Interview with Yotsuba&! artist Kiyohiko Azuma

ytbheadeerHere’s another really good one: from some manga/anime magazine, a 2014 interview with the guy who does Yotsuba&!. He talks about most of the things you probably hope he’ll talk about: lots on the creative process, inspiration for Yotsuba’s yotsubaisms, various things he’s “going for” with the manga overall, the reason progress on the series has slowed to a crawl, etc.

–The first volume of Yotsuba&! went on sale in 2003, making this the series’ eleventh year. Today I want to ask you about all the way back from when the series was just beginning. The manga you were doing before that, Azumanga Daioh, was the forerunner to the slice-of-life 4-koma genre as well as a major hit, so it came as a bit of a surprise when you drew Yotsuba&! with conventional manga paneling. Why was it you decided to do it in a normal manga format?

Azuma: I wanted to broaden myself professionally. There weren’t a lot of 4-koma manga magazines out there at the time like there is now. I was afraid I’d be thought of as a 4-koma artist if I did another 4-koma after Azumanga Daioh, and that wasn’t something I wanted to be, so I went with a normal manga format.

–Were you drawing manga in the typical format before you did Azumanga?

Azuma: No, I’d hardly ever tried it, but I went ahead with it anyway, which is why I consider Yotsuba&! to be pretty terribly done up until the third volume or so. I can’t even bear to look at it until maybe volume four, and even then just barely. Seeing the earlier stuff makes me want to go back and redraw it.

–Interesting. So: how it is that the manga Yotsuba&! came to be?

Azuma: I’d submitted the idea for Yotsuba&! before Azumanga Daioh even started, so I’d already come up with the idea of Yotsuba as a character. Then the magazine Dengeki Daioh asked me to do a 4-koma about high school girls, so I set the idea for Yotsuba&! aside, started work on Azumanga Daioh, then came back to it after I finished.

–Wow, so you’d be planning it for some time, then. That’d be, what, 15 years ago or so?

Azuma: Since the 20th century.

–Did you come up with the idea to make Yotsuba your main character because you thought children were funny?

Azuma: I don’t remember what was going on in my head when I started the series, so maybe I’m just making this up, but I feel like I was looking for material that was just naturally funny on its own, and making it about a child is what I came up with.

–You can have children do funny things and it’ll still be realistic.

Azuma: True. I do sort of feel like I’ve toned down the cartoonishness levels in favor of realisticness with Yotsuba&!. That wasn’t true of the start, though.

–You’re right, the series started off being drawn more cartoonishly than it is now. Has Yotsuba’s character changed from your original idea of her?

Azuma: She was always going to have her hair tied into four pigtails like a clover, hence the name “Yotsuba”. Her hair was going to be green even then, I believe.

–Her character design stands out as more cartoonish than the others in the Yotsuba&! world, and that makes her feel a little different from everyone else.

Azuma: I do intentionally try to make Yotsuba the one who’s different. Yotsuba is drawn in a different style than the others, and she’s even kind of strange just in terms of human anatomy.

–There was a time that her face was really round for a while.

Azuma: She did go through a round-face phase. Lately she’s lost some of that roundness, but that changes depending on the moment. The hard part about it when I’m drawing the manga is that her head’s so much disproportionately bigger than the other characters’. If I focus on her head size, she ends up coming out too short; if I focus on her height, she comes out with too big a head. It doesn’t look quite right when you have her standing next to a character with a small head, like Asagi. I try to draw my way around it, but it’s hard. I lean toward realism, but at the same time, it’s not like I’m trying to make things actually realistic – what I’m going for is more like having a somewhat strange character within a realistic world. Now, that’s pretty standard in manga, but what I’m aiming for is to strike the right balance of being “somewhat” strange – not too out there, but not too normal, either.

–I see. Yotsuba is certainly cartoonish on a visual level, but I think she also feels real enough that the reader finds himself wishing he had a kid like that in his neighborhood, too. Maybe it’s that balance of “somewhat” strangeness that makes people feel that way. Why was it that you decided to base the series on the parent-child combination of Yotsuba and her dad, anyway?

Azuma: I wasn’t trying to make it about a parent and child — it’s just that when I went to create Yotsuba, her dad just came together with her. Yotsuba can’t live on her own, after all.

–Is the fact that she’s not related to her dad by blood not of much importance to you?

Azuma: Yes, I don’t care to expand much on that point. I might do it someday, but as of right now I’m not planning to. I didn’t want to make it into a manga about a family, which is why there’s no mother character. The title Yotsuba&! is supposed to indicate that the manga is basically Yotsuba plus someone else, the idea being that the manga is about Yotsuba’s interactions with the other characters, with Yotsuba at the center. So it’s not that I set out to draw a parent-child relationship – it’s just that “Yotsuba and Dad” happens to be a combination that comes up a lot.

–Like “Yotsuba and Fuka”, then, or “Yotsuba and Jumbo”.

Azuma: Right, it’s generally about Yotsuba’s interactions with adults. It’s basically structured to be about a weird little character among normal people.

–The way you have Yotsuba as the child protagonist while the other characters are mostly adults felt pretty original.

Azuma: If I had Yotsuba play with other children, that would be different from what I’m trying to do. It’d probably end up as something more about nostalgia. That’s why I have her at an age before she enters elementary school, specifically so that she’s not in a place surrounded by other children. Then again, having never done it before, it might be fun to have her go somewhere like that sometime. Hmm, but where to send her? Somewhere with a lot of children… Kidzania?

–Sounds good to me. (laugh) I can just imagine Yotsuba having the time of her life there.

–Yotsuba is so cute. I mellow out just watching her. She’s got a very unique way of talking that’s somehow… ungirl-like?

Azuma: I suppose that’s true, but I don’t really think about it in terms of being girl-like or boy-like – I just think of her in terms of being Yotsuba-like. Her character has only recently come to Japan, so she still doesn’t really have a firm grasp on the language. She drops words from her speech.

–It’s cute how sometimes she’ll have polite language mixed in, too.

Azuma: She’s always hanging around adults, so I make a point of making her speech become a little bit grown-up. I feel like she’s slowly become influenced by Ena and Miura since she’s started playing with them, too.

–The way her facial expression changes so much is cute too. I felt like her repertoire of facial expressions keeps increasing with each volume.

Azuma: Partway through I started intentionally trying to add more variety to her facial expressions. It becomes a chore to draw the manga if I let it become dictated by a pattern. Like, I’d draw a character with a smile on her face, but it wouldn’t feel like she was smiling. I mean, it’s not like that many variations of smiles exist, but anyway: drawing her with an expressive face is something I do try to do. Yotsuba’s face doesn’t have much I can play with, though, so it’s difficult to do, but I try.

–It does seem like it would be difficult to give her nuanced expressions, given how cartoonish her character design is. You can really see her emotions changing even just in slight differences in her expression, though. Do you have to do a lot of minor adjustments when drawing Yotsuba’s facial expressions?

Azuma: Yes, I do a lot of erasing and redrawing for the times when her expression is important. It’s dangerous, though – once I start doing that, work grinds to a halt.

–That spaced-out face she makes when something happens and she doesn’t really understand what’s going on for a minute is really cute.

Azuma: She does do a lot of spacing out, doesn’t she.

–I think it’s really impressive how you can read her expression from just slight changes — things like her mouth hanging only slightly open.

Azuma: That stuff comes from back when I was doing Azumanga Daioh, so I sort of consider it one of my work’s trademarks. That’s another thing I aim for with Yotsuba&!, having as many panels without dialogue as it does.

–The scenes without dialogue where we just watch Yotsuba’s actions and mannerisms really made an impression on me. It’s funny how the adults just take all that bizarre kid stuff in stride without even pointing out how strange it is.

Azuma: Yeah, that sort of scene is something I personally like. I don’t really like being explanatory about things. I consider the fact that there are no performers in manga to be one of the medium’s strengths. Well, I suppose there’s me, the guy drawing it, but movies have actors and anime have voice actors, and you have people making things very straightforward in their performances there, but that doesn’t happen in manga. The advantage to making manga lies in the fact that Yotsuba is Yotsuba, I believe. That’s another thing I wanted to do in Yotsuba&!: to get rid of the constrictions of doing a story. To just let Yotsuba naturally do as she likes as much as possible, without explanation. The parts that would get cut out of a story manga because nothing happens, Yotsuba&! serves up as the main dish.

–Even within a single action of some sort by Yotsuba, you take the time to fully draw out all kinds of insignificant little movements that she makes during that action. That really makes the character feel real.

Azuma: I actually wish I could draw more of that sort of thing, but I just can’t do it. I’ll draw a few certain panels, but it’s better in my head, where I can see Yotsuba’s entire movement. I’m still not satisfied with my ability to put that on the page. The way she acts is supposed to be cuter.

–I see. (laugh) Are those insignificant little actions something you feel the cuteness of as you draw them?

Azuma: I do. It’s fun to watch those meaningless things kids do.

–Are those childlike actions something that you just come up with yourself?

Azuma: No, it’s not very often that I just come up with that stuff. Generally how it goes is I’ll see an actual child doing something and think to myself, “I’m using that.”

10_041–For example, in the chapter where Yotsuba makes pancakes, her movements are very carefully drawn out and it made me feel like I was there in that moment watching over her. It seems like you must do a lot of research and test a lot of things out in real life when you create your manga. Did you actually make pancakes for that chapter?

Azuma: I did. I figured that the key to that chapter was the movements of a child making pancakes, so I had one of my assistant’s kids make pancakes while I stood by and watched.

–It was really cute how she made such a mess when she couldn’t flip them over right.

Azuma: The way Yotsuba reacted was different from how the assistant’s kid reacted, but that’s what Yotsuba is like. The real kid is actually very bright and didn’t mess up that badly. The kids I use as reference grow up so quickly.

–You’ve been making manga about Yotsuba’s everyday life for over ten years now. Do you not find yourself running out of material?

Azuma: Yeah, I do. I had zero material stocked up when I started, so I’ve really been just making it up as I go along. I generally plan the manga in terms of volumes – like, I’ll figure out what it is I want to do with, say, volume 12, then go along creating it accordingly.

–Interesting. The way time passes with every day following one after the other is another point that’s unique to Yotsuba&!.

Azuma: It’s basically one day per chapter. I skip days here and there, but it’s pretty much every day.

–It feels like we get to peek into their everyday lives. Things like how the acorns Fuuka collects can be seen in the Ayase family dining room days later, or how Yotsuba gets a fever and can’t go to the farm one day, but then gets to go later on.

Azuma: Azumanga Daioh was the same way — rather than having time pass in that loopy way it does in Sazae-san, I try to have time progress slowly but steadily. The problem is that it’s so slow in Yotsuba&! that reality passes by too fast. Cell phones weren’t as widespread when the series started as they are now, so the dad doesn’t have one, for example. When I put in a specific actual model of phone, it immediately becomes dated. I’m sort of sneakily updating those things, but the times roll by so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. I don’t really have a set idea of what year it takes place in. Yotsuba&! started in 2003 and a full year hasn’t even passed yet within the story, but the way I think about it, it’s not November 2003 — it’s November in the present day, 2014.

–I see. Having reread the first volume, though, I didn’t feel the time gap. Watching Yotsuba, there are times when I rediscover the joy and excitement of everyday life. Do you ever create stories based on memories from your own childhood?

Azuma: I don’t even remember my childhood. It’s almost like I wasn’t even the same person.

–I see. (laugh) Reading Yotsuba&!, there are times when I’m reminded of the way I saw and felt about things when I was a child, things I’d forgotten about since becoming an adult. For example, the time when Yotsuba looks at a puddle and says “This is a really good puddle”, I felt like it was really just such a childlike thing to say. Puddles are something for playing with when you’re a kid, and some shapes and depths are better than others. I thought it was amazing how you captured that way of looking at things.

Azuma: Those aren’t things that I’m remembering from my childhood so much as I’m just a childish person, I suspect.

–Are you still jumping in water puddles?

Azuma: I’m not quite that bad. (laugh) But it’s not like I’m observing children that closely, either.

–Could you tell me how the dad’s character came to be?

Azuma: I didn’t do much to create him, actually – he’s sort of just what happens when I do manga without especially thinking hard about it. In some ways he’s sort of idealized, something like what I personally want to be like. But then, if I actually knew a guy as good-looking and perfect as him, I’d hate him.

–(laugh) He does have a lot going for him – he’s a translator, he’s got a good relationship with his neighbors…

Azuma: Right. He walks around in his underwear during summer, though. I figure most men generally do that, don’t they?

(Editor: Most men would put on some pants when they’ve got a kid around, actually, or else the kid’ll stop wearing pants too.)

Azuma: That makes sense – so everyone’s forcing themselves to wear pants because of their children, then. That’s not something that ever occurred to me as I draw the dad.

–I really enjoyed that scene in the pizza delivery chapter where he and Yotsuba are both so excited about it.

Azuma: That’s what I’m like, though – I get stoked about pizza. It’s an occasion for celebration. It’s not often that I order fattening food like that. I was ordering pizzas pretty much every day when I was working on that chapter, though — partially as research. I was drinking milk basically every day for the milk chapter, too. Which is how I learned that pizza and milk both make you fat.

–(laugh) The dad generally gets excited about things with Yotsuba and plays with her a lot, but there are times when he just ignores what she says, too. That’s another thing I like about Yotsuba&!: the way it captures how adults can be sort of careless.

Azuma: He is pretty careless, so he does do things like ignore her and make things up. That’s the sort of something that I’m aiming for, a little. You sort of realize once you become an adult yourself that adults aren’t actually so great and mature as you think they are when you’re a child. Sometimes people tell me that they like how my manga has such “childish adults”, but that’s what the people around me tend to actually be like – although that might be due to the fact that they’re all manga artists. I see them as all pretty careless.

Yotsubato_badm–I also like how the dad and Jumbo get really into the moment and strike silly poses, like the time when they’re playing badminton.

Azuma: That’s what those guys get like when they’ve got an audience. Yotsuba was watching them when they were playing badminton, see. If it was just Dad and Jumbo together, they’d just sit around doing nothing.

–Ah, I see. (laugh) Jumbo’s really good about taking care of the kids, the way he takes them to fun places and all that.

Azuma: He’s surprisingly bad with people though, is the thing. Despite having to deal with customers for a living.

–Oh, is he? (laugh) And Yotsuba really sees Yanda as her enemy, doesn’t she? Because he doesn’t deal with her like an adult.

Azuma: True – Dad and Jumbo have sort of similar personalities, almost an eldest brother type. Yanda, meanwhile, has older siblings, so the way he deals with Yotsuba is different from the other two.

–Interesting; that makes sense. Yanda looks young, but the fact that he was the Dad’s underclassman means that they mustn’t be too far off in age. I’d say it looks like Yanda is in his twenties, while Jumbo is something like in his thirties.

 Azuma: That’s about right. I never really gave them an exact age, and their age has sort of moved around anyway. I feel like now they’re all two or three years older than I’d originally had in mind. Basically, though, I think the dad is in his very early thirties, while Yanda is at the end of his twenties. I want to have the dad’s friends appear more regularly, but that tends to result in neglecting Yotsuba. I try to focus on Yotsuba and the people around her because she’s the main character, but then I just don’t have any openings to get the friends in there. I imagine they’ll show up soon, though I haven’t actually planned anything.

–Oh, good, I can’t wait! We’re finally starting to see the grandmother, too. The cast is slowly expanding.

Azuma: The thing is that a bigger cast makes things harder, so I don’t want to expand it too much. I’m aiming to slowly broaden the world in the manga, so I feel like I have to throw a new character in every few volumes. I’d like to be able to do stories about the side characters, but this series being called Yotsuba&!, that’s sort of tricky. I could do side story chapters, but I doubt that I will. I’ve thought up all sorts of material I could use – things like, how Jumbo and the bicycle shop guy actually know each other. That stuff probably won’t actually make it into the manga, though.

–I’d love to see that! Moving on, I want to ask you about the Ayase family and the female characters. I feel like you don’t give many obvious physical characteristics to differentiate the girls in Yotsuba&!, and yet their personalities seep through their every interaction, which I think is just amazing. The way you express those individual personalities feels like something unique to your work.

Azuma: That’s a challenge that I’d set for myself at the start: to not rely on cartoonish techniques and oversimplify the characters. Most of the characters in Yotsuba&! have the faces of background characters – visually speaking, only Yotsuba has a defined look to her character. I suppose there’s also Jumbo, who is extraordinarily tall. Anyway, though, I wanted to try not to make things overly obvious for the reader.

–It’s true that the characters in Yotsuba&! are all pretty unique in a way that you couldn’t really sum up in a word.

Azuma: You could also see how characters that are easy to sort into archetypes can be a good thing in that they’re easy to understand, but I tried to make Fuuka a character difficult to label as a certain type. I made this sort of dry-run test manga leading up to Yotsuba&! called Try! Try! Try!, and Fuuka was a totally different character in that. Asagi and Ena were pretty much the same, but Fuuka was what people nowadays call a tsundere. The word tsundere didn’t exist at the time, but I could feel that it was an archetype waiting to happen, so I changed her.

–Yes, it’s become a standard character type lately. What kind of character do you intend the current Fuuka to be?

Azuma: I’m not really aiming for her to be anything too particular – she’s pretty much just a dumb high school girl.

–It’s great how stupid her and Miss Stake are together.

Azuma: I want to draw a little bit more of those two. I feel like they’d be able to have funny conversations without Yotsuba.

–They sort of come in sets together with friends, don’t they: Ena and Miura, Asagi and Tora.

Azuma: I generally come up with the characters as sets. The truth is that I’d like to add another friend to each set, but that would mean leaving out Yotsuba, so I can’t bring myself to do it. The way I have it planned out, there’s another friend for Asagi and another for Fuuka, you know.

–Really?! So, in your mind, they’ve had these friends the entire time?

Yotsubato_v08_086Azuma: Yes, there’s a lot of material that doesn’t actually make it into the manga. It sort of makes the manga easier to make, or, rather, I feel like it becomes more natural. Fuuka and Miss Stake’s friend shows up in the culture festival chapter… [opens volume eight] This is her, the third of the friends. She’s got a bit of a wave to her hair. The three of them hang out together.

–I was sort of curious about this girl! Do you try to strike a balance with the personalities when you’re making these sets of three?

Azuma: I guess I don’t really get analytical about it. The way I picture her, this third girl is the silliest of the group.

–I see. (laugh) I can’t imagine what kind of third character could be added to Asagi and Tora.

Azuma: The third character I have in mind is the one who receives the most abuse.

–Interesting. The two of them are pretty free-spirited, so I can see that. Between Asagi and Tora, Asagi is the stronger of the two, isn’t she?

Azuma: Right — I mean, she’s the queen. I want to have her other friend make an appearance, but I don’t know when it’ll happen. I’ve got a few volumes’ worth vaguely planned, but she’s not in any of those either. It could end up being three or four years down the road, and maybe I’ll have changed my mind by then. I generally try to be true to how I feel when I’m drawing.

–I’ll be waiting. Speaking of Miura, I also want to ask a little about Cardbo. When you first drew Cardbo in the manga, did you actually construct it out of cardboard?

Azuma: I did. I went inside, saw what it was like.

–Wow – an adult-sized version, then.

Azuma: Right. I saved it after making it, but then there was this terrible incident involving sewage water flooding out of my bathroom, and I’d been keeping Cardbo nearby, so it was ruined by the water and I had to get rid of it.

–Poor Cardbo… (laugh)

Azuma: I wanted to make the design something as easy to make as possible, so it’s pretty much just boxes. It’s surprisingly not so bad inside Cardbo – you can sit on the boxes that form the legs. It’s pretty nice, when you’re just sitting there.

–You mean you can sit on the opening of the leg boxes?

Azuma: Yeah, I discovered it by trying it for myself. I didn’t manage to work it into the manga or anything, though.

–So on the inside Miura could just be sitting down, then.

Azuma: When she’s not moving, she might be sitting. Cardboard boxes are pretty tough. Such wonderful things they are.

–Cardbo hasn’t made that many appearances, but he’s been made into all kinds of merchandise and become really popular.

Azuma: True. I was hoping he’d be somewhat popular as a character, but I never imagined he’d catch on the way he has. Once he started to catch on, I decided to just sort of watch and see how far it would go. I keep Yotsuba merchandise pretty controlled and allow them to slowly put out only things that I like, but I’ve got a different strategy with Cardbo merchandise, where I just let them go nuts.

–Changing the topic a little, do you have any personal favorite chapters?

Azuma: As a general rule, the newer a chapter is the more I like it, and the older a chapter is the less I like it. I don’t really have any one favorite chapter in particular – they’re all pretty even. More than the parts that went well, the parts that didn’t go well tend to stand out for me. Back when I’d finished Azumanga Daioh was when I was at my worst about that kind of thing. I’d done the series for three years and it was received quite well, and they were letting me end it when I wanted to end it – I thought I would’ve felt really excited about it all, but instead I felt only really upset and unsatisfied with what I’d managed to do with the series. That’s basically how I feel about every volume, so I get into a bad mood whenever a new book is finished. I get hung up on all the things that I didn’t get to do – although it’s purely from my own failings. If only I were better at drawing.

–I think the art in your manga is really pretty, though…

Azuma: I’m better than people who are bad, but I’m worse than the people who are good. People who are good at drawing are able to draw the same thing faster. I’m slow at finding the right way to draw things. If I were better at drawing I think I’d be able to do it somewhat faster.

–The way you draw people is very pretty — very fleshy and soft. And then with the realistic backgrounds, it’s fun to pore over the pictures again and again.

Azuma: I make a point of not drawing things too manga-like, or using manga-like page layouts. I would be able to decrease my workload using things like concentration lines or sound effects – techniques for boosting the amount of information on the page – but I feel obligated to draw the backgrounds anyway.

–I see – it’s true that sound effects aren’t actually there in reality. Back in the earlier stages of the series you used to use more screentone and drew things in more of a manga style than you currently do. Why was it that you decided to draw the way you do now?

Azuma: I was just drawing it as I normally would at first, so it looks extremely manga-y. It was somewhere around the time Torako appears that I came to the realization that this is probably the better approach with Yotsuba&! . Cut out the mangaishness, keep things more low key — more of an unfiltered, documentary-style approach, I guess.

–Are you trying to make it feel more realistic by not using those manga tropes?

Azuma: Yes, that was key, I figured. A pain in the neck to do, though. I won’t be taking this tack with my next series after Yotsuba&!. The look I’m going for here is to draw it so it feels like Yotsuba is really there.

–Do you think a lot about the camera angle and framing?

Azuma: I do. In terms of film, I think the camera in Yotsuba&! is positioned higher than it would be in a domestic drama. The idea is that the higher the camera is positioned the more objective it seems, and when you want to close in on how a character is feeling, you bring the camera down. I tend to draw things objectively when Yotsuba is doing something, so the camera is generally a little high.

–It is true that it feels funny seeing Yotsuba drawn from below, looking up at her.

Azuma: I don’t use that angle much. Up until a certain volume, I had it in my head that I wouldn’t do camera angles from below. I’ve since lifted that ban, so I think recently I’ve been using those angles a little bit more.

–The world in Yotsuba&! manages to strike this great balance between capturing the reality of everyday life while still being fun as a manga. In reality, there are all sorts of difficult things about children, but Yotsuba&! is this pleasant little world that I could keep watching forever. I’d like to hear about how you managed to establish that balance.

Azuma: That’s true – I’ve adopted a documentary style, but it’s not like I’m trying to actually do a documentary. It’s entertainment, at the end of the day. But I don’t personally like overly artificial stuff myself, and I have a pretty clear idea of how far I want to take things. I think that every manga artist probably has their own boundaries like that, and that’s probably what makes different people’s manga particular to them.

–I felt like the balance between realism and mangaishness in Yotsuba&! was something that had never been done before.

Azuma: I’d imagine that’s because I don’t really like manga as much as other manga artists do. They actively try to make their work into manga because they like manga more than I do. I simply don’t like manga that much, unfortunately, and so I think I distance myself from it a little bit.

–I’d be interested in hearing about anything you’re into aside from manga, then – movies, photography, that sort of thing.

Azuma: I do enjoy both movies and photography. I watch something like four or five movies a month, and I’ll buy a collection of photography by a photographer every month or so, and I’d say I take about 500 pictures every month myself. I’m also into cars, and design, and all kinds of stuff at different times. When I say that I don’t like manga that much, though, I’m talking relative to other artists; compared to the average guy, I’d say I read a crazy amount. I do try to have fun in a smart way, though – there’s all kinds of interesting stuff outside of manga, and exposing myself to that is something that turns to my work’s advantage. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing a manga that I could make by simply shutting myself in my room. I’m basically an indoor kind of guy – if you left me to my own devices, I’d just spend all my time reading or playing video games indoors – so part of the idea behind Yotsuba&! was to force myself to go outside. It’s good for giving me the impetus to go outside in order to go find background materials.

–Do you ever insert discoveries into the manga that you yourself make while you’re out taking the photos you use as reference?

Azuma: Well, for example, for the chapter where they go to the farm, I wasn’t sure that it’d make for good manga until I went out to research it for myself. It’s just going to be a bunch of cows, I figured. I suppose I was right about that, actually – it was just a bunch of cows. (laugh) I don’t really come up with some sort of idea for what I want to draw before going out to do the research – how it works is more that things’ll just sort of end up so that Yotsuba is going to a farm, and so I have to go to the farm for research. I think up the story after going. A lot of times I come away pretty doubtful that I’ll be able to turn it into a chapter, though.

–I love the chapter where they go to the farm. It really struck me as amazing how fun you were able to make everyday stuff like that. It made me feel like you manage to spot the things that the rest of us tend to miss.

Azuma: You think? I guess it feels something more like taking photos: when you’re taking a photo, you pay attention to things that normal people wouldn’t notice; stuff like, the balance of color between an object and the wall it’s placed next to. That stuff. And then, plus, I’ve constantly got Yotsuba software installed inside me in order to draw Yotsuba.

–What exactly do you mean by that?

Azuma: Like, if I go to a farm, I’ll look at it in terms of, oh, Yotsuba would slip and fall down here, or whatever. I’d pass right by that stuff if I weren’t conscious of it, so I actively try to find it. The Yotsuba inside me sometimes even makes me do stupid stuff that I imagine must look pretty odd to someone watching me. I do even have a bit of experience with people actually getting angry with me over my strange behavior. Like, recently, there was an electrical cord at a convenience store that ran outside, and I realized that there was an outlet on the wall outside. As I stared at it, some older man living nearby started watching me suspiciously, and actually walked deliberately between me and the outlet.

summer–Wow, that’s really blatant. (laugh) I really like the chapter in volume five where they go to the beach. Yotsuba gets it in her head that they’re going to the beach that day and gets ready, and then the dad says they’re not going, but then in the next panel he looks up to the sky and there’s a bunch of summery images, and he changes his mind and says, “Alright, let’s go.” It was like I could feel the dad’s change of heart in that summer imagery – like he was thinking something like, “Well, the weather *is* nice, and I do feel bad for her.”

Azuma: That’s how I want people to read it. That chapter was actually the climax I had in mind when I first started making Yotsuba&!. It’s a chapter I really wanted to draw. Readers were even saying that it seemed like the last chapter. They said the same thing about volume twelve, too. (laugh) I guess it just naturally takes on that final chapter kind of feel when I reach a sort of end point. I’m creating the series in stages: with the beach chapter in volume five I’d reached the end of what I’d planned at the start, and so it was sort of like the first stage had ended. With the camping story in volume twelve, it felt like stage three was over.

–Interesting. Out of curiosity, then: what part was stage two?

Azuma: Stage two is sort of vague – a combination of the festival episode and the farm episode. After getting through that I felt burnt out and had nothing left that I wanted to do, so from there I just bluffed my way through those problems and started on stage three, and then after making it through that the series came to a stop. It felt like this wobbly thing had finally come crashing down. What I’m going to do next has started to come into focus lately, though. I feel like I’m back stronger than ever, but that might still be an illusion too. After starting to draw again for the first time in a while I felt like I’m still on pretty shaky ground, so I still need to shore things up a little better.

–It’s exciting to think that the series is going to resume and we’ll be able to see Yotsuba’s day-to-day life again! It’s November at the moment in the Yotsuba&! universe. With the passing of the seasons and the new year, Yotsuba will be at the age where she’ll enter elementary school. Do you ever think about depicting Yotsuba as a student?

Azuma: She still has five months before school, so at this rate I’d have to make it through another fifteen volumes. I’m not even halfway there. It’d take over ten more years, and this series is not going to make it that far. For now I still have things left that I want to do with Yotsuba&! and so I’m still continuing with the series, but when I reach a point where I feel like I’ve basically done most everything that I can do with it, I imagine that will be when the series ends.

–Azumanga Daioh ended with the characters graduating high school, so I imagine there are a lot of readers out there who are wondering if the series will end before Yotsuba enters school, too. Do you not currently have any idea what the final chapter will be like?

Azuma: No, I don’t have any goal in mind. Having Yotsuba enter school isn’t off the table either, though – I could always skip forward in time if I wanted to. I could just bring the story of her at age five to a close and skip straight into an elementary school arc. Nothing planned yet, though.

–Ooh! It’d be fun to see her meet Ena and Miura at school.

Azuma: They would be going to the same school – Yotsuba would be in first grade, Ena and Miura in fourth.

–Yotsuba would change in all kinds of ways in elementary school.

Azuma: True, she would change a little, but I think she basically wouldn’t change that much. She’d be starting school, but she’d still be in first grade, so she’d still just be a child. I’d say it’s around third or fourth grade that you start to develop a sense of self. Skipping forward in time is a very manga-like technique, though, which would mean it has the downside of straying from the feel that I’m going for. If I decide that there are a bunch of fun things I’d be able to do that outweigh that downside then I might do it anyway, but at the moment I don’t think I’d get that much fun out of it, so I don’t see it happening. Basically, if I think it’ll be fun, then I might do it.

–I see. Well, I hope we’ll get to keep reading more of Yotsuba and company’s fun day-to-day life. Thank you for talking with me today!


6 thoughts on “Interview with Yotsuba&! artist Kiyohiko Azuma

  1. Hi. My name is Sergio, i’m 30 and I’m from Mexico.
    I really love Azuma-sensei’s work. I bought the first five volumes of Yotsuba&! in english and the sixth one in spanish…
    It was such a brilliant interview. It feels great to learn so many things from Azuma-sensei and I hope this manga will continue for many, many years.
    I also hope it gets licensed for my country.
    Thank you very much!

  2. I hope this all means the series is ongoing!
    I’ve been reading this series since I was in middle school (it’s the first manga I ever read), and just finished the most recent book last year (I am in uni now such a large gap I know- I am ashamed)

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