Monday, December 15, 2003


One of the things I want to do with this blog is to write descriptions of all the untranslated manga I own, despite not having read most of them yet. (I'm a very slow reader of Japanese.) Manga is a lot more diverse than one would gather from what's been published in the U.S. so far, and despite the current boom that's not likely to change anytime soon. I'll start with a review I wrote a while ago of a manga I have read, Chibi Maruko-chan vol. 12. Since then I've bought three more volumes in the series, but I haven't read them yet.

Chibi Maruko-chan #12
by Sakura Momoko
Ribon Mascot Comics, 1994
ISBN4-08-853771-8, 390 yen

This was an unexpected pleasure. I'd purchased it out of curiosity, because I knew that the anime was tremendously popular and and long-running in Japan, but was unlikely to ever be brought to the US because, as a domestic comedy, it was considered "too Japanese" and lacking in appeal to foreign otakus. And I decided to read it because I wanted to read something with furigana. Chibi Maruko-chan turns out to be something rare in American comics, and in Japanese comics too, judging from what I've seen at any rate: a comic about an ordinary child doing ordinary things.

Sakura Maruko is not an angel like the card-capturing Sakura, or a terror like Crayon Shin-chan or Calvin; nor is she a surrogate adult like the children in many American comic strips. Nor is she constantly having adventures, or coming up with wacky schemes. And while I've seen complaints that the anime is too cute, the manga's Maruko-chan is no cuter than the average eight-year-old. In fact she is just an average third-grade girl: sometimes good-hearted, more often self-centered, but usually cheerful. The book is made up of ten self-contained stories, each sixteen pages long. Based on Sakura Momoko's own childhood experiences, these stories revolve around small incidents played out realistically. In one, for example, Maruko sneaks a peek at her sister's "exchange diary" while starting one of her own with a friend; in another, she forgets various things she's supposed to bring to school and has to ask members of her family to bring them. Often, Maruko ends up in an embarrassing situation due to her own thoughtlessness, but the comic isn't out to teach lessons. The stories aim for gentle humor rather than big laughs, but the realism with which Maruko is portrayed makes them quite enjoyable.

Of the supporting characters, the most memorable, at least in this volume, is Maruko's grandfather, a foolish old man who dotes on Maruko. He indulges her in whatever she suggests; but since his judgment is no better than hers, the results are often unfortunate. Other major characters include Maruko's mother and sister, for whom Maruko is a trial and a pest respectively. We also see a lot of Maruko's classmates, but by and large they don't really come into focus as characters in this volume.

The art is unlike any other manga I've seen, whether shounen, shoujo, or four-panel strips like Sazae-san. Simply drawn, with large round heads and small eyes, the children look more like Peanuts characters than like the big-eyed kawaii children of most manga; and while Sakura's art is not as good as Charles Schulz's, it's much better than the average American comic strip today. The layouts, too, are straightforward, with a lot of panels per page.

This volume has a sort of calendar theme, with each story taking place at a different time of year, from early in the school year through summer vacation. There's also a bonus story in which Maruko meets Coji-coji, another of Sakura's characters, and they go twenty years into the future to meet Maruko's future self in a story that's both funny and touching. I would definitely recommend this, and I look forward to buying more volumes in the series.

A note on readability: this is a children's comic (or an all-ages comic, at any rate), so all the kanji have furigana (though the print is small enough that the furigana are occasionally difficult to make out). Some colloquial contractions are used, but I was able to figure them out from the context. More of a problem, surprisingly, were the sentence structures, which were sometimes unexpectedly complex for a children's comic. But overall this was an easy read.

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