In as much as the writer of fairy-tales is a writer for children, and my wording of the previous clause is pointed, such a writer stands to learn a great deal from Kiyohiko Azuma. An author of fairy-tales may not be used to taking lessons from a mangaka (author of manga, Japanese graphic novels); however, as we all know, to be more than a base defiler or slavish imitator in a genre requires new influences, fresh blood. Though a common one for the newest generation, manga is not intrinsically superior as a source of cross-pollination than any other today, if it breathe life—talent needs materials but the specific kind is less important.
Generally, Azuma is known for two distinct works, Azumanga Daioh and Yotsuba&! (pronounced Yotsuba-And), the latter his current work. His work, in pattern and technique, is similar to the “soft” variety of seinen, which targets post-adolescence male readers, with slice-of-life and light-hearted stories. Azumanga Daioh is a school story, a common enough setting for manga; however, the work is distinct in that it contains an all-female main cast and no male students at all. Though the series begins as a 4-koma manga (the equivalent of a traditional newspaper strip), the art and development grows more sophisticated. Azumanga Daioh, though, is a clinic on what a story does not need: conflict, romance, structure. All are discarded in favor of delighting in character alone. Despite the work’s unusual nature and length, it is never boring; in fact, it is usually the manga that I first recommend to new readers—not the least for its easily available and affordable omnibus edition.
His more contemporary work, Yotsuba&!, continues the development of Azumanga Daioh, and is accompanied by a shift in focus. Rather than the indistinct and idealized adolescence of his first great work, Yotsuba&! Follows a single father and his five-year-old adopted daughter in her interaction with a neighboring family. The work is delights in small things without ever being frivolous in the negative sense. This mixture of ages shows Azuma’s growth as an artist and writer—the portrayal of Yotsuba, the five-year-old, is consummate. Yet, this is not a series specifically written for young children and their parents. The appeal is broader, and that alone is worthy of any reader’s attention.
Part of the appeal is due to a specific effect—it’s less than a technique—that an aspiring writer of fairy tales should steal from Azuma’s toolbox. Importantly, Azuma’s current series Yotsuba&! (pronounced Yotsuba-And) contains such sophisticated and insightful characterization of children that I should think the fledgling author could only glean a healthy dose of a humility from that aspect of his work. However, his use of a particular kind of dédoublement is well worth the inspection and appropriation of any worker in the mythic arts.
When I speak of dédoublement, I am referring to a place where the author by some sleight of hand makes the reader for a moment have a divided consciousness or be in two places at once. The effect is described in Eliot’s 1926 Clark Lectures The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry as follows:
“When Helen looks out from Troy and thinks she sees her brothers in the host, and Homer tells us that they were already dead [Iliad Bk. III], we partake at the same time of her feelings and those of an omniscient witness, and the two form one. […] [I]t elevates sense for a moment to regions ordinarily attainable only by abstract thought, or on the other hand clothes the abstract, for a moment, with all the painful delights of flesh.” (Eliot Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry 55)
And it is this effect in a particular way that Azuma creates with an ease that belies his skill. Generally, his stories are picaresque and follow the adventures of five-year-old Yotsuba; Azuma’s true masterstroke, though, is his ability usually with a sudden pan outwards to allow the reader who has been traveling with the child-protagonist for pages and pages to suddenly see through the eyes of one of the series adults’—the reader is suddenly not experiencing childhood but reflecting upon it, at once, seeing the scene from both the eyes of a child and the parent watching the child; it is wistful and desperately moving, and this is a technique that the writer of fairy-tales should attempt to capture in prose.
Now, both the reason and possible mechanisms for employing this sort of dédoublement are likely self-evident, so please forgive me for belaboring the matter. As authors of fairy tales are often intending to write for both adults and children, dédoublement offers a way to fuse the experiences of the child and the adult readers. Consider what George MacDonald writes in the oft-quoted lines on “The Fantastic Imagination” that his goal with the fairy-tale is to “make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim.” Dédoublement is when through some sleight, you remove the or from MacDonald’s statement, and, as he says elsewhere, “throw a shadow of her child’s dream on the heart of a mother.” The parents are the propagators of works for children, so moving them is both a recipe for and evidence of success.
As for how to effect dédoublement in prose, I will offer one suggestion; greater writers than I will doubtlessly have other and better means. (While it would be my pleasure to have panels from Azuma’s work here as evidence and exemplars, copyright restrictions do not allow.) Generally, the technique requires the adult reader to see the child’s point of view and something they cannot know—the sudden revelation of a metanarrative or a parallel to something beyond childhood. A contemporary example is from the cartoon Adventure Time where, during a silly musical number, Marceline reveals that she remembers who the Ice King was, the kind man who raised her, before his powers completely absorbed his original personality. The child-reader sees the plot twist and appreciates it at face-value as surprising knowledge of a beloved character—the parent sees the shadow of caring for an aging loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Writing for both children and parents at the highest levels often requires lending poignancy to the playful. This specific effect, this wistful dédoublement, is well worth the attention of any writer who wishes to capture not only the hearts of children and parents, but those who are neither, and it is one that Azuma with consummate ease employs.