ONE OF JAPAN's best-loved cartoon characters, 'Sazae-san', has disappeared from our daily lives. She was a gently satirical portrait of the standard younger housewife, and was the creation of a woman who in some ways resembled her, Hasegawa Machiko. The Asahi Shimbun in a fine leading editorial praised her as the greatest Japanese cartoonist since the equally popular Tezuka Osamu.
Machiko was born in 1920 in Taku on the southern island of Kyushu. The family moved to Tokyo after her father's death in 1935. There she began drawing cartoons at the age of 15, graduated from a ladies' college and became a disciple of Tagawa Suiho, then Japan's leading cartoonist. Her first cartoons, Tanuki no omen ('Badger Mask') appeared in a girls' magazine, Shojo Club, in 1938.
Sazae-san first appeared in a local Fukuoka newspaper in 1946, then was carried by the Asahi Shimbun from December 1949 until February 1974. Machiko was the originator of the now basic four-panel cartoon, and her success inspired a host of women cartoonists to enter a field until then dominated by men. As well as Sazae-san she created 'Ijimaru- san' ('Nasty Old Granny') for the Sunday Mainichi, starting in 1957 and still played on television by the veteran comedian and member of the Diet Aoshima Yukio.
These two famous characters show two different sides of Machiko's character, for she was a very unusual Japanese. She was a very strong-minded, independent woman who never married - something still almost unthinkable for both men and women in Japanese society. Women and some men admired her individuality and sheer guts; a sake company wanted to sponsor her television version of Sazae-san when it started in 1969 but she indignantly refused, preferring to keep her integrity and the series started on NHK, a non-commercial channel.
Then she took a bus company to court for infringement of copyright when it used pictures of Sazae-san without her permission in its advertising - something unheard of for a woman. Her autobiography, Manechan, was made into a very successful morning television soap opera which I followed with great enjoyment all through the spring of 1979.
Machiko lived with her elder sister, with whom she started Shimaisha Publishing Company which has published 20 million paperback copies of her cartoons. Towards the end of her life she rarely left their house, preferring the company of cats and wild birds to that of human beings, and refused all requests to appear in public and on television. In her will she stated that the announcement of her death was not to be made until 35 days after her ashes had been laid to rest, for she believed 'The dead should not disturb the living.' Her funeral was a secret family affair, with no flowers. She had no friends either among cartoonists or the general public, but this did not prevent her from drawing the most intensely human of all Japanese cartoons, with humour and deep affection for her characters.
Critics and sociologists compared Sazae-san with 'Blondie' but there is no similarity, for Sazae-san is no feather-pated stay-at-home, but a highly articulate, active mother and housewife. The strip is more like Peanuts crossed with 'Denis the Menace' with an often very moving loyalty to traditional family values and warm-hearted neighbourliness of a kind now almost non-existent in Japanese cities. Its undogmatically moral, inimitably comic and reassuringly traditional saga of the old-style suburban three-generation family is classic in its period charm, as the movies of Ozu and Naruse appeal to all ages and help bridge the generation gap. The young look upon these products as happening in another country where the people happen to speak Japanese.
Sazae's family name is Isono, the first element of which means 'stony beach'. All the members of her family except her husband Masuo are given names associated with the sea, and Sazae's own name means 'top shell'. The bald-pated grandfather is Namike-san ('Calm Wave'), grandmother is Fune ('Boat'), the schoolboy brother of Sazae is Katsuo ('Bonito') while her two children are Wakame ('Seaweed') and Tara ('God'). There is also a delightful plump cat, but it is not given a fish name. The cartoon shows the daily round of home - kitchen, bath, television, garden, school, shopping, hot- spring excursions, department- store visits and chats in coffee shops, sake bars and commuter trains. All the family members gather round the low table in the tatami-floored living-room of their modest house in a Tokyo suburb to share the evening meal. Such scenes have now almost vanished from Japanese family life.
I loved this cartoon because it gave such a sympathetic picture of the Japanese, and it taught me a lot about customs and language. Many Japanese, too, loved it because it aroused nostalgic longings for a return to the less harried pre- economic miracle past, for a more formal yet less regimented society, a more human design for living.
The Isonos do not even have a car, though as the series progressed and Japanese affluence increased we saw them acquiring a washing-machine and a refrigerator. Their tastes are simple. They ride bicycles, and occasionally call a taxi. Calm Wave practises putting in the garden, plays go and shogi, cultivates bonsai and writes haiku, yet he and his son-in-law are obviously fairly prosperous office workers in the big city and twice a year there are little comedies surrounding their bonuses. There are no appalling karaoke bars or porno mags, there are no yakuza or politicians, no McDonalds and no Disneyland. Whenever I found myself becoming exasperated with the educational system or the crowded trains, an hour or so with Sazae-san would restore my good humour.
I mentioned her several times in my essays for Japanese students, and was rewarded by a kind postcard of thanks. In 1987, she opened her own museum in Tokyo, and a shopping arcade is named after her heroine.