While anime and manga have become wildly popular in the Western world in the past two decades, some titles still fly under the radar outside of Japan. There are some works that are just so "Japanese" that they only seem to appeal to those who've grown up within the culture, to those who grew up watching a certain title and thus have it ingrained in their DNA, or to those pretentious a-holes outside of Japan who want to sound like know-it-alls. (Not that I'd, uh, know anything about that. cough cough)
A good example is Chibi Maruko-chan (ちびまる子ちゃん). While many people outside of Japan likely never have heard of it (you won't even find the series on Crunchyroll), the creation of manga artist Sakura Momoko enjoyed a decades-long run in manga format before becoming an anime, where it has run on Japanese TV for 25 years. The story is an episodic riff based on Sakura's experiences growing up in the city of Kiyomizu in Shizuoka Prefecture in the mid-1970s. The entire story is modeled on Sakura's family, with Maruko the stand-in for the author.
Whether the animated Chibi-chan is your thing will likely depend on how you take to her voice actress, TARAKO, who somehow manages to convey the effect of an 89-year-old man speaking through a elementary schooler's vocal chords. But that's part of her charm. As one site describes Maruko-chan, she draws people in by her contradictions: a grade schooler who talks like an old man, she is both quick to anger and immensely loving, lazy but intensely curious, in love with monsters but afraid of haunted houses.
Link (JP): Why Do So Many Adults Sympathize with Chibi Maruko-chan?
In an interview with Asahi Shinbun, the anime's director, Takaki Jun, argued that it's not just her quirkiness that makes her likeable, but her everyday-ness. "She's the everygirl," he told the magazine. "People feel they know her." This combination of quirkiness and everday-ness has given Maruko-chan a long career, which has extended over the years into various marketing campaigns for companies and local governments. Even now, it's very likely you'll see Maruko-chan's face at some point in your daily rambles around Tokyo.
Unfortunately, the creation will long outlive her creator. Sakura Momoko has been battling breast cancer, and this week, the author succumbed to the disease at the young age of 53. With the Heisei period in Japan about to end with the ascent of a new Emperor, some commentators have said that Sakura's death indeed feels like it marks the end of an era. Nakamori Akio, an idol group commentator (yes, that's a job in Japan), likened it to the passing of the "God of Manga":
Chibi Maruko-chan was the pinnacle of the Heisei spirit. It's equivalent to the God of Manga Tezuka Osamu's death signaling the end of the Shouwa era.
Even acclaimed author Yoshimoto Banana took to Twitter to summarize her feelings:
Momo-chan, you gave our generation Maru-chan and Kojikoji [Ed: Another of Sakura Momoko's creations]...Thank you for the smiling faces, the dry humor, the fantastic lines, the color.
It's sad to see someone who still had so much life and potential left in them pass at such an early age. But Sakura left her mark with Chibi Maruko-chan, and her influence will certainly be felt for decades to come.
Link (JP): Condolences Continue to Pour Out for Sakura; Okamoto Shinya, Yoshimoto Banana
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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