The best manga of 2016? Review of Yotsuba&! and Kimi ni todoke

2016? Yes, that’s right, we’re still not finished with that year. This time we’re going to look at some ‘problematic’ middle volumes of long-running manga series: how come first volumes and, on rare occasions, final volumes get all the media attention while all the volumes in between get none? If I remember correctly, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! vol. 13 was included on only one best-of-2016 list and consequently didn’t make the master list, while Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni todoke volumes 23 and 24 were not nominated at all but ranked among the best-selling shōjo manga of 2015 in Japan. Wouldn’t it be possible for a manga series to start out strong and then get even better in the course of the series, as its creator ‘finds his/her groove’?

Of course, this kind of progress is a rare thing. Most manga series are on a more or less steady downward slope, their creators eventually running out of ideas but still milking the proverbial cow until the readers’ loyalty is exhausted and the series cancelled. Another reason for ignoring middle volumes is that reviews of them work differently regarding their purpose as reading recommendations; typically, potential readers want to know whether the first volume is worth reading, and when they read it they make up their own minds about proceeding to the next volume. Still, some middle volumes stand out from the rest, some are good jumping-on points, and some are nothing special but keep up the high quality of a series and are simply better than most other manga volumes of the year, and consequently deserve a spot on a best-of list. So let’s talk more about middle volumes.

Yotsuba&! (よつばと!) vol. 13
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kiyohiko Azuma
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 13 so far
Pages: ~220
Price: € 6.50
Website: (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2916-3

Previously in Yotsuba&!: Yotsuba is a five year old girl living with her single father.

Some people say each Yotsuba&! chapter is self-contained and they can be read in any order, but then you would lose track of the ever-growing cast (the neighbours’ daughters, their respective friends, and so on) and not get the references to earlier episodes, such as the camping trip in the previous volume.

This 13th volume is remarkable due to several unusual things:

  • There’s one episode that isn’t primarily humoristic in tone, as Yotsuba wakes up at night, doesn’t find her father sleeping next to her and wanders around scared in the dark and slightly creepy house.
  • Yotsuba’s grandmother is introduced, the only character (besides Yotsuba’s father’s friend Yanda) who isn’t overly friendly to her. It’s Yotsuba’s father’s mother, of course, as Yotsuba’s biological ancestry remains a mystery.
  • In the last episode, Yotsuba and her father have a make-believe swordfight, but the imaginary weapons are visualised for the readers to see.
  • A seemingly insignificant scene is referenced much later: in the beginning of the volume, a little bird hops towards Yotsuba on the street as if to greet her, and several chapters later, Yotsuba sees it again when she is with her grandmother who teaches her bird names.
  • The vignettes at the end of each chapter sometimes add twists to the respective episode, as in the first one of this volume: in the beginning of the chapter, Yotsuba gives a stick from her camping trip to the neighbors’ girl Asagi who doesn’t know what to do with it, but in the closing vignette, she has hung it on the wall as a decorative sort of key holder.

Overall, this is an above-average volume in an above-average series. On this level, the release of every new volume should be given attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Kimi ni todoke (君に届け) vol. 24
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 27 so far in Germany, 29 in Japan (ends with vol. 30 in March)
Pages: ~175
Price: € 6.95
Website: (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2325-3

Previously in Kimi ni todoke: Sawako and her best friends Yano and Yoshida have at last found boyfriends, but as they enter their final year of high school, the threat of separation due to different university and career choices looms over all of them.

The last two volumes focused on Yano and Yoshida, but in vol. 24 we’re more or less back on track as the actual protagonist Sawako is once more at the center of the story. Sawako realises she wants to go away for university, but she is afraid of admitting that to her boyfriend. And that is, basically, what happens in this volume.

When re-reading the entire series up to this volume, I was surprised how fast-paced the first 2-3 volumes seem, and how glacial the pace has become now. As noted before, Karuho Shiina largely avoids the danger of repetition inherent in a ‘talking heads’ type of story by employing ever-changing page layouts. On the other hand, sometimes the character proportions are still slightly off, and I can’t help but feel that a little sloppiness has crept into the art. As strong as the manga series is overall, at this point it has been manoeuvred into somewhat of a trough, and it remains to be seen if it rebounds for the final six volumes.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Roland Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image – in comics?

Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:

The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²

The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.

Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).

Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.

panel from Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga DaiohThis is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.

Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):

strip from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaThere is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.

As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.

So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.

¹ I’m using Stephen Heath’s translation, “Rhetoric of the Image”, in: Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, New York 1977, pp. 32-51.
² Comics Studies have later developed more elaborate systems of the relationship between scriptorial and pictorial elements in comics. See e.g. Nathalie Mälzer’s recent conference paper.