Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
With the latest Manga Moveable Feast well underway (hosted this month by the crew at the School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids), Michelle and I take a look at books from Yen Press, Viz Media, Del Rey Manga, and CMX. Enjoy!
MJ: So, it’s another Manga Moveable Feast week here at Off the Shelf! The object of the Feast is a bit different this time around. Though the primary title chosen for discussion is Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! (Yen Press), we’re also offered the opportunity to talk about some other titles that are being marketed for kids, either here or in Japan (and perhaps both).
What I’m most interested in is probably the question of why Yotsuba&! is recommended for kids here, though it’s published for adults in Japan, while some other titles are rated much higher here than they are over there. But I suspect you might have your own agenda too. Am I right?
MICHELLE: Well, no, actually. I’m still happy from my seven-volume binge and hung up on how awesome Yotsuba&! is. I haven’t really gotten beyond that yet. So, what I’m saying is I’ll happily be swept along by your agenda. :)
MJ: Well, okay! Let’s start with Yotsuba, then. For those who don’t know, Yotsuba&! is a slice-of-life series that chronicles the daily adventures of Yotsuba, a green-haired five-year-old who lives with Koiwai, her youngish adoptive dad, and who approaches everything in life with a sense of true wonder and (frequently) an earnest lack of understanding. Over the course of the series, she is introduced to everyday concepts like air-conditioning and cake, each more wonderful than the next.
I love this manga. I find it completely charming and adorable. Yet, I admit I’m genuinely perplexed by the fact that it’s being recommended here for children. Even if you completely ignore its origins in Japan, where it is published in Dengeki Daioh, a magazine for 20-something males that is not particularly subtle about its lolicon sensibility, and even if you completely ignore some of the (actually subtle) personal dynamics between Yotsuba&!‘s adult male characters and its school-aged girls, it still reads to me like a comic for adults. Even from the most innocent perspective, Yotsuba&! strikes me as more grown-up nostalgia than anything kids would be interested in. I know that’s the perspective I’m reading it from, and though I’ve heard people talk about how well it’s been received by kids in the states (I think you actually chimed in with an anecdote on the MMF mailing list, right?) it’s not something that ever would have interested me as a kid.
If I was reading about kids (as a kid), I wanted to read about kids older than I was, and I wanted a pretty strong older-kid POV in the narrative, too. In fact, my favorite kinds of stories with kids in them were ones in which they had little-to-no adult supervision, like the Maida’s Little… books which I read rabidly as a kid, The Secret Garden, or the Chronicles of Narnia. If I was going to read about kids, I wanted the kids to be in charge of their world and their adventure, even if it was terrifying. Even stories where kids led lives as comparatively uneventful as, say, Laura Ingalls’ in Little House on the Prairie were deeply immersed in the inner worlds of those kids and their personal stake in what was going on around them.
By contrast, Yotsuba&! feels very adult-oriented. Even with Yotsuba at the center of every adventure, we’re not really experiencing things from her point of view. We’re grown-up observers, looking in on her little world of wonder, and marveling at the charm of it all. When she’s angry or frustrated, we’re not there with her in her mind, sharing her feelings. We’re smiling at how cute she is. It’s simply not the same thing as you’d find in most children’s literature, and I’m honestly surprised that something like this would appeal to an actual kid. Yet that seems to be the case.
MICHELLE: I have managed, so far, to pretty much ignore any kind of “personal dynamics” going on and enjoy the series almost entirely for its nostalgia factor. I also love how Azuma is able to portray the logic a five-year-old uses to process the world, as well. So yes, I think this is chiefly a manga for adults. But still, it is true that some kids really are fans. One anecdote shared with me by a middle school teacher (who awesomely maintains a manga lending library for his students) was how popular the series was with his class. I suspect the silly humor is appealing to them, no matter what the age of the protagonist.
I’m not sure whether I would’ve liked this as a kid. Possibly, since I liked slice-of-life kinds of stories where heroines make lots of mistakes like Anne of Green Gables, but it’s hard to say. I was rabid for kitties, though, so something like Chi’s Sweet Home definitely would’ve been a hit and that’s technically seinen, too.
MJ: I’ll admit I wasn’t big on humor as a kid. Is that a really weird thing to say? It’s true, though. I loved drama and adventure and genuine suspense, but I didn’t care much for jokes and I outright hated anything that made me feel like I was being talked down to. I wouldn’t put Yotsuba&! in that category because, really, it’s not talking to kids at all. But I might have felt that way about it if I’d had it presented to me as something for kids when I was one myself. It’s hard to say. Maybe this is my problem, though. Maybe I was just too serious as a kid to enjoy something like this. I didn’t become silly until much, much later. :)
I loved Anne of Green Gables, too, though I cringed painfully at her mistakes, to the point of actually experiencing personal embarrassment over them myself. I enjoyed it more when she got older and became a bit more, ohhhh, elegant about her blunders. Heh.
MICHELLE: I liked some funny stuff, I guess, though now I can’t seem to remember what it was. I’m with you regarding cringing over Anne’s mistakes, though! And they were awfully repetitive, too; many involve grabbing the wrong thing from the pantry. At least Yotsuba never makes the same mistake twice and, really, sometimes her mistakes aren’t really wrong so much as they are a different way of seeing things. This is what I was talking about regarding my enjoyment of the way she thinks. In volume four, for example, she accompanies her father to the grocery store and is told that the smaller cart is for kids. Later, she applies this same logic to quail eggs, which are smaller than chicken eggs. I love it!
MJ: Oh, I completely agree. There’s hardly a character in manga I find more delightful than Yotsuba. I think she’s extremely well-written, and I’d give this manga to nearly anyone I know. It’s humor is well-suited to almost anyone. I just don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to give it to kids.
MICHELLE: I’m not sure I’d give it to little kids but I’d give it to my coworker’s kid-loving tween in a heartbeat.
MJ: Speaking of delightful characters, there’s another series I think we both wanted to talk about here, which stars another of my most favorite fictional kids ever. That would be Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata’s Hikaru no Go. Would you like to start?
MICHELLE: Regarding Hikaru no Go, I think what makes it a great manga for kids is that it conveys lessons without being preachy. Hikaru achieves his goals through years of hard work and intensive study. He loses someone important, grieves, rallies, and demonstrates that it’s possible to recover from such a loss with your head held high but while simultaneously honoring what that person meant to you. And, in volumes 19 and 20 particularly, the story shows that actions have consequences, as Hikaru’s many absences has resulted in him having a lower rank than he ordinarily might. Rather than rail against this as an injustice, Hikaru accepts this and merely becomes more focused in rectifying his mistake.
MJ: I think you’re right on the money here, and I think what helps, too, is that because the action takes place mainly around a board game (Go, for those who haven’t read this), all this stuff happens in an environment where achievements are attained entirely with the mind. The characters can be serious and even ruthless about going after their goals without the writer having to maneuver around tricky moral issues like violence or death, as you might see in a shonen battle manga. And without the heavy team-oriented play central to most shonen sports manga, there’s also no sense of “us and them.” There’s no good or evil in Hikaru no Go.
Even in the matches between players, the focus is on improving self more than it is on defeating the opponent, and it feels very genuine. I think the setting lends itself to very realistic characterization, without the insertion of a lot of over-the-top action (though I do love the super-dramatic stone placement in most of the matches), so what we get as readers is just this really touching portrayal of a boy growing into a young man. Most of the story’s moral ambiguity is centered around Sai and what his rightful place is in Hikaru’s life, and it’s subtle and thought-provoking rather than melodramatic.
MICHELLE: And you, in turn, make a great observation when you mention the lack of an “us and them” mentality. A major part of volume 20, for example, concerns the qualifying preliminaries for the Hokuto Cup, a team tournament where three pros under the age of 18 will represent Japan in matches against their Chinese and Korean peers. With Akira already guaranteed a spot on the team, everyone else is competing for the two remaining spots, which means that, barring an outcome in which both Hikaru and his good friend Waya manage to qualify, Hikaru will have to defeat one of his best friends in order to make it onto the team.
MJ: One of the things I love most about the Hokuto Cup storyline is the view it offers of Waya, in particular. He’s aware that Hikaru is a flashier player than he is, and that despite his string of forfeits, he’s viewed as a more intimidating opponent, even among older pros. He’s Hikaru’s close friend, but he has no choice but to recognize this gap between them, so he’s genuinely relieved that he’s not set up to play against him directly in the qualifying matches. Waya’s a great character throughout the series, but I found him particularly relatable and poignant here.
And really, all the characters are just fantastic in this series. There’s definitely no talking down to kids happening here. Despite the fact that these young go pros are kids with extraordinary minds, they are portrayed as real kids. I also enjoy the fact that the series repeatedly revisits the kids in Hikaru’s junior high Go Club, reminding us that there is a point to playing the game whether or not you’re trying to achieve The Divine Move. Not only is that a great lesson for kids, it’s a great excuse to check in on a group of pretty awesome characters.
MICHELLE: Yeah, there’s a really nice chapter here where Akari passes by Hikaru’s house on her way back from a grueling session at cram school, hears from his mom that he’s hard at work practicing, and receives a sort of accidental inspiration from his example. That was nifty! Randomly, I also love how the characters subtly age throughout the story. Both Hikaru and Akira stun me with how adult they can look on occasion, though both (but more so Hikaru) can promptly shed those years in happier, more excited moments.
MJ: Yeah, I think their aging is handled really well, especially since so much of the story takes place during those terrifying adolescent years where the line between child and adult is muddled for everyone. It happens so naturally here, that you hardly even realize what’s happening until one of those grown-up moments you mentioned turns up. As adult readers, I expect what we’re experiencing is much like watching the aging of one’s own child.
To my mind, Hikaru no Go is one of those rare all-ages manga (or at least rare in translation) that genuinely reads well for all ages. It was you who quoted C.S. Lewis recently, wasn’t it? “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” This is how I feel about Hikaru no Go. I think it’s that worthwhile. And I’d definitely recommend it for kids.
MICHELLE: Yes, that was me. It’s one of my favorite quotes. Not only do I recommend Hikaru no Go to kids, I have personally given it to kids—well, okay, one kid—that ended up loving it a lot.
MJ: So, I’d like to make an argument now for a favorite series of mine that I think is actually rated inappropriately high, age-wise, by it’s English-language publisher. That series is Peach-Pit’s Shugo Chara!, published in English by Del Rey.
Though it runs in Nakayoshi in Japan–the same magazine that was home to a number of series that have been rated for younger readers here, such as Cardcaptor Sakura and Sugar Sugar Rune–Del Rey rates Shugo Chara! as 13+, which, for a story with a 12-year-old protagonist, I think is frankly ridiculous.
Now, I’m not trying to make an argument that this should be rated all-ages. I can’t imagine it holding much interest for kids under the age of nine or ten. It’s got too much romance and general navel-gazing for readers younger than that. But I do see its ideal demographic as tweens, and I’d be willing to bet that one of the main reasons I’d hold up for that is also the reason Del Rey decided to rate it thirteen and over. In one word: Ikuto.
MICHELLE: I’ve never read the series (even though I buy every volume!) so, for the benefit of me and the other uninitiated, I think you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.
MJ: I expected this. So. The story is about Amu, right? She’s a twelve-year-old at a fancy elementary school, who is known for being kind of a badass (in an elementary school kind of way). Trouble is, she feels like the personality she displays on the outside doesn’t match the girl she is inside, though she’s not even sure who that girl really is. Her confusion soon manifests itself as a group of decorated eggs, each of which eventually hatches into a shugo chara (guardian character), representing her various potential selves.
There’s a whole bunch of corporate intrigue (no really) that comes into play here with adults trying to manipulate children’s heart’s eggs and so on, and one kid they’ve forced into working for them is a high school boy named Ikuto. He’s a violinist and badass too (in a more high school kind of way) and for a number of reasons he and Amu hit it off pretty well. Amu’s totally got a crush on Ikuto (though she’s got one on a boy in her class as well), and he likes to tease her, but after a while it becomes obvious that there’s some genuine feeling behind the teasing, and he even says to her in exasperation at one point, “Hurry up and grow up.”
Though there are no actual sexual situations introduced here (really, really there aren’t, despite what I just read on suvudu.com), there is no doubt what any of this is about. Their relationship is fueled by real attraction. It’s not coy at all, and I’m sure there are plenty of adults who are uncomfortable with the situation, especially during one section of the manga in which Ikuto is hiding out in Amu’s bedroom. The keyword here, however, is adults. It may make adults uncomfortable, but this is a tween girl’s ULTIMATE FANTASY. I know. I was one. Sure, I had crushes on boys in my class at that age, but none of those boys could begin to compare with my reeeeaal crushes, all of whom were high school boys (students of my parents) who of course just saw me as a little kid.
If there are parents out there who want to fool themselves into thinking that their tween daughters aren’t experiencing feelings and fantasies like this… well, I guess that probably saves them from a few premature gray hairs. But I’m telling you, they really are fooling themselves. I’m not saying their daughters want to actually have sexual interaction with high school boys (or anyone for that matter–THE TERROR). But they are definitely fantasizing about those concepts in a vague kind of way. A series like this illustrates that fantasy to pretty much exactly the extent a tween girl is prepared to think about, which is to say, lots of heart-poundy giddiness, some vague innuendo, and no actual action.
Tween girls are interested in unattainable guys. They are enticing, but safe. Shugo Chara! gives girls exactly what they want in that respect, a fantasy made perfect by its distance from reality. If that makes sense.
MICHELLE: Not only does that make sense and sound tween-appropriate, It actually sounds kind of fabulous. Shugo Chara!, you have been moved nearer to the top of my enormous to-read pile!
MJ: I’ve made no secret my love for this series, which of course is for many, many reasons besides what I’ve mentioned here. But this is my argument for why it should be rated, say, 10+ instead of 13+. I think it’s missing out on its best potential readership as it is now.
So, you have a tween-appropriate series to discuss as well, no?
MICHELLE: I do indeed! The late, lamented CMX published a lot of tween-friendly shojo and one of my favorites is The Palette of 12 Secret Colors by Nari Kusakawa. It’s complete in six volumes and tells the story of Cello, who lives on an island where magicians called “palettes” can use the colors contained in the feathers of the island’s indigenous birds to create colorful magic. Cello is neither ditzy nor clumsy, but she has trouble performing magic in the traditional way. This gets her sent to the infirmary a lot, where she befriends somewhat curmudgeonly (but, of course, young and hot) Dr. Guell.
Eventually, and probably inevitably, the two of them fall in love. Like what you say about Shugo Chara!, it’s that older-guy fantasy handled in a very tween-appropriate kind of way. Guell seems to be content to wait for Cello to grow up and, happily, is very conscious of the impropriety of pursuing a relationship with a student.
I also love the mix of stories Kusakawa works into the series—there’s magic and there’s romance, but there’s also lots of cute birds and entire chapters told from their point of view. Even now, old and creaky as I am, my favorite character is Cello’s assigned partner, Yoyo, and I am quite confident that with its mix of hot guys and adorable critters, I would’ve totally loved this as a tween.
MJ: Oh, that sounds completely charming! Now I regret never having paid attention to it. Also, the hot and curmudgeonly love interest is pretty much unbeatable.
Can you tell I’m still pathetically in touch with my inner 11-year-old? I really, really am.
MICHELLE: “Charming” is just the word for it. I also neglected to mention that when Cello realizes that she has feelings for Dr. Guell she doesn’t spaz out but rather awesomely takes the logical approach of getting to know him better by meeting people who have known him longer than she has. I appreciated that.
MJ: She sounds… remarkably mature in a way I would have envied like whoa at that age. Which I think makes it even better.
MICHELLE: Oh, definitely. I have many a cringe-worthy memory, believe me.
Two more of Kusakawa’s series are available from CMX—The Recipe for Gertrude, which is complete in five volumes, and Two Flowers for the Dragon, which saw six of its seven volumes released. The latter is rated teen, which I think is appropriate, but the former is rated E for Everyone. I haven’t read it yet, but coming from this mangaka, it couldn’t fail to be good.
MJ: I’ll have to give these series a closer look!
So, for kids or not for kids? We’ve had our say, so feel free to chime in with yours!
Be sure to check out the ongoing archive for this month’s Manga Moveable Feast at Good Comics for Kids. And join us again next week for an all new Off the Shelf!