In two recent manga releases, two young women move to new towns and make friends, learn new things, and attempt to charm unsuspecting readers. One is starting college and eager to connect with Tokyo’s gay and lesbian community. The other is a weird little green-haired girl who’s keeping a watchful eye on the air conditioner.
Rica ‘tte Kanji!? By Rica Takashima. ALC Publishing. Fed up with the “forbidden love” nature and downer endings of much of the lesbian manga she’d read, Rica Takashima decided to take matters in her own hands. She wanted to read a happy story about girls in love, even if she had to write and draw it herself.
Rica ‘tte Kanji!? is the result, following the romantic adventures of first-year junior college student Rica. She’s moved from her small hometown to Tokyo, and she’s riding the high of newfound independence. She’s also thrilled at the prospect of exploring Nichōme, the city’s gay and lesbian district. (Rica’s a little nervous about the idea, too.)
Rica’s a little naïve, but her sunny enthusiasm is infectious. Initially inclined to view her as fresh meat on the dating scene, her new Nichōme friends are quickly won over by her sweetness and innocence. Rica inspires protectiveness and indulgence.
A slightly older art student named Miho is particularly inspired by Rica’s qualities. She’s been on the Nichōme scene a while longer and has developed an artsy-cool persona. Rica brings out Miho’s inner romantic, though, and the girls quickly become inseparable. Rica turns for Miho for dating advice and platonic companionship as Miho’s feelings for Rica deepen beyond friendship.
Takashima keeps things on the sweetly comic side. Rica may face some disappointments, but they never make it all the way to heartbreak. Her introduction to lesbian life is gentle and positive, and she doesn’t rush herself. She’s enthusiastic but not rash, and her optimistic outlook stays happily intact.
The art is crude but endearing, painting Nichōme as a kind of chibi wonderland. It’s perfect for Rica’s wide-eyed view of her new surroundings. Takashima invests the simple visuals with a nice range of emotions; varied facial expressions liven up the interactions of rosy-cheeked Rica and more caustic Miho. Her work is like a less accomplished version of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s (Lost At Sea,Scott Pilgrim).
If anything, Takashima might err on the side of happiness. Rica ‘tte Kanji!? could actually use a bit more bite from time to time to make the up moments more potent, and it can seem a little weightless. Overall, though, it’s an admirable and endearing attempt to put some fun into yuri manga.
Yotsuba&! By Kiyohiko Azuma. ADV Manga. Like its title character, Yotsuba&! is sweet, energetic, and a little weird. That’s an excellent combination, in my opinion.
Yotsuba, a little girl of boundless, blank-slate enthusiasm, has moved to a new suburban house with her father, Koiwai. Just about everything, from swings to doorbells, seems fresh and new to Yotsuba, and she’s eager to explore it all. Mundane things take on a kind of comic wonder as she stomps from one discovery to the next.
Her background is kept a bit vague, leaving the reader to wonder just how she manages to be so naïve. It’s a nice kind of ambiguity, though, and it leaves the story open to a variety of possible developments. (Just how weird isYotsuba?) She never seems stupid so much as new.
The ambiguity also helps smooth over what could be some uncomfortable moments. Koiwai is loving but distractible, and Yotsuba has a tendency to wander. Her unsupervised moments would surely give many adults nightmares, but creator Kiyohiko Azuma manages to convey the sense that Yotsuba’s never in any real danger. (Her name means “four-leaf,” as in the good-luck clover, and you get the idea that fortune will always intervene before things get too hairy.)
And Yotsuba’s weirdness is definitely part of her charm. She’s a charismatic little kid in her jarring way, and she’s surrounded a group of doting but flustered protectors. Koiwai’s next-door neighbors, a family with three daughters, take an immediate, protective interest in Yotsuba. Middle daughter Fuka is a kind and dutiful teen, and she takes it upon herself to pick up some of the slack from Koiwai. (She even gives him a run-down on the neighborhood’s Byzantine waste-disposal schedule.)
My favorite of the Yotsuba wranglers is Koiwai’s friend Jumbo. Imposingly tall, he’s got a playful and childlike sense of humor that matches perfectly with Yotsuba’s. It’s a hoot to see hulking Jumbo next to tiny Yotsuba, and their excursion to hunt cicadas is one of the comic highlights of the volume.
Yotsuba&! is visually fabulous. The characters are charmingly designed and expressive, and the backgrounds are often breathtaking. Azuma has meticulously created a richly detailed suburban world as an environment for Yotsuba’s adventures. From Yotsuba’s and Fuka’s homes to a department store to park-like shrines, the sense of place is both grounding and beautiful. (There’s a hilltop view of the neighborhood that will make your eyes pop.)
Like Andy Runton’s Owly (Top Shelf), Yotsuba&! takes the simplest of stories and invests them with wonder, comedy and sweetness. It’s an offbeat charmer, like its star.