Chibi Maruko-chan: A Boy from Italy (2015)
Nicholas Driscoll
May 19, 2016
Note: review may contain spoilers

If someone asked you what the most successful anime series of all time was, what would you answer? I would guess most Western viewers would immediately think of the likes of DragonballNeon Genesis Evangelion, and Naruto. There is good reason for such a reaction, given the massive success of said anime franchises and their continuing commodification in the form of new movies, toys, and merchandise. However, if you ask someone from Japan what the most successful anime series of all time is, you might get a very different response.

Arguably Sazae-San is the greatest anime series of all time, given the fact that it is the longest-running animated television series in the history of the planet, having been aired continually since 1969 with over 7000 episodes so far (none of which are available on home video, unfortunately, due to the creator’s wishes). The second greatest anime series of all time is sometimes given to a little anime called Chibi Maruko-chan—and that little charmer is the focus of today’s review..

Chibi Maruko-chan started as a semi-autobiographical manga series by Momoko Sakura in Ribon, a shojo manga magazine, back in 1986. The story centers on a young girl named Momoko Sakura who commonly goes by the nickname of Maruko-chan and her everyday adventures in school and at home during 1970s Japan. Maruko-chan is a funny, lazy girl who dreams of becoming a manga artist and has a loving family—this is no sci-fi or action-fest. I personally haven’t watched much of the cartoon adaptation (which was originally begun in 1990), though I have caught bits and pieces of it on TV. Basically, though, it’s light and warmhearted stuff that appeals to both children (who can easily identify with Maruko) and adults (who remember the 1970s). Japanese pop-culture historian and film critic Mark Schilling compares Chibi Maruko-chan to a kind of Japanese The Simpsons with less dark humor given its wide-ranging appeal and long-lasting popularity—Chibi Maruko-chan has surpassed 1000 episodes, while The Simpsons, which has been going for just a bit longer (and which didn’t take a several year hiatus, unlike Chibi) “just” has about 600 episodes as of this writing. Unlike Sazae-SanChibi Maruko-chan has had a great deal of merchandise and tie-in products, and it has also had a previous movie adaptation, Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song (1992), in addition to the movie I will be discussing today.

Despite the immense popularity of both Sazae-San and Chibi Maruko-chan in Japan, neither show has made much of any impact in America. Neither series has the kind of stories nor art-style expected from Japanese anime abroad. Even though I now live abroad in Japan (again, as of this writing), I also have had relatively little exposure to these two cultural juggernauts. Recently I made up for that lack a bit, though, when I went to see the 25th anniversary Chibi Maruko-chan movie, titled "Chibi Maruko-chan the Movie: A Boy from Italy", which was written by Momoko Sakura (who even wrote the song lyrics of the pop tunes that show up in the film!) and directed by Jun Takagi, who also worked on the television series. I saw the movie in raw Japanese, but the Japanese was simple enough that I could understand almost everything, barring a few of the jokes.

Let’s get the basic story out of the way first. The gist is that there are a number of international students coming to visit Maruko’s school and who are in the need of families for homestay experiences. Maruko and her friends meet the international students at a school event—there is a girl from Hong Kong, a girl from Brazil, a boy from India, a boy from Hawaii, another from America (isn’t Hawaii part of America?), and a boy from Italy named Andrea. When Maruko is introduced, Andrea takes an instant liking to her—in fact, he seems to confess his love for her upon their first meeting, and practically begs to homestay at her home. This could come across as creepy, but it turns out that Andrea’s favorite uncle was also named Marco (sounds like Maruko in Japanese)—an uncle that has since passed away, but who had a connection to Japan. One of the things Andrea wants to do while he is in Japan is to find some of his uncle’s old friends in Osaka, and luckily Maruko’s school is going on a trip to the Osaka/Kyoto area while Andrea is studying abroad in Japan. The movie, in addition to exploring the blossoming international friendships, follows the search for Andrea’s uncle’s friends—and in the process touches upon international understanding and dealing with loss.

Really, as I think back on the story, I am impressed with the sensitivity in which the themes of loss and death are dealt with. Sometimes when you say goodbye, that goodbye is the last time, and the movie doesn’t gloss over that sentiment. While the story is very simple and sometimes a bit saccharine, nevertheless it deals with deeper truths than many children’s films.

Which isn’t to say that the story is perfect. Most of the international students have personalities encapsulated by a particular activity—the Brazilian is loud and dances a lot, and that’s about it. Still, there really isn’t time for much more than broad brush treatment of secondary characters, so it’s understandable, especially in a film aimed more at kids. More frustrating for me was how the movie dealt with a socially awkward kid who everybody basically rejects and who has no friends—the whole thing is played for laughs, but I just felt bad for the little guy. In addition, the story occasionally relies a bit too heavily on coincidence, and even though the movie is only a smidge over an hour and a half, occasionally I just found myself getting sleepy. Still, one of the charms of the film is also in that slow, warm, inviting pace—this is not an adrenaline-junky sugar-rush like many children’s films in America.

The performances are also for the most part fine and delivered with spunk and vim. Maruko-chan’s family, I felt, was especially delightful, but even SOME of the minor characters can come across as being emotionally authentic and resonate with viewers. Still, I have a couple minor grumps to mention. From the very first time that Maruko-chan spoke in the movie, to be frank, I thought she sounded more like an old lady than a little girl. When I was watching the movie I didn’t realize that the voice actress, Tarako, was about 55 when this film was made, and I also don’t really know if she always sounded like this in the series. However, from beginning to end, the impression that Maruko is really a grandma rather than a little kid bugged at me. A similar problem plagues Andrea in that I thought he sounded like he was maybe a high schooler or college student with a “handsome guy” voice. Nevertheless, it’s not really that their performances are bad so much as the voices themselves seemed a bit off to me.

One other little complaint: when I go to a movie and shell out the cash to view that puppy on the big screen, if it’s an animated movie, I tend to expect to see some beautiful animation. Chibi Maruko-chan the Movie has simplistic drawings obviously—that’s the style from the comics and show—but for the most part the movie itself is also subdued, with little in the way of flash and style. I mention this just because, dadgummit, in Japan movie tickets are expensive, and it’s difficult for me to accept a simplistically animated film on the big screen for those prices. The movie itself is still fine, but don’t go in expecting gorgeous visuals.

Still, Chibi Maruko-chan: A Boy from Italy has really grown on me since I saw it and pondered it and made a video review of it in Japanese. The story is sweet and touching. When the characters must leave each other in the end, it is a bit sad, especially in light of how the film deals with the death of Andrea’s uncle and the unfulfilled expectation of being able to meet again. The music, too, is appropriate and infused with a couple inoffensive pop tunes. Overall, despite a few small warts, Chibi Maruko-chan the Movie is a pleasant, bite-sized piece of warm Japanese nostalgia and worthy of a watch.