September 30, 2023

Anime(tion) domination

Fuji TV is home to three of the top five anime series in Japan. Even most anime fans outside Japan would be hard-pressed to name the top two.

The only surprise about One Piece, Sunday mornings at nine-thirty, is that it doesn't rank higher than fourth or fifth place. In second or third is Chibi Maruko-chan, Sunday evenings at six o'clock.

And finally in first place (by a wide margin), Sazae-san follows Chibi Maruko-chan at six-thirty. That is some serious animation domination for you.

At over 2,250 episodes, Sazae-san is officially the longest running animated television series on the planet. The manga by Machiko Hasegawa debuted in 1946 and ran until 1974. The anime has been on the air since 1969.

Though once considered quite liberal in its depiction of the role of women in society, the show avoids topical references and skirts the kind of changes brought on by technologies like smartphones. As the producers of Sazae-san have explained,

The appeal of this anime is that it depicts scenes of everyday life and universal relationships that can be found in any family. We have no plans in the future to incorporate events or items that would change them.

As a result, even episodes from 2023 will give you a good idea what suburban culture and architecture in Japan looked like fifty years ago.

During her lifetime, beyond short-lived radio and television dramas, Hasegawa refused to merchandize the show in any form, including home video. Amazon Prime Video alone has streaming rights to a select number of older episodes and only in Japan.

The manga Chibi Maruko-san by Momoko Sakura has been published since 1986. The anime first ran from 1990 to 1992, relaunched in 1995, and has been on the air ever since.

Chibi Maruko-san is similarly a Showa drama that revolves around a traditional nuclear family and a grandparent or two. It is also set vaguely in the 1970s, though like Sazae-san, makes no attempt to pin down a specific time period.

Again, in-show references are to the general culture and not to the zeitgeist then or now. In other words, both shows appeal to modern audiences by making no attempt to appeal to modern audiences. Well, make that modern Japanese audiences.

To date, the Sazae-san anime has not been licensed outside Japan and Chibi Maruko-chan in only a few countries, most notably Germany and India. As Brian Hanson explains this apparent failure of supply and demand,

[Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan] don't look much like traditional anime and their stories couldn't be any further from the typical anime fare that sells well over here. Sazae-san is basically a distinctly Japanese family cartoon show, like a warmer, less-satirical version of The Simpsons. And Chibi Maruko-chan is sort of the same thing, except told from the point of view of a precocious little girl.

This creates a big mismatch in the marketing demographics outside Japan. These IPs are already so valuable in their home market that the rights holders have little to gain by shopping them to reluctant buyers for pennies on the dollar.

Unlike Machiko Hasegawa, Momoko Sakura was on board with marketing her creation in Japan, so Chibi Maruko-chan has its own website and merch. But only in Japanese.

Nippon Animation also decided that a big backlist has no promotional value just sitting there and made Chibi Maruko-chan available on YouTube. The official Chibi Maruko channel is home to a huge repository of promos and past episodes.

dLibrary Japan had one season of Chibi Maruko-chan, though there's no guarantee those shows will still be on the service when it returns next year after a planned hiatus.

As mentioned above, the only licensed distributor of Sazae-san in Japan is Amazon Prime Video. Of course, you can find bootleg episodes on YouTube.

Again, none of this content has been localized. Still, I think it's well worth familiarizing yourself with these touchstones of Japanese popular culture.

Related links

Chibi Maruko channel
Sazae-san (YouTube search)
The Showa drama
Popular anime you never heard of (probably)

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