervy guy, a father, nor do I even like children. It’s a comic. I like it. No research need be done, to “prove” the validity of that. It is a fact that I enjoy Yuri and Yotsuba.

  9. DezoPenguin says:

    I really have to agree with Daniella’s point (which in its way is an extension of Erica’s point about where this manga was originally targeted). As an adult, I really love Yotsuba&; I cannot for a moment imagine myself as a child enjoying this series (the “allaboutcomics” blog post was dead on point there–at age 10, I’d have read it and thought, “Why is this kid such an idiot?”). So the knowledge that it ran in a magazine targeted at adults fits perfectly into place with that.

  10. Mara says:

    Sorry to bring this up as it is probably dull to ask but what is with the mentioning of love plus recently? As far as I am aware the game is over a year old, has nothing to do with Yuri and has not been released in the English language (or will ever be). Am I missing some sort of important reference?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Honest question. Does Yotsuba&! being published in a ‘perv’ magazine really mean it was intended for that audience? Do people in Japan not struggle to get this stuff published and have to make sacrificed to get their work out like we do in the states? I’m not arguing that this is or isn’t for kids, but I’m honestly curious.

  12. @Mara – LovePlus (and LovePlus Plus) are in the news a lot these days because of a resort town in Japan opening up a vacation package for guys and their virtual girlfriends.

    Best comment on that was from Rt.com last night, on the LP segment with Roland Kelts. A guy on the street said, “I’ve taken vacations alone before, but at least I admitted I was alone.” lol

    @Anonymous – It’s actually a good question, but the answer is “Yes, that means it is targeted to that audience.” The reason for this is that in Japan, the magazine defines the audience. So women buy women’s magazine and men buy men’s magazines and let me tell you, when I am standing on the “wrong” side of the aisle in a Japanese bookstore, it freaks people out the door. Literally. Not just that I’m a foreigner (and old) but that there’s this *female* standing there, cheerfully looking at the Yuri and/or stuff for guys. Wrongwrongwrong!

    Kazami Akira-san makes the excellent point that the *point* really is not how the story is seen in Japan, but how it is seen in America, and I agree. I reiterate that this limitation of not seeing past the origin is mine and mine alone.

  13. You raise some great points, Erica! I’m definitely guilty of focusing more on my experience as an American reader than reflecting on the original circumstances surrounding the publication of a work like Yotsuba&!, so I appreciate it when someone can educate me on the where, when, why, and who behind a series.

    Kids often appropriate material that’s marketed to adults and find their own meaning in the text. For tweens and teens who are just beginning to develop a sense of nostalgia for their childhoods, Yotsuba&! allows them to fondly remember what they were like at the heroine’s age, and to reflect on how far they’ve come in the intervening years. I know that isn’t necessarily Azuma’s intent, but young readers have embraced Yotsuba&! for that very reason. (And in response to Daniella’s comment above, Yotsuba&! is, in fact, popular with tweens; just ask any librarian who works with middle school students.)

    When I think about my own experiences with comics like Peanuts, I can see how much own appreciation of the strip has changed. As a kid, I loved Peanuts for very personal reasons: I could identify with Charlie Brown’s social travails, and even appropriated his phrase “Drats!” to express my own frustration. As an adult, I see a lot more richness and social critique in the comics than I did when I was younger; I grasp that it’s about a comic about kids, not one for them.

  14. nargun says:

    Reminds me of the ANN review of Gakuen Alice (runs in Hana to Yume) that criticised the work as not entirely suitable for kids.

  15. @Katherine Dacey – I want to say that I read way over my “appropriate” age group as a kid and way outside what little girls “should” be reading. I am in no way opposed to giving a kid Yotsuba& to read. The limitation of being unable to see past the magazine is mine. My library shelves Yotsuba& with the YA graphic novels, I am not protesting that. As I said, a kid *can* read it…it’s just not “for kids.”

    @nargun – Gakuen Alice is not something I’d give a child. I have a hard time reading it and I’m an adult. The bullying of the children by the adults is too appalling for me to ever truly “enjoy’ it.

  16. Anonymous says:

    When I first met Yotsuba&!, without knowing what magazine it ran in, I pegged it as a series aimed at adult men who wanted to be nostalgic about childhood as a concept. Roughly, the audience of Afternoon, in fact. I was a little startled to learn the nostalgia is aimed at a younger age group. When I squint, I can sorta see it, but I still think of it as aimed older.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I’m not the same anon, but I thought the many, many stories about lesbian women written by lesbian women for lesbian women were bian, not Yuri.

    Like how I heard stories about gay teen boys written by straight women for straight women are yaoi and stories about gay men written by gay men for gay men are bara, not yaoi (and I seen a yaoi fangirl whine that bara shouldn’t exist, reminds me of how fan was originally short for fanatic, bleh).

    So when I look for good reading about adults that should include keeping an eye out for bian and bara manga, right? :)

  18. @Bara is not *just* by gay men for gay men – it tends to be about muscular and/or hairy men, sort of like what we consider Bears here.

    Bian is used by lesbians when creating for/talking about ot to other lesbians to differentiate it from “Rezu” which is more like “lesbo” or just porn for guys.

    Yuri is becoming more “mainstream” in the manga niche, with the advent of the Yuri anthologies like Yuri Hime, Yuri Shoujo, Rakuen Le Paradis, Hirari and Tsubomi.

    If you’re looking for good stores, don’t limit yourself at all. ^_^

  19. Anonymous says:

    “@Bara is not *just* by gay men for gay men – it tends to be about muscular and/or hairy men, sort of like what we consider Bears here.

    “Bian is used by lesbians when creating for/talking about ot to other lesbians to differentiate it from ‘Rezu’ which is more like ‘lesbo’ or just porn for guys….”

    Thank you for your answer! :D

    “…If you’re looking for good stores, don’t limit yourself at all. ^_^”

    Indeed. :)

    As a straight woman myself I’d rather read fiction about gay men and lesbian women *by* gays and lesbians than read fiction about gays and lesbians by LFGs and LFBs who fetishize them (and yes I know some of this fiction is written by neither gays nor lesbians nor LFGs nor LFBs, that’s cool).

    It’s the same way I’d rather read novels set in Japan or China or Nigeria in translation from Japanese or Chinese or Yoruba (or in translation from another Nigerian language, or originally in English by a Nigerian like Chinua Achebe or Nnedi Okorafor) than read novels set in Japan or China or Nigeria by Orientalists and people who stereotype Africa (and yes I know some of those novels are written by neither natives not stereotypers, that’s cool too).

    After all, reading “how the other half lives” is enhanced by reading how the other half reads and writes about that yourselves. :) Also, it’s less about limiting myself away from the less-likely-to-interest-me stuff than about seeking out the more-likely-to-interest-me stuff. ;)

    So that’s why I’m looking for ways to better find the stuff set in cultures and subcultures written by insiders for insiders. :)

    In the second case above, I can look for the “translated from the [insert name of language]” phrase in the book’s library catalog record (and look up the authors’ bios in the case of African stuff originally in English or French).

    In the first case above, I guess I can look for whether the mangaka’s pen name is female or male. Is a mangaka writing Yuri with a female pen name more likely to be a lesbian writing bian Yuri than a LFB writing rezu Yuri? If there are any more tips you’d like to offer, I’d appreciate them! :)

  20. @Anonymous – The problem with checking gender in Japanese names is that Japanese names are easy to de-gender and often have no gender association at all. Men writing Yuri have, in the past (although less so now) picked androgynous names and I know some cases where a man has used a “female” alias. In the same way, women manga artists take androgynous or non-gendered names as pen names.

    Takemiya Jin
    Fujieda Miyabi
    Nanzaki Iku

    None of these names indicate a gender, the way a -suke, -ta or -ichi ending indicates “boy” or -ko indicates “girl.” For many years there was discussion over whether Fujieda-sensei was female or male.

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