Curb your nostalgic Japanese childhood enthusiasm

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You don’t have to be a New York Jew to be neurotic. Being a Japanese little girl will do.

Chibi Maruko-Chan is a popular Japanese cartoon for children. It is about the life of a Japanese girl in elementary school. On the surface it’s a typical saccharine sweet Japanese show about growing up. Maruko is as adorable as can be. Her nickname Maruko means “chubby” and her last name means “cherry”. She dances with two cute bunny creatures in the end credits. You can see Maruko-related products everywhere in Asian countries.

But once in a while the show feels like a children’s version of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s like observational comedy for children. Maruko got herself into socially embarrassing and/or awkward situations all the time, but of course what is embarrassing to a little girl is slightly different from the encounters of Larry David and George Constanza (not that there is anything wrong with it).

For example, in one episode, Maruko-Chan played hide and seek so well that nobody could find her. When she came out she found out that the other kids already moved on to play other games. Maruko-Chan had to pretend that she wasn’t hiding (because being too serious about hide and seek is not cool, you know?), which got her into even deeper social embarrassment because she overcompensated and tried too hard to tell everybody that she didn’t care about hide and seek. Who knows that there’s so much social anxiety in the playground?

The other notable feature is that although the show appears to follow the formula where the main characters live in timeless, eternal youth, Maruko’s world is set in the 1970’s. You can detect it by the suburban landscape, the cars on the streets, outdated household items, and references to cultural and historical events. In one episode, a boy wowed his classmates by brining to class a mechanical pencil, which just hit the market. In other words, although it is not in-your-face obvious, Maruko-Chan is in our timeline about the same age as Elaine Benes. The show is about a middle-age woman revisiting her awkward childhood in a Japan that no longer exists.