Sunday, August 2, 2009


When I first starting reading manga, I was attracted by stories aimed at children and teenagers, typically titles from Shonen Sunday and Shonen Jump - Ranma 1/2 and Dragon Ball as well as Lupin III and Dragon Half. And these were the kind of anime TV shows that I looked for when I first came to Japan in '92. But, at the time, there weren't that many shows on TV during the week, and I ended up getting really frustrated at not being able to watch any anime for an entire month at the beginning, because when something was on, someone else had control of the TV.

Finally, I was able to see something called "Sazae-san", which I thought sounded exotic, and therefore potentially interesting. I was disappointed then to discover that it was a poorly animated, outdated-looking slice of life series featuring a middle-aged woman and her family.

Fast-forward to 2009 and my visit to the Machiko Hasegawa art museum in Setagaya. I'm in the goods shop and I decide to buy the first volume of the manga to get a feel for how the series started. I'm a lot older now, and I'm much more interested in the history of manga. I also know that Machiko was the first woman to get an Award of Merit from the Anime Association at the Tokyo Anime Fair, and one of my students had recommended that I watch the TV show in order to learn Japanese, because it features typically-spoken language.

(Artwork copyright the Hasegawa estate, reprinted here for review purposes only.)

The "Sazae-san" manga first started in 1946 in a local Kyushu newspaper, and it moved to the Tokyo Asahi paper in 1949. The strip always had a simple 4-panel gag format with set-up in the first three panels, and the punchline in the last one (but naturally there were exceptions, with some gags running 8 panels or so). In the first volume, the line art is simple, there's just enough of the backgrounds to show where the gag is taking place, and the characters look fairly crude. The "story" revolves around the daily activities of Sazae Fuguta, a 27-year old woman initially living in a backwater village in Kyushu, with appearances by her much younger brother (Katsuo, 11) and sister (Wakame, 9) and her parents (Namihei, 54, and Fune, 48). Occasionally, she's joined by a close friend, an unnamed young woman that likes stylish western dresses and shoes. It's unclear what the family business is - sometimes they seem to run a small Japanese-style inn, other times they have a farm or large garden. Sazae often is shown selling food at a small outdoor stall.

The thing that's fascinating to me is how Machiko had so clearly captured life in a post WW II country-side village. People are poor, but happy. Life goes on, despite the occasional appearance of U.S. soldiers. People flock to the local movie theater to watch Hollywood films, read magazines featuring pictures of Tyrone Powers, or listen to Chopin on hand-wound record players. It's still a major thrill to travel to Tokyo on a crowded train, or to play games with other kids in the streets.

I'm running three strips here to show how Machiko viewed the stereotypical U.S. soldier, in contrast with "regular Japanese". And how she viewed the use of English at the same time. Note that the English in the panel with the blond girl is spelled out phonetically in the Japanese katakana script, so it's not going to look the same translated in English.

Volume 1 is very easy to read, and I finished the entire book in a few hours (helps that it's a short book). But, there are a number of jokes that are so embedded in the culture of the time that I have no idea what's going on. Most of the humor comes from someone being caught making a mistake, or the outcome just not being what the character expected. Very simple, uncomplicated stories that look naive or bumbling now, but are a great insight to how people thought and acted at the time. I don't plan on buying any more volumes any time soon, but I won't rule it out completely.

(As a sidenote, for contrast, Osamu Tezuka also started drawing manga at this time, with "Diary of Ma-chan" being published in 1946, and his break-out series "Shin Takarajima" (New Treasure Island) coming out in 1947. "Astro Boy" didn't appear until 1952.)

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