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Akita's Manga: Tsurikichi Sanpei
by Evan Miller on Wed Mar 19, 2008 11:28 am
If asked which area of Japan is most commonly associated with anime and manga, most of us would probably answer "Akihabara", right? While recognizing Akihabara as the anime/manga capital of Japan wouldn't be inaccurate, the truth is that a lot of areas in Japan are represented by manga in one way or another. If the a town or prefecture produces a manga author that hits it big, it's a given that the characters that author creates will eventually become some of the most recognizable representatives of that area. In the past few years, the hometowns of Go Nagai (Cutey Honey, Devilman) and Gosho Aoyama (Case Closed) have constructed museums based on their lives and works, and their characters can be seen on signs and posters all over these areas.

This Tuesday, I headed to Akita, a city in northern Japan where I lived for two years, to visit friends and coworkers. Akita isn't what you'd call a haven for manga fans; there's only one fan-oriented store (Animate), and it's located in a run down building in front of Akita Station beneath a billboard featuring popular TV star Mino Monta. Despite that, one of the most recognizable stars of Akita Prefecture is a manga character: Tsurikichi Sanpei.

Tsurikichi Sanpei first appeared in Kodansha's Monthly Shonen Magazine in 1974. Although the series is relatively unknown in North America, it's still very popular among old-school manga fans and the general public in Japan. The series also found a substantial fan following in Italy, where the Tsurikichi Sanpei manga has been available in Italian for decades. The series eventually produced 65 volumes (tankobon) of manga, completing its print run in 1983, and also inspired a TV anime adaptation in 1980 that ran for 109 episodes - in prime time. Considered by many as another example of the "sports" genre of manga, Tsurikichi Sanpei follows the adventures of Sanpei, a young boy from Akita Prefecture who travels around to compete with other fishing pros, thereby establishing a number of "rival" characters that round out the cast of the story.

The author of the series is Takao Yaguchi, who hails from the mountainous Akita countryside. His background was clearly influential on Sanpei's character, who speaks in a thick northern dialect and takes a great deal of pride in his home village.

Sanpei's impact on Akita is undeniable. His image appears on many of the buses in Akita City, and his popularity helped inspire the prefecture to construct a manga museum in Yaguchi's hometown of Masuda (which is now part of the city of Yokote). Among the locals, I have yet to meet a person who doesn't recognize Sanpei. It certainly helps that both Sanpei's character and his creator have a great deal of respect for Akita, since the area, along with much of Japan's rural area, has been suffering from rural depopulation and negative stereotypes which cast the countryside as "backward." When you consider that, you can see why Sanpei's popularity among Japanese people is so important to Akita. Although there's not a maid cafe in sight, the area has truly benefitted from the popularity of one of Japan's most prolific manga stars.
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