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The Mike Toole Show
On Your Maruko

by Mike Toole,

In Japan, the Heisei era began in 1989 when Akihito, son of the Emperor Hirohito, ascended to the throne. That era is coming to an end. Now, some might say that this is because Emperor Akihito has announced his abdication of the throne, scheduled for April of next year. But goofballs like me know the truth: the Heisei era really came to a close with the passing of manga artist and writer Momoko Sakura just last month. Formally, we measure time by dates and carefully scheduled events, but Sakura's creation, the anime and manga juggernaut Chibi Maruko-chan, is what actually marked the Heisei era for many folks around the world.

When western media outlets ask the tough questions, like “Who's the next Miyazaki?” and “What's the anime version of The Simpsons?” they tend to go for the simple answers. The next Miyazaki just has to be Makoto Shinkai, even though that question doesn't beg a specific answer; after all, he's the new anime box office champ! And the Japanese answer to the Simpsons has got to be Sazae-san, because like The Simpsons, it's the nation's longest-running animated family comedy.

But let's consider, for a moment, an animated series based on the works of a comic artist who has some notoriety, but who isn't particularly famous. The comics are sometimes autobiographical, and sometimes not. The animated series debuts in 1990, and is initially so popular that the manufacturers of licensed goodies like toys and t-shirts are caught completely off guard, and the stalls and shops fill with bootlegs until the shortage can be officially addressed. The show is largely from the point of view of an irascible grade-schooler, whose catchphrases quickly become popular with real kids. The cast of characters mostly entails a typical family, though the grandparents are usually present, and the protagonist's bespectacled best pal is often featured as well. The series settles on a catchy theme tune, which goes unchanged for decades at a time. As the episode count stretches into the hundreds, the characters don't really get older. Celebrity guest starts begin making appearances, often playing themselves. The original creator carefully manages the show at first, but eventually steps away after the workload becomes too distracting; after all, they're still regularly doing the comics! An impressive retinue of animators and comedy writers use the series as a springboard to careers of their own. There are movie versions, and video games, and every Sunday night the family piles into the living room to watch… Chibi Maruko-chan.

Of course, Chibi Maruko-chan isn't that similar to The Simpsons. The latter trades in humor both vulgar and topical, and its best episodes are pointed and sublimely absurd. Chibi Maruko-chan takes place in a world where it's perpetually 1974, so it can only be contemporary to a point. Its characters and stories are pretty blunt—sometimes surprisingly so—but never too mean-spirited. The series began in 1986 as sets of illustrated pieces—creator Sakura called them manga essays—in Ribon magazine. These comics were essentially autobiographical, depicting the author as a 3rd-grader growing up in 1970s Shizuoka. As the comic's popularity grew, Sakura was obliged to expand the cast and start formulating new stories.

For me, there are two things that make Chibi Maruko-chan an obvious standout. First of all, Sakura was an amazing cartoonist who could draw an astonishing range of expressions out of her very simple-looking characters. We all now recognize the trick where you can make a character look worried or embarrassed by drawing stark vertical lines on their faces, but it was Sakura's use of the gag that put it over the top.

Secondly, through her memories of her own experiences, Sakura communicates the anxieties of childhood exceptionally well. A lot of the comedy of Chibi Maruko-chan comes from one simple truth: our childhoods often brim with imagination and fun, but are also just filled with anxiety and dread. Every moment of the day, from the walk to school to getting ready for bed, is an opportunity for confusion and embarrassment, and Chibi Maruko-chan's hundreds of episodes never shy away from this uncomfortable truth. It helps that one of the title character's defining characteristics is her unshakeable certainty that she's just about to be forgotten about or ignored by her family, since she's the youngest. This almost always results in a rollercoaster ride of whining, boasting, and hollering on the part of Maruko's voice actress, TARAKO, whose energetic performances remind me of Lucille Ball from the 50s.

There are lots of good parts to Maruko's life, too. The show's charmingly doting grandpa always has time for her, and her friends are supportive and loaded with amusing quirks, like Maruo's hyper-competitiveness or Yamada's tendency to laugh inappropriately at everything, be it natural disaster, a schoolmate falling down, the local sports team losing, funerals, etc. Sakura's remembrance of 1974 is full of nostalgia for what was an exciting time for a young family—there were always new Kamen Rider toys at the shop, Uri Gellar was bending spoons on the family's tiny TV, and the radio crackled with the latest hits by Masashi Sada and Linda Yamamoto. And if you've ever been lucky enough to have an unqualified best friend, even for a brief time, you'll recognize what Sakura creates in the relationship Maruko has with her best friend Tama-chan; the two girls aren't even particularly alike, but they're often inseparable. That's really nice, man.

Unfortunately, here in the US, it sometimes seems like there's no room for a show like Chibi Maruko-chan. It was a fun staple of small Japanese grocery stores in the 90s; they'd often rent out VHS tapes, which is how I discovered it (the first episode I saw involved Maruko's family replacing their bulky old rotary phone with a sleek Princess touch-tone set; this seemingly mundane switch was IMPOSSIBLY EXCITING to Maruko!). But it's never come close to the minor breakthroughs that similar fare like Shin-chan and Doraemon have enjoyed. In 2015, I presented at a one-off convention in Brooklyn called Waku Waku NYC. This was not your typical fan convention; it focused on Japanese culture as a whole rather than just anime and manga, and so included fare like fashion shows, cooking show demonstrations, and a pavilion that sold Japanese luxury goods right alongside that year's crane toys and plush dolls. This breadth was possible due to a panoply of sponsors and a bunch of Cool Japan money. Part of the program was a rare subtitled screening of the 1000th episode of Chibi Maruko-chan, which had aired some time prior. The episode was a lot of fun to see with a crowd, and the official convention blog reported the crowd's reaction: We want more Chibi Maruko-chan! None has been forthcoming—though I did spot the above awesome itasha on the streets of Cambridge, MA last year, so Chibi Maruko-fandom is still alive in these parts!

Outside of the US, it's another story. Chibi Maruko-chan has regularly been funneled to the Spanish-speaking world, often under the direct auspices of The Japan Foundation, and it's screened in Europe and the Middle East as well. The show casts a long shadow in Asia, where a Taiwanese live-action TV adaptation was created. A quirky English dubbed version of the series, produced for Cartoon Network India back in 2000, has recently emerged on YouTube. I absolutely love shit like this, from the earnest but awkward English-language theme tune to the sometimes halting English of the voice actors. Bring me more Maruko-chan!

To wrap this little essay up, I think it's a little unfair to say that Chibi Maruko-chan is the Japanese answer to The Simpsons. I think it's the other way around. After all, the Simpsons may have once guest-starred the likes of Betty White and Danny DeVito and launched the career of Conan O'Brien, but Chibi Maruko-chan has guest-starred Beat Takeshi and launched the career of Masaaki Yuasa! Also, the Simpsons only has about 640 episodes to Maruko's 1,180+ episodes, so it's got about five hundred episodes worth of catching up to do There is one thing for certain, though: you can watch both of 'em on Sundays.

When Momoko Sakura's passing was announced, my friend Nabe-san took to Twitter to outline one of the things that makes Chibi Maruko-chan such a special part of Japanese pop culture. It's no mere anime series, but a major milestone that traces the evolution of modern Japanese family life. Sazae-san started with a Japan still in its postwar hangover, with large families in small houses, and by the time Doraemon and Shin-chan came to the fore in the 80s and 90s, the homes were bigger, and the families smaller. Chibi Maruko-chan encapsulates a sweet and special twilight between these eras, after the turmoil of the 1960s but before the go-go 80s set in. Even after its creator's passing, the series will go on, continuing to remind us of all the little things that were good back then. As one of her final works, Momoko Sakura presented her hometown of Shizuoka with a pair of manhole covers she'd designed, so the streets of her city would always remember Maruko-chan. I will, too.

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