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Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002


At last, a family cartoon playing it for real

Since virtually everyone has grown up in one, "family" is one of the few dramatic themes that can safely be called universal, even if no two families can ever be the same. Nevertheless, the popular arts, television in particular, are filled with families who are meant to represent all families.

Family life is as real as life gets, which is why animation, an art form that encourages fantasy, seems ill-suited to the re-creation of it.

In American cartoons, families have traditionally been rendered fantastic -- the prehistoric Flintstones, the futuristic Jetsons, the totally surreal Simpsons. But in Japan, where animation has always been given more leeway as a medium of expression, families can be treated pretty much as they are; or, at least, the way people think they're supposed to be. The longest-running TV series in Japan is the family cartoon, "Sazae-san" (Fuji; Sunday 6:30 p.m.), which has been a weekly ratings-buster ever since it premiered back in the '60s.

In its own way, "Sazae-san" is as much a fantasy as "The Flintstones" is, especially the older it gets. The title character is the eldest daughter in a middle-class family. Her husband has taken her name and moved in with her folks. (In fact, the husband's name, Masuo, has since entered the lexicon as a term to describe such husbands in general.) Eternally stuck in her late 20s or early 30s, Sazae shares her house not only with her partner, her toddler son, her mother and her still-working father, but also with her younger brother and sister, who are still in school. Now, exactly how representative is that of today's average Japanese household?

Probably not very, especially given the fact that, while the structure and style sense of the family in "Sazae-san" hasn't changed a whit since the '60s, the world around it has.

"Chibi Maruko" (Fuji; Sunday 6 p.m.), another popular family-focused cartoon, and one that started its run in the late '80s, manages to avoid such paradoxes by remaining firmly in the 1970s. The title character is a little girl who essentially stands in for the show's target demographic: women who grew up in the era the show depicts. While the themes are similar to the ones addressed in "Sazae-san," they are looked at from a little girl's-eye-view. The appeal of both shows is nostalgic, but "Chibi Maruko" strip-mines the past more blatantly.

Another aspect both shows share is their didacticism. Filial piety and neighborliness are inculcated in every script. In fact, it's this gentle moralizing tone, set by examples demonstrated in an ideal Japanese community, that seems more and more at odds with present realities.

The latest addition to cartoon domesticity, and one that also seems destined for long-term success, is "Atashin'chi" (Asahi; Friday 7:30 p.m.), the title of which is a contraction of the phrase "Watashi no uchi (my home)." As with "Sazae-san" and "Chibi Maruko," "Atashin'chi" started out as a manga, but author Eiko Hara, unlike her senpai (not surprisingly, the authors of all three cartoons are women), does not intend to present an idealized Japanese family. She presents the Tachibanas as being typical, and therefore open to ridicule.

Or maybe she just wants to get back at mom. As with all TV anime, the figures in "Atashin'chi" are either cute or caricatures of types. Mrs. Tachibana, the main character, is the exception. She is like no animated creature ever created, in Japan or elsewhere. Resembling a humongous thumb, or maybe a .38 caliber slug topped with a fringe of steel wool and laterally bisected by a slit-gash of a mouth, Mrs. Tachibana is not representative of anything humanoid, and that seems to be the subliminal point. She is every Japanese female's worst nightmare of what domestic life turns you into: shapeless, sexless, clueless.

As with all anime mothers, Mrs. Tachibana is a full-time housewife. Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko's mothers had three generations to attend to. Mrs. Tachibana has only her preternaturally reticent salaryman husband (to call him "monosyllabic" would be generous) and her two children -- high school-age daughter Mikan and junior high school-age son Yuzuhiko -- to look after in their urban condominium.

Mrs. Tachibana has been perverted by her modestly comfortable lot in life. A lot of the show is devoted to her obsessively silly methods of cleaning the house and creating meals that are invariably eaten by her charges with nary a nod of appreciation. (One of the show's running jokes is how much everybody prefers take-out.) More importantly, she never registers these slights, either visibly or audibly.

Mrs. Tachibana has a woefully short temper (flames leap out of her mouth when she's mad), but the family rarely responds to her flareups with anything more than mild annoyance. Mikan, like many girls her age, simply finds her mother an embarrassment. In one revealing episode, Mrs. Tachibana is invited on an overnight excursion to a hot-spring resort by two female friends, and she frets beforehand that the household will fall apart in her absence. Not only does the household not fall apart, but everybody sleeps the whole time she's gone. When she returns the next night, Mikan feels a twinge of guilt. It was nice not having the old chatterbox around.

This is hardly the bizarre satire you find on "The Simpsons," but it's also light years from the comforting falsities of "Sazae-san." There are no lessons to be learned on "Atashin'chi"; episodes never end with a character experiencing an epiphany about how great it is to belong to a family. Life is a joke, and Mrs. Tachibana is simply one of its more entertaining butts.

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