He gives his parents lip, bares his bottom and makes a lot of jokes about breaking wind. All in all, Shinnosuke Nohara is not the son that the average Japanese parent would be proud of. Another enduring trait is that the rabble-rousing 5-year-old – better known as Crayon Shin-chan – simply refuses to grow up.
This spring marks the 25th anniversary of this two-dimensional terror making his first appearance in an animated television programme on TV Asahi, two years after he had stormed into the Japanese consciousness in the pages of Weekly Manga Action.
Japan is no stranger to enduring animated television series – Sazae-san started as a comic strip in a local newspaper in April 1946, has seen more than 7,600 print and TV episodes and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-running animated TV show – but Crayon Shin-chan is a very different creature.
“Crayon Shin-chan is the irreverent child of Sazae-san and when he made his television debut in 1992, it took people by surprise,” said Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese pop culture has invaded the US.
“This is the utter lampooning of all the Japanese respectability that was so carefully created after the war in the same way that The Simpsons was the lampooning of the American dream,” he told This Week in Asia.
Crayon Shin-chan’s household is archetypically Japanese; the family lives in Kasukabe, in the commuter belt of Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo, his father is a hard-working salaryman who looks perpetually wearied and his mother is a harassed housewife. He has a baby sister named Himawari, which translates as sunflower, a dog called Shiro and leads a gang of four similarly irascible 5-year-olds on adventures that invariably end in naughtiness.
Crayon Shin-chan was originally the work of Yoshito Usui, who died in a climbing accident in 2009. The following year, his design team resumed work on the series.
“The entire concept behind the series is a joke on all that is acceptable and expected in Japanese society but, at the same time, it always comes back to maintaining the security and sanctity of the family,” said Kelts, who is on a Nieman fellowship in Harvard while he writes a new book.
“Just like Bart Simpson, Crayon shin-chan bares his buttocks and answers his parents and his teachers back, but the family always remains the locus of power,” he said. “That is the bedrock of Japanese society and the heart of this civilisation. And that is why it works.”
Still, the kid from the suburbs has ruffled plenty of feathers during his quarter-century run.
Aside from the jokes that are in questionable taste and repeated exposure of his backside, Shin-chan cannot be dissuaded from calling his mother by her first name – a serious no-no in Japanese society – declaring his admiration for attractive young women and a startling lack of tact when addressing his elders. In one episode, he asks a hardened member of one of Japan’s underworld groups, “So, how often to you have to go to the police?”
“I loved the TV series when I was a child,” said Satsuki Aida, a manga artist. “I always really liked his voice because it’s strange and deep, plus the way he spoke to everyone was naughty. Especially when he spoke to his parents.”
Aida, now 35 and a housewife living in Yokohama, says the characters that she created and developed during her own manga career were not directly inspired by Crayon Shin-chan, but she clearly still has a soft spot for a character who has inspired both angst and anger in parents and teachers since his first buttocks-waving appearance.
Perhaps tellingly, Aida does not allow her own 4-year-old daughter to watch Crayon Shin-chan.
“She knows who he is because she was given some stickers of him, but she doesn’t know that he is a naughty boy,” she added.
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As well as the original Japanese versions of the TV programme, the show has been dubbed into numerous languages, including Italian, German, French, Spanish and Polish. The show was also released in Holland but withdrawn after complaints by parents. It was censored and toned down in South Korea and Malaysia and was criticised in Vietnamese media for its content.
The Parents and Teachers Association of India objected so strongly that the programme sets a bad example to children that it was banned in 2008 by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, although a heavily censored version was resurrected the following year.
“I didn’t think it would work at all well for a foreign audience because that kind of Japanese humour just does not travel well,” said Kelts.
“In the US, kids are not supposed to bare their buttocks and here is a kid encouraging them to do just that,” he added. “But it has sold internationally and I think that part of that might be because while it is comedy that can be seen to be childish, it is also sometimes quite profound.”