Cultural diffusion is a funny old thing. When ideas and products hop from one culture to another a strange alchemy can occur that can radically alter how they are seen. Words can gain new meanings, concepts can be reinterpreted, and products can gain new uses. The back and forth struggle over the use of the word otaku in English and Japanese easily shows how a word can have it’s meaning altered when it is borrowed by another language. In that same way a manga that has one target demographic can have a radically different demographic when it crosses over the Pacific Ocean. Often we see cartoons and comics marketed toward older audiences in the west due to their violence and sexual content despite being children’s material in Japan. For Yotsuba&! we have seen the reverse happen. In Japan Yotsuba&! is written and marketed almost exclusively for an adult audience. But in places like America Yotsuba&! is seen as a family friendly all ages title. The question is why do adults enjoy this title that gets an all ages seal of approval.
It wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t know the appeal of Yotsuba&! myself. Even the continued praise I saw it getting online didn’t persuade me. However, when the topic was broached about what Yotsuba&! offers to adults, its target audience, I became intrigued and had to pick it up. There area plenty of titles out their designed to be both enjoyable for kids and their elders but as Hisui mentioned creating a story for adults that captures the child’s imagination just as readily is something very different.
In Japan Yotsuba&! is a healing manga in a magazine targeted at adult males. It is supposed to fill the audience with a wistful feeling for a simpler time when the world was fresh and filled with simple questions. It is written with a leisurely pace that examines the everyday life of 5-year-old Yotsuba Koiwai as she does a wide variety of mundane things with a contagious energy and passion. We see as Yotsuba is constantly learning about new things, meeting new people, and going on all sorts of small wondrous adventures. It is an idyllic look at childhood filled with whimsy and humor. It’s theme is expressed with the two simple words: “Enjoy everything!” Considering the hectic lives of so many people in Japan a calm island of innocent joy can be rather refreshing. Something that is a stress free breath of warm air-filled with laughter and an unending positive spirit. As a culture Japan also has a distinct predilection for nostalgia to the point where they have a specific word for the nostalgic feeling for a past that might have never been called “natsukashii.” In fact, natsukashii is a main driving force behind Yotsuba&!. Not many readers had a childhood like Yotsuba but it often instills the reader for the desire to remember having a life like hers. There is an urge to be young again in all the ways that being young is a positive experience. The freedom and simple pleasures of childhood in their purest untainted form can be very appealing to an overworked and stressed-out adult. This careful use of natsukashii makes what seems like a children’s story so appealing to adults.
For me, Yotsuba often reminds me of Pippi Longstocking though with an active parent. In a lot of children’s literature the kids are smarter than the adults, it is a fantasy. And often in Yotsuba&! any moments of wisdom come from the title character, but really the series is more a straight forward exploration of how the world appears (and no one comes off as that smart anyway adult or child!). As I pondered just what about Yotsuba&! spoke to the adult mind, it came to me all in a flash one day while I was reading, not Yotsuba&! but rather, a book issued by the Japanese Travel Bureau in their Japan in Your Pocket Series. Reading about the life of a salaryman and Japanese family life put so matter-of-fact was enlightening in many ways. It is certainly a hard-working model that goes further than the American ethic. To escape to a more simple time, childhood and young childhood at that, is something that is to be cherished when so much societal conforms and responsibility is put on people even at a young age. And I think Yotsuba&! is amazing at capturing both an eccentric feeling of discovery but also the ardent belief that the world is great, fun, exciting, and that each coming day is something to look forward to. Nothing really holds down Yotsuba. If mundanity has become a norm for people, Yotsuba&! is the cure!
The major factor that leads Yotsuba&! to have a different perception in is the content. There is absolutely nothing objectionable in Yotsuba&!. This lack of any sex, violence, or mature themes in America classifies it as a children comic. Also the fact that the protagonist is a child only strengthens this connection. But truth be told despite its original demographic there is nothing wrong with a small child reading Yotsuba&!. The themes, humor, and art of the story is universally engaging and entertaining for all ages. It is often said that the best literature for children is the that which would be entertaining for anyone. So while adults may be the target audience in Japan it is a comic that has an appeal to children of all ages.
Children often want to read about characters who are just like them or even more often, characters who are just a little older. But I think the humor of Yotsuba&! can circumvent this rather known fact, afterall it brings an appeal of 5-year-old life to adults. The humor has a bizarreness to it that is carried through by the entire cast and doesn’t continually rely on being cute-kid-humor. There is something quite universal about the energy portrayed and it isn’t hard to see why everyone enjoys the series from young to old.