YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14 lives up to previous volumes by humorously and accurately depicting a child’s mind. While Yotsuba’s first taste of gender roles sits strangely as a concept, her personality makes the volume as enjoyable as ever.
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A Cute Kid

Warning! Spoilers for YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14 ahead!

After two years of waiting, Yotsuba Koiwai returns in YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14! Join your favorite clover-haired five-year-old as she adventures through life with her father and friends.

Yotsuba eats an extra large cotton candy in YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14.
Yotsuba enjoys an extra large cotton candy. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

YOTSUBA&! takes place in modern-day suburban Japan. It follows the antics of five-year-old Yotsuba Koiwai, an energetic and curious girl with distinctive green hair. Yotsuba spends much of her time reacting enthusiastically to daily events like shopping, reading, and going to the zoo. When the series started, her adoptive father Yousuke Koiwai moves them to a new home. There, she experiences the ups and downs of a new house while getting to know her neighborhood. She spends time with a lovely cast of supporting characters, including her neighbors, the Ayases, and her dad’s friends Jumbo and Yanda. Each volume chronologically tells episodic stories from Yotsuba’s life.

In volume 14, there are seven chapters. The first three are slice-of-life episodes. In these, Yotsuba makes bead necklaces, attends a yoga class, and tries her hand at being a princess. After these stories, the remaining four deal with Yotsuba taking a trip to Tokyo. She spends the day beforehand dreaming up things to do in the city. Then, the final three chapters focus on her and her father’s travels in Tokyo. Ever-evolving to stay current, YOTSUBA&! presents some interesting new points in this volume that readers haven’t seen yet. But how do these new aspects collide with YOTSUBA&!’s sixteen-year history?

Yotsuba’s Growing World

YOTSUBA&!’s creator, Kiyohiko Azuma, once stated that YOTSUBA&! always takes place in the present day. So, technology evolves as the series goes on. In this volume, Yotsuba’s father gets his first smartphone. Or, as Yotsuba calls it, a “smarfo.” American readers get a taste of technology in Japan through her experiences. For instance, Yanda offers to give Yotsuba his information on LINE. Though not as popular in the U.S., LINE is a Japanese social media app. Seeing social media in our stories reflects its growth in our daily lives. Hence, its inclusion makes stories that much more real.

In addition to new tech, Yotsuba gets to explore new places in this volume. Though she has taken plenty of trips before, this is her first time in urban Tokyo. She gets her first taste of some of the heights of city life in the form of giant cotton candy, street fashion, and crowded streets. For adults and city-dwellers, some things Yotsuba sees in Tokyo are more mundane. But it’s her first time, and everything is larger than life. Isn’t that what childhood is all about?

Yotsuba is amazed by how buffets work in YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14.
Yotsuba learns how buffets work in Tokyo. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

Finally, this volume gives readers the chance to expand our view of Yotsuba’s world. How? We meet another member of the Koiwai family! Koharuko is Yousuke’s sister and Yotsuba’s aunt. Yotsuba’s grandma briefly mentioned her in the previous volume. Here, we meet her for the first time. Yotsuba either doesn’t know the word “aunt” or doesn’t use the title. Instead, she identifies Koharuko by her name and personality, like that she “always whacks her hand or foot on the corner.” Besides that, Koharuko is pretty methodical. She planned intricately for the Koiwais’ visit. Still, she shows the same laid-back sense of humor that nearly all Yotsuba’s friends seem to share.

A Humorous Take

Out of all the ways YOTSUBA&! never fails to amaze me, its humor is number one. When I got this volume, I read it on the train home and had to stifle my laughter when strangers stared at me. This is good stuff. Right away, the concept allows for jokes. After all, plenty of kids are naturally funny. They misspeak or misinterpret words, leading to some great wordplay or simple silliness. And of course, that can lead to comedic misunderstandings. Relatedly, Yotsuba sometimes copies the way that adults speak. Real kids do this all the time. Yotsuba is always following in the footsteps of the adults around her. Usually, she ends up saying something serious. That mismatch of serious words coming from a small, cute body is hilarious.

Yotsuba’s sheer energy makes up a lot of YOTSUBA&!’s humor too. There’s something infectious about watching someone else have fun. She gets particularly riled up around Yanda, whose childishness clashes with hers. In this volume, she reacts to seeing Yanda in the grocery story by plopping packages of cookies into his basket when he isn’t looking. He’s the only person she has so much spite for. So watching that play out is never boring.

Yotsuba and Koiwai prepare for their trip to Tokyo in YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14.
Not sure if Yotsuba fully understands what Tokyo is. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

Ultimately, though, the humor in YOTSUBA&! wouldn’t stand without the skill of the mangaka. Kiyohiko has an amazing sense of comedic timing. He never overdoes or rushes his humor. Plus, it takes a lot of skill to accurately portray the mind of a child. YOTSUBA&!’s humor would fall flat if Yotsuba wasn’t a believable child. But her actions both make sense and make you laugh at the same time. Overall, while some chapters are funnier than others, they are all high quality, and at least one will have you laughing.

It’s All in the Details

One of the most effective storytelling tools in YOTSUBA&! is the art. Kiyohiko has clean, precise lineart. This comes to life, especially in his backgrounds. Each background he draws is highly detailed with a good sense of perspective. You can tell that he’s worked hard on the art. Even in close shots of characters’ faces, where some artists might skip drawing the background, Kiyohiko keeps his. He only removes backgrounds when removing them better conveys the humor or emotion in a scene.

A small setting shot of a sign in a Tokyo train station from YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14.
Look at how much detail is in this tiny train station shot! | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

Even with its precision, Kiyohiko knows how to make way for silliness in art. Yotsuba and her family’s facial expressions (or lack thereof) are a major contributor to the story’s humor. Usually, this comes in the form of zoomed-in or zoomed-out shots where eyes either enhance in detail or revert to dots. But these methods of expressing character thoughts and feelings without dialogue is highly important for YOTSUBA&!. Since Yotsuba’s a child, she doesn’t always have the right words or even thinks to use them. So, she expresses herself, mainly through her body language. And Kiyohiko is fantastic at using body language to express a characters’ feelings.

Yotsuba slowly collapses into a bow.
Yotsuba melts on the spot. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

All together, YOTSUBA&! ends up feeling incredibly lifelike. With real-looking backgrounds and expressions, she could easily be your little cousin, niece, or neighbor.

A Little Girl Growing Up

Two chapters in volume 14 didn’t sit well with me upon my first reading: “Yotsuba & Yoga” and “Yotsuba & Princess.”

Yotsuba tells two other class members that she came to yoga class to
Yotsuba explains why she tries a yoga class. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

In “Yotsuba & Yoga,” neighbor Fuuka and her friend Miss Stake take Yotsuba with them to a yoga class. Their reasons for going are a mix between having gained weight and because “a cool woman does yoga.” When they ask to go, Yousuke asks Fuuka how much weight they’ve gained that they need to, upon which Yotsuba runs out with a scale. Then the five-year-old steps on the scale and laments “Noooo! I think I gained weight!” The chapter ends with her echoing Fuuka and Miss Stake’s comments of having felt they worked hard, but definitely lost weight and became prettier. “Yotsuba & Princess” follows directly after “Yotsuba & Yoga.” Here, Yotsuba starts by reading Cinderella. Enthralled, she mimics Cinderella through dress-up and princess-like motions. When her father doesn’t get it, she runs to her neighbors, who help her achieve her princess dreams.

Yotsuba struggles to get her dad to understand why she wants to be a princess, instead yelling at him.
Yotsuba explains to her father why she’s trying to dress like a princess. | Image: YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14

Because these chapters came one after the other, certain themes stand out. Mainly, the activities in these chapters are gendered. Yotsuba is learning about social femininity from her neighbors. She copies insecurities she’s seen others have, and she learns “princess” tips from female mentors. Here, Yousuke even takes a step back, which emphasizes how many girls learn this behavior from other women. Though Yotsuba isn’t yet discouraged by the realm of weight loss and beauty, it’s still something that follows people forever. It’s a disappointingly accurate vision of growing up a girl.

A Sum of its Parts

Up until now, even with the occasional comments about beauty, Yotsuba was relatively gender-neutral. She primarily enjoyed reading books about animals, drawing, and exploring new places. And for the most part, YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14 stands up to that precedent. In the chapter right after “Yotsuba & Princess,” Yotsuba is back to reading facts about penguins and keeping her eyes on candy. And even during those chapters, she showed her usual curiosity, playfulness, and sheer excitement over discovering new things. Once you know the chapters are coming too, they’re easy to enjoy for sheer cuteness and silliness. No matter the differences in circumstances, she is still herself.

Altogether, though, the time in between manga releases can really affect reader interpretation. Unlike new anime episodes, which usually come out weekly, or American comics, which come out monthly, the process of compiling chapters and releasing them in English takes a long time. In that time, it’s easy to forget the characteristics of old volumes. For some things, nostalgia blindness kicks in. And for others, like myself reading “Yotsuba & Yoga,” readers are acutely aware of changes. Regardless of the length of time, YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14 is still a fun read. So it’s easy to get back into the swing of things. Read YOTSUBA&! Vol. 14 to see the childlike fun for yourself.

Featured image courtesy of Amazon

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