Fuckin' A; you know how hard this review is going to be? If only I could get my head straight when considering a review of Phantasy Star II, I imagine that one would be infinitely easier than this..
Yotsuba&! is an ongoing manga by Kiyohiko Azuma of Azumanga Daioh fame; scared yet? Currently it's being published by Yen Press, but it should be noted the license was originally given to ADV's now dead manga division, and there are some minor translation differences between the two. It's about this five year old lime green haired little girl by the name of Yotsuba Kowai and her adventures with her family and friends in learning about the world around her. Basically, that's pretty much the entire series to this point. However, those who've read Azumanga Daioh know perfectly well that there's a whole lot more in the details of such a simple premise than one would normally imagine.
Being the work after Azumanga Daioh, in itself a very fun slice of life as we follow several somewhat insane girls (which may be redundant upon further consideration) through High School, it was a chance for the now established manga-ka to expand upon the kind of art and story telling that he excels in. It was obvious he was feeling a little chafed there at the end of Azumanga Daioh with the limitations of the 4koma structure that was the hallmark of the series, never so well demonstrated as it was with the special chapter dealing with Sakaki and Maya done in a more traditional and expressive panel and art style one typically finds in comics and manga. So we are immediately treated to expansive panels and generally good artwork as Yotsuba and her father Kowai (whose given name I don't recall seeing), quite literally move into a house and into the story almost saying, "Here we will now live and here we will tell this tale." It's actually a somewhat overused trope when it comes to story introductions, but the more the story goes on, the more you realize just how fitting it really was that the story was started in such a manner.
As stated before, the series revolves around the character of Yotsuba and her interaction with the world around her. This is reflected in the title of the manga, Yotsuba&! which is short for whatever Yotsuba and whatever she happens to be doing that day. For example: Yotsuba and The TV. It's a purely character oriented piece; again, this being what the author excels at. To be honest, it's kind of like an experiment; Kiyohiko Azuma bounces the character of Yotsuba off the people and the world around her just to see what the varied reactions of both will be. In truth, that become the biggest draw of the series, and it doesn't get old because we also watch all learn, change, and grow due to this interaction. This may well be a more subtle point the series as well.
Being a character piece, one can discern much of the story by being introduced to the characters themselves, particularly the character the story revolves around, Yotsuba herself. Yotsuba is…a trip. I find myself anticipating the next panel just to see what this little girl is going to do from moment to moment. She has a strange naivety of so many things with a child's wonder at everything and a strangely impermeable upbeatness that both avoids being annoying like some other characters I know of and quite engrossing in many ways. Through her both the other characters in the story and the audience at large experience that same wonder, even in such simple things as picking up an acorn to look at it; which is something so many of us have forgotten. She's adorable without being moe; one is not so much struck by her cuteness but drawn in by it and made part of the world she lives in by her continuing exploration of it. She's a rather odd little critter, which even her father comments on from time to time; not perfect, but generally a good sort whom it will be a joy to watch grow up. What's really fun are her random moments, but you'll see those if you pick up the managa and take a gander at it.
Mr. Koiwai is her father, whom you find later had adopted Yotsuba overseas. He doesn't give any real details only that he was taking care of her almost without realizing he was doing so. He works as a translator, though it's unknown what languages he translates, though it seems to be good work as it affords him a house and the ability to take care of himself and Yotsuba with no hardships. He's still got the bachelor mentality even while raising the girl, and it has definitely rubbed off on her a bit. Despite that, it's more than obvious he loves her and is probably the best sort of father a girl like her could hope to have.
Takashi Takeda, or Jumbo as he's typically called, is one of Koiwai's friends, and is in many ways a big brother to Yotsuba. On second thought, Jumbo is more a brother to Koiwai than just a friend given how those two act toward each other and how much attention he tends to lavish on both him and Yotsuba. The reason he's nicknamed Jumbo is the fact he's 6'11" tall, and while that's damn tall even for us, given the average size in Japan is typically shorter, his height is even more intimidating. He's also a good natured sort, which manifests itself in both his job where he works with his father at a florist shop, his attention to both Yotsuba and her friends, and even his shy crush on Asagi Ayase, the Koiwai's neighbor's eldest daughter.
Moving on with other dramatis personae, we have Asagi Ayase, eldest of the three Ayase sisters whose family are neighbors with the Koiwai's. She's a very pretty young woman who lives at home while attending a university nearby. Also, this girl is pure evil in a way that I've only seen once before in some of the main male characters of Key visual novels (Clannad, AIR, and Kannon). The unholy glee in which she teases people, including Yotsuba, is something I can only stand in awe of, when I'm not laughing so hard I can't see straight. Interestingly enough, she speaks Yotsuba…which is about the best way I can describe it. She understands the little girl on a very fundamental level, which enables to her to keep the girl out of trouble in some areas and really mess with her in others. A girl like this would be completely aware of a guy like Takashi Takeda's crush, but has to this point, not acknowledged or done anything about it…probably gaining a certain level of amusement from it.
Fuka Ayase is the middle sister, and tries to be the responsible one, apparently to the point of being Vice President of her grade's student council. She's the one most often involved with Koiwai's and while she is obviously quite fond of them, she's also somewhat exasperated with their eccentricities. She has a fondness for shirts with graphic designs on it, and is teased mercilessly by Asagi for it…but then Asagi mercilessly teases everyone, so I guess that's just business as usual.
Ena is the youngest daughter of the Ayase's and is Yotsuba's constant playmate. She's slightly older than Yotsuba as she goes to school where as Yotsuba still has another year before she enters her primary education. Still, the two get along fairly well, but Ena has a bit of a white knight complex in which she tries to spare Yotsuba certain disappointments with hilarious results. This girl is also not squeamish in the least, having no compunctions about picking up and playing with frogs or gutting fish she just caught.
Mrs. Ayase is the mother of the three girls who is also called mom by Yotsuba. This tells me a lot about the woman, having lived in a family where I've had family and good friends (to the point they may as well BE family) also call my mother and grandmother, mom and grandma respectively. Come to think about it, most of my aunts wound up being called 'mom' too. In any event, it's also telling that Yotsuba has the privilege to just open up their door and walk right in as well; which means that they consider her part of the family. Turns out Asagi is a little too much like her mother, which results in some interesting back and forth between the two when they get into the mood to mess with each other.
Some of the supporting characters include Mr. Ayase who is not seen often due to his behavior being consistent with a Japanese salaryman. He's shown as a pretty decent fellow, though Asagi constantly messes with him concerning the fact he's rarely around due to the fact he's a salaryman. Another playmate of Yotsuba and Ena's is Miura Hayasaka, a rather blunt and boyish girl who ironically is a little bit squeamish and girly when it comes to things like frogs and fish. Torako is occasionally seen hanging out with Asagi and attends the same university. She smokes consistently and is somewhat obsessed with being cool. Yotsuba is a bit annoying to her, though that seems to stem from the fact she really doesn't know how to relate children in general and a Yotsuba in particular. Finally we have Yanda, a friend of Mr. Koiwai and Jumbo, who is probably the only person that Yotsuba really doesn't like. It truly was his fault; he's a major dick in many respects. Ironically, I think he regrets how he initially presented himself to Yotsuba, and now wants to get on better terms with her.
That's pretty much all there is to talk about concerning what amounts to the story. It's almost strictly a character piece/slice-of-life, as I've mentioned. The fun is in seeing what they'll be doing from one moment to the next as the title character explores and discovers everything around her, and there is much fun to be had. It's a great time to get into the series as there's enough of it to get to know the individual characters well enough to want to watch them grow further in future chapters. I'm personally hoping that, like with Azumanga-Daioh, we get to see Yotsuba as she enters school, grows up and however far else he plans to take it. Some would call it mundane, but Yotsuba makes that both wonderful and exciting, and I can only envy how she enjoys everything. That is both the overarching theme and the series motto actually.
It's good advice.
Before I go, I've invented a drinking game to go with this series. Get a couple of cases of beer, pick a chapter, and take a drink every time Yotsuba does something cute; see how long the case lasts. I can't, in good conscience, recommend the use of hard liquor in this game, as you'd be deader than dead of alcohol poisoning before you got through a good 99% of most of these chapters.