Yotsuba&! By Kiyohiko Azuma, Strawberry Marshmallow by Barasui. Released in Japan by ASCII Media Works, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Yen Press and Tokyopop.
First off, a disclaimer: I am technically breaking the rules of this month's Manga Movable Feast. As a result, if the moderator doesn't want to link this post, that's perfectly fine. I am well aware that I am outside of the defined rubric for this month.
I want to tell you all about an amusing manga series. It's a comedy about kids, but runs in a magazine for young men - specifically, young 'fanboy' men. Nevertheless, you read it for the kids. You watch them get into hysterical situations, and identify with your own past childhood. And sometimes you just sit back and boggle at the absolute strangeness of it all. It's a story about kids, but it's not FOR kids. It's for adults. As has been noted, kids generally like to read about contemporaries about 3-4 years older than they are, and would probably find the manga too 'cutesy'. But it's perfect for the target audience.
Now, all of this applies to both of the two series mentioned in my header. They're both running in the same magazine at the same time (even if Barasui is putting out his series at a more and more irregular pace as the years go by). But only one cute comedy for kids is kid-safe in North America. That is, of course, Yotsuba&!, the subject of our monthly roundtable. Something about Strawberry Marshmallow, which is a very funny, slice-of-life manga which makes me laugh out loud multiple times, makes you realize that if you gave it to a child, you would be screamed at at the very least.
I will assume, as it's consistently hit the bestseller lists, that you are all familiar with Yotsuba&!. You may be less familiar with Strawberry Marshmallow, which Tokyopop has brought out five volumes of to date. It's the story of five girls and their everyday interactions. Nobue is the detached, chain-smoking older sister, Chika her younger sister who has the misfortune to be the straight man and best friend of Miu, a hyperactive and obnoxious pest. Rounding out the cast is Matsuri, a rather pathetic drip who has difficulty with even the most basic interaction with daily life, and Ana, a half-British girl who is suffering from having been in Japan too long. Nobue finds Ana and Matsuri adorably moe, and fills in for the Japanese reader in watching them be cute and loli. Which is amusing, as most of the actual readers in North America are far more interested in seeing Chika and Miu's comedy antics.
Please be assured that Strawberry Marshmallow is not pornography, nor does it contain 'adult themes'. There is no actual sexual content, the violence is of the slapstick 'Looney Tunes' variety with large bumps on the head, and there are no dark themes at all. But the presentation is laid out in such a way as to emphasize the five main cast members, four of whom are twelve years old (but look younger), and one of whom is sixteen (the anime made her twenty so they could show her smoking). Their poses, their outfits (the fashion in this manga is one of the main reasons to read it, and I'm not kidding. They're very stylish), everything they do is meant to have an undertone of 'hey, look at the little girls'.
Yotsuba&!, on the other hand, is about the sense of wonder. Yes, you watch Yotsuba get into weird or fascinating situations, but the emphasis is on her reactions, and the reactions of the people around her. I honestly can't recall what any of the main cast of Yotsuba wear when they aren't in costume, whereas I can picture 3 to 4 of Miu and Chika's outfits in my head without even getting out the books. Yotsuba is about the magic of childhood, seeing things through a child's eyes, and trying to reclaim some of that lost innocence. Strawberry Marshmallow is about the bits of childhood we aren't really trying to recreate; the petty jealousies, the sibling rivalries, the days spent doing nothing but being stupid, and there's no sense of nostalgia at all.
That said, I find Strawberry Marshmallow's interaction far more real. Yotsuba almost seems to take place in a sort of world removed from our own. I don't think of it as a fault - I'm not asking for the manga to be realistic. But there's almost a fairy tale quality to the action. Strawberry Marshmallow has a sense of taking place in today's world. This is all the more astounding when you consider what Yotsuba has that Strawberry Marshmallow lacks - adults. The occasional adult pops up in the manga, mostly as a foil to Miu or as a teacher figure, but the only vaguely parental person we see is older sister Nobue, who is a very poor role model. Strawberry Marshmallow is literally all about the kids, whereas, while the focus of each chapter of Yotsuba is on her, the adults get large roles and many varied things to do.
The main difference between the two titles, which I've been dancing around this entire review, is that Barasui, the author of Strawberry Marshmallow, is a lolicon. He's stated in interviews that he loves drawing pre-pubescent girls, and it's obvious in every frame of his manga. It never quite goes over that edge, and is certainly safe enough that Tokyopop feels no qualms about putting it out with a T rating, but certainly enough that I'd never recommend it to a parent myself, a problem I don't have with Yotsuba&!. (An Amazon.com review of the Strawberry Marshmallow review noted it was for little girls, and that adults might find it cloying. Showing that despite all geographical evidence, Amazon *is* a river in Egypt...)
That said, just because something has elements of lolicon does not make it BAD, or without redeeming social importance. Yotsuba is funny, and I love the warm fuzzies it gives me every month. But I find Strawberry Marshmallow makes me laugh out loud more. Miu is one of the great comic creations of the past decade, and she is note perfect in managing to be utterly horrible to everyone around her and yet at the same time likeable and cute enough that you come back every month to see what insane stuff she does next. Yotsuba is naive, but Miu is just WEIRD - some of the manga she draws and shows Chika defies explanation, and her text messages are... she is her own adjective. She's totally Miu. As the manga has gone on, we've seen her and Chika get the spotlight more and more as the author realizes that he has a goldmine of endless Osaka-style call-and-response humor here.
So what makes Yotsuba&! a great title for kids over here, and Strawberry Marshmallow a great one that's strictly for manga geeks? (Note I haven't even gotten into Gunslinger Girl, which is a *third* Dengeki Daioh series about young girls with a very different feel from the first two.) Simply put, Yotsuba&! is safe. That's it. And it's not meant to be a criticism, just an observation. I honestly don't feel either series is written, in Japan, for children. And I think North American kids, provided they don't mind reading about other kids their own age, would enjoy both series (certainly the obnoxiousness of Miu would strike a chord with many kids). But as a gift for a parent to give their child? Stick with Yotsuba&!.