31 July 2015

Some Theories About Good Manga 14

Yes, I have 90s bias. Not that I'd willingly return to the days of dial-up internet if I had a time machine, but since the universe intertwined my childhood to this decade, home sweet home it is. It's a decade that the anime and manga industry can definitely look back fondly on, despite the burst of the Japanese economic bubble, as it gave birth to multiple series so popular as to become icons of their respective mediums and even Japan itself. For most Westerners, series like Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, or Pokemon immediately come to mind. But for me, there's another series I look more fondly back on than any of these. A manga I fell in love with at the exact same age as its titular protagonist.


Yes, I'm talking about Crayon Shin-chan by Usui Yoshito (pen name; actual name is Usui Yoshihito), the Japanese Dennis the Menace. At a glance, the (American) Dennis the Menace comparison is not a bad one to make. Both cultural icons feature an unruly, eternally 5 year old boy with a white dog whose interactions with his exasperated parents and other adult figures form the bulk of their humour. But to simply reduce Crayon Shin-chan to a Japanese Dennis the Menace is to downplay its own merits. The mischievous child-archetype is common in fiction, and cultural icons simply can't be manufactured by following an already written formula. Calvin and Hobbes draws its appeal from Calvin's incredibly vivid imagination, Yotsubato from Yotsuba's childhood wonder and innocence, while Shin-chan appeals to audiences with his crudeness. The crude, sexual humour is often a shock to newcomers, who naturally assume that the simplistic art style and 5 year-old protagonist are markers of family-friendly stories demarcated by oven-mitt padded humour. But Crayon Shin-chan, unlike Dennis the Menace, Calvin and Hobbes, or Yotsubato, wasn't aimed exclusively at children or even the all-ages crowd. Serialized in Manga Action (considered the first seinen magazine when established in '67), its first chapter immediately tells you that this manga is NOT for children.
First chapter? Look closely at the character designs.
This might come as a surprise, and some of you may even object, pointing out that the first chapter in volume 1 (pictured above) is fine for an all-ages crowd, with the only questionable element being Shin-chan's penis. And even then, little boy penises are safe by Japanese standards, to the dismay of puritanical Westerners who see pedophiles hiding in every corner. But not only is this chapter in colour, both the mother Misae and Shin-chan look quite recognizable with their modern forms. Clearly this was a much later chapter that was inserted at the beginning for the tankoban release or a tankoban-only special chapter, which isn't an uncommon sight.
Actual first chapter? Guess again!
Being more attentive to the character designs, you may then point out the first black and white chapter in volume 1. Here, the shape of Shin-chan's face looks rather off and you may as well mistake Misae for a completely different woman. Guess again, because this is the 23rd serialized chapter (Misae is introduced for the first time here). You see, Crayon Shin-chan's a little different than your average manga because its tankoban order doesn't necessarily correspond to its serialization order. Usui and his editors go back to group chapters roughly by content, setting, or appearing characters so that each tankoban will be divided into several sections, with each section getting a title. Knowing this, you'd guess that the first chapter is hidden somewhere in volume 1, just not at the beginning. Well, guess again because the first chapter is nowhere to be found in the first volume. In fact, hold on to your butts for this bombshell: Chapter 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 62 were never included in any tankoban release. You need to find the original weekly magazines of Manga Action (I'm told the Tokyo Metropolitan Library has a copy of these rare magazines) to read these chapters. It's quite bizarre to think that 10 out of the first 20 chapters (literally HALF) of such an immensely popular manga is pretty much unavailable for the general consumer. Usui nor Futaba Publishing has ever officially stated a reason why these chapters were cut and are still yet unavailable in any release of Crayon Shin-chan to date, but let's explore some theories.
Behold, the actual 1st chapter of Crayon Shin-chan
Not too long ago, this image surfaced on the internet. It's a low quality camera pic of the 1st-ever chapter of Crayon Shin-chan serialized in the September 4th issue of Manga Action in 1990. This isn't a full version, as the actual chapter is much longer, but the story deals with Shin-chan's first day at kindergarten. Even without knowing Japanese, you can clearly see the very first gag in Crayon Shin-chan was accidental cunnilingus. Now you might think that this sexual humour was too risqué and therefore cut, but let's not forget this scene in the 1st tankoban volume.
Volume 1, p.56
I don't think clothed cunnilingus is any more lewd than naked missionary sex (unless by some twisted Christian logic you argue that cunnilingus is sexual pleasure that cannot lead to pregnancy and thus sinful in the eyes of God), so I don't really buy the 2lewd4kids explanation of why this was cut from the tankoban.
Child discipline abuse has never been funnier
Another explanation for why the 1st chapter was cut is the violence. Throughout the manga, it's almost always Misae who inflicts corporal punishment on Shin-chan, and these are presented in a comedic way like cartoonish lumps on the head. Shin-chan bleeding from being hit is never a thing, so it's a double-shock that not only a kindergarten teacher dared to raise hand against a 5 year old child, but she hit him hard enough with a hammer so as to make him bleed. Interestingly enough, there is one early exception to this, as seen below.
Volume 2, p.93 (4th serialized chapter)
This scene in which the lunch-lady has literally beaten Shin's face to a bloody pulp is from volume 2 but is actually the 4th serialized chapter, thereby making it the oldest chapter to be published in a tankoban release. Seeing as how this chapter survived the cut, neither sexual nor violent humour seems to adequately explain why Usui cut half of the first 20 chapters.
Pics from the 2nd (?) serialized chapter
Judging from the scant few images of the cut chapters, there are other oddities a long-time fan can spot. One is the drastic deformation of Shin-chan's face for comic purposes, which is quite distinct from when Misae stretches out his face or when Shin-chan willingly srunches up his face like an anus. But from what I can gather from reading summaries and impressions, the aspect that feels most off about these cut chapters is that Shin-chan is too... adult-like. A mind of a perverted teenager/adult put in a child's body, in other words. He knows what buttons to press against the adult-figures, and why that may trigger a response. He even knowingly makes references only teens/adults would understand, like Picasso or the Tiananmen Square incident. The Shin-chan in the tankoban chapters, however, is a child through and through despite his peculiarities. He likes to ogle women but doesn't understand sex. He displays odd behaviour without realizing that it's odd. And if he makes an adult reference, it's because he simply heard it on tv or from another adult, not because he understood the meaning or context behind it. In short, he's like Yotsuba in the sense that it's their genuine childhood ignorance toward worldly things which set up the comedy. But the proto-Shin-chan is a result of Usui aiming for an exclusive adult audience, in line with the seinen magazine he serialized under. So why the change?
Well, no one knows for sure, but my personal theory is the anime adaptation. The Crayon Shin-chan anime is more popular and successful than the original manga, and it's what catapulted a would-be obscure adult comedy into the family-friendly cultural icon it is today. It's also notable from an animation standpoint too, as many notable animators worked on the show over the years, with Yuasa Masaaki probably being the best-known example to Westerners (look at anipages for more info on that). In any case, it's only natural that a hugely popular anime adaptation would in turn influence the original manga, but this is NOT what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the change in the manga direction before and after the first 20 chapters, which were all serialized long before the anime. Now here are some interesting facts:

-The chapters in the early Shin-chan volumes were almost always 3 pages long (later volumes would regularly feature 4-page chapters with the occasional longer-length stories).
-Shin-chan volumes are also ~120 pages long. Standard tankoban length is ~200 pages but it's not uncommon for gag/4koma manga to have shorter tankoban.
-the manga began its serialization in August of 1990, and by the same month in 1991, there were enough chapters for the first 120 page volume

With all that in mind, when would you expect the first tankoban volume to be on sale for the public? With most manga, you can expect a new volume to be out 2-3 months after there are enough chapters to fill out a volume. So you'd expect the first Shin-chan volume to have gone on sale by the end of 1991, right?
Volume 1 released in Apr. 11, 1992
That's what I guessed and I was wrong. The first volume wasn't published until April of 1992. Above picture says May 11, but it's not. Japanese manga can have differences in their sale date (発売日) and publication issue date (発行日). In any case, do you know what else happened in April of 1992? The debut of the Crayon Shin-chan anime. In fact, it aired on Apr. 13, just TWO DAYS after the release of volume 1. And just 2 months later, the second volume was released. This is obviously no coincidence. While it's not unusual to have an anime adaptation start airing around the same time as a new manga volume is out, I think it is unusual that Crayon Shin-chan had its very first volume delayed just to time it with the anime. With a new manga series that has yet to attract popularity, you'd want to put it in the public's eye quickly so that companies in anime production committees will be more likely to invest in an anime adaptation. Hence, with Crayon Shin-chan, the talks for an anime adaptation were probably in the works by late 1991. My pet theory is that by sometime around the serialization of the 20th chapter (early 1991), a higher-up at Manga Action or Futaba publishing saw the amazing potential in a Shin-chan anime and pushed heavily for it. Obviously, to maximize profits in a country where the bubble economy had recently burst and an industry where you could no longer throw money at animation studios to make an OVA that only niche audiences would appreciate, widening the target demographic to include children must have been a condition that investors were unlikely to budge from. In early 1991, Usui was still just an obscure mangaka who had only done the 3-volume long Darakuya Story Monogatari and was working on OL Gumi along with Crayon Shin-chan. For him, the idea of his work getting an anime adaptation must have been beyond belief, and even if he didn't quite agree with making his work more accessible for kids, he would have been a fool to stick by a deluded sense of artistic integrity. I say "even if," because I'd like to think Usui himself genuinely thought the change would improve the manga's quality.
tl;dr version of my theory
-Higher-up thinks Crayon Shin-chan would make a good children's anime.
-Talks to Usui about it and suggests having Shin-chan behave more like a genuine kid, albeit still mischievous and perverted
-1st volume release is timed to coincide with anime's release with the 2nd volume following shortly after, and the chapters in which Shin-chan most noticeably doesn't act like a kid are excluded from these 2 volumes

Believable or not? You tell me. I really wish Usui gave the world an actual answer before his unfortunate passing.

1: Vol. 1.   2: Vol. 4
3: Vol. 13   4: Vol.25   5: Vol. 50
As an addendum to this post, I want to talk about a few more things in Crayon Shin-chan that I adore but I think goes under-appreciated. One is the iconic design. Although pretty much every iconic symbol or drawn character relies on just one or two immediately recognizable features marking a relatively simple shape, it's weird how many artists in anime, manga, or video games fail to realize this by by either cluttering up designs with useless, distracting details or forgettable, cookie-cutter features. For 4koma/gag manga, where detailed art is an exception and not a norm, very simple but memorable designs are almost a must-have to succeed. In Shin-chan's case, Usui only needed to use 2 features: Head shape and thick eyebrows. These two features are so memorable that even if the worst drawer in the world were to read a single chapter, he could still probably churn out some mangled shape that still looks like Shin-chan. Since these two features essentially define Shin-chan's look, it's not surprising that they've also undergone the most change over the years as Usui attempted to refine it. The eyebrows grew much thicker and the once blocky head became very slanted before settling into a design that emphasizes the transition from the forehead to the cheeks. If you're more attentive, you'll also notice that for just a few chapters very early on, Usui experimented with drawing in the ear holes before dropping it. It's a good thing he did, as it's just unnecessary clutter that really doesn't add much in an art style that's not aiming for realism.
The other thing that I think is a brilliant move on Usui's part is seen in the above image. Go read a random chapter of any manga series. Doesn't matter the genre, serialized year, or target demographic. Now let me ask you, "How often do you see the main character from behind?" The answer is obvious, right? Although they take more effort to draw, front and profile views are more common because they're more expressive (duh) and distinguishable. Usui, however, has found the ultimate loophole. He draws at an angle that makes the overall head shape identical from the front as well as the rear, resulting in a character who's both instantly recognizable from both views. Whereas the head shape and eyebrows define the frontal view, the rear view is defined by the head shape and ear, hence the distinct ear design. Shin-chan's expressions are not as variable as other famous comedy manga protagonists. Whereas other mangaka spend much effort on perfecting many different "reaction-faces," Shin-chan wears only a few basic set of expressions on his face for the most part. But this limited repertoire is greatly enhanced by the use of this rear view which makes us the reader do the work by imagining Shin-chan's expression. In the 40th serialized chapter (vol 1, p.61, above image on the right), Usui adds one more small detail for the first time to create an iconic reaction-face: the grin.
It's hard for me to put my love for this grin into words. It's such a simple and minor addition to the face which even a 5-year old could draw, but to me it's the perfect shit-eating grin. It just crystallizes the image of Shin-chan off in his own personal space, smugly laughing alone, usually to the annoyance or anger of others. I will NEVER get tired of this face.
The very last topic I want to cover in this post is the translation issues. I know there are some purists who absolutely detest the adult swim dub of Shin-chan, believing that it made an all-ages comedy with both crass and heart-warming elements into a grotesque mass of toilet-humour and mindless pop-culture reference so as to be Family Guy 2.0. As much as I like the original manga, I'm not one of these people, and I actually enjoyed the dub for what it was (not an adaptation, but its own unique thing). Some of the purists prefer the localized manga translations by CMX and One Peace Books, where the more liberal changes are usually restricted to replacing some 90s Japanese idol/actress with a modern American one. But as faithful as these translations are, I just can't warm up to them as I fret too much over what's lost in translation. It's not the loss of honorific suffixes or Japanese pop culture references that I care about (seriously, honorific suffix is such a trivial issue that I'm convinced only people who don't understand Japanese would harp on about it). Its the distinctive speech styles and connotations conveyed in the original Japanese lines that I miss. In the English translations, Shin-chan talks in complete sentences because there's a limit to how many syntatic elements you can drop in an English sentence before it just sounds like bad Engrish or ghetto-talk. If the lines were at least voiced like in anime, I can believe that Shin-chan is a kid, but as it is, he sounds more like a teenager than a 5-year old kid. There are also set phrases and words in Japanese tailored for a specific social context that the localization can translate the literal meaning but only weakly convey the same connotation. Although this is true for English-to-Japanese translations in general, and for all of my translations as well, it's so much more important in a comedy like Shin-chan where both the literal meaning and connotation carry the delivery of a joke. Shin-chan talking about mortgages or the stresses of life isn't just funny because the literal content of the dialogue is so unexpected of a 5-year old child. It's also funny because he switches to an adult speech-style which is so uncharacteristic of him. A shame, really. While I'd still recommend English-speakers to give either the Shin-chan anime or manga a try, I'd definitely suggest you to try reading the manga in its original language if you're studying Japanese. It uses some slang like in all manga, but its mostly hiragana so it shouldn't be too hard to read if you have trouble with kanji.

That's all for now. Congratulations to those of you who care enough about Crayon Shin-chan to have read through this post.

9 comments:

  1. Hox, even though I never reply to these, I just wanted to say I really enjoy reading them and hope you keep on writing them.

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    1. Thanks, I was wondering if my more recent Some Thoughts posts might not be becoming too long, but if there are people enjoying them nonetheless, I guess I'll pay no heed.

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  2. Having been born in 1989 I am a proud child of the 80's and you 90's kids are all beneath me.

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  3. I didn't expect a Crayon Shinchan post, much less a detailed summary about "lost chapters" which I didn't know until this.

    Since this manga is also a big part of my childhood, I kind of wonder if you are from Southeast Asia like me Hox.

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  4. Good stuff, Hox, keep these types of posts coming, they're always a fine read.

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  5. Thank you Hox!

    I also want to state that I am another one who truly enjoys your "some thoughts" post, maybe more than your scanlations (ok that would be stretching it, but its close). I think you always bring up interesting observations and train of thoughts that seems to demand quite some extended knowledge about the japanese language, history or among other things.

    My only reaction regarding the length of your rants is "awww its already over :(" and every slight detour you take from your line of reasoning, to point out something interesting, the more bonus content I feel that I get.
    The detours also helps to flesh out whatever it is you are writing about, which I often lack much (if any) knowledge about.

    Basically every time you write something you are inviting me into a brand new world with nuances, internal structure and workings I never before thought about. It's like I'm 5 again listening to captivating stories (only your dragons are Chinggis Khan and the kingdoms are ruled by perspectives and panelling).

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  6. Thanks for this awesome blog about my favorite manga/anime!

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