Alot of people believe that The Simpsons is the longest running TV cartoon, ever. It’s easy to see why, with over 23 years and more than 500 episodes. However, there’s another TV cartoon that’s been running twice as long, and with a lot more episodes – and its anime.
Japanese studio Eiken has a long history with TV animation. Originally known as TCJ Dōga Center (TCJ = Television Corporation of Japan), they struck gold when Tetsujin 28-go (aka “Gigantor”) debuted on Fuji Television in October 20, 1963, just ten months after Astroboy began on that same network. TCJ was big on superhero shows; a month later their third series, 8th Man, began airing on the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) network. This was followed by Super Jetter (1965 TBS), Uchū Shōnen Soran (1965 TBS), Yūsei Shōnen Papī (we know it as “Prince Planet”) (1965 Fuji TV), and Yūsei Kamen (1966 Fuji TV), all superhero shows, all with similar premises.
Eventually though, TCJ seemed to have grown tired of the genre. By 1967 all of their superhero shows has been cancelled. As a replacement for Soran, TCJ produced Bōken Gabotenjima (1967 TBS), about a group of kids stranded on a deserted island. That same year they also did Skyers 5 (later remade in 1971, both shows on TBS), their take on the James Bond-esque spy genre. They adapted two of Sanpei Shirato’s ninja manga for television: Sasuke (1968 TBS) and Ninpū Kamui Gaiden (1969 Fuji TV). They even did some work for American television when Rankin-Bass subcontracted Cricket on the Hearth (1967 NBC) to them.
However, it was TCJ’s replacement for Ninpū Kamui Gaiden that ultimately became the studio’s signature show, and still going even today. On Sunday, October 5th, 1969, at 6:30 pm, Fuji Television started airing Sazae-san (“Mrs. Sazae”). Based on a newspaper comic strip by Machiko Hasegawa (click strip at left to enlarge) that ran from 1946 to 1974, the series featured a daily life of a Japanese family in suburban Tokyo. The main character is Sazae Fuguta (age 24), who is married to Masuo (28), an office “salaryman”. Together with their son Tarao (3), they live with Sazae’s family, consisting of Namihei Isono (father, age 54), Fune (mother, age 50), Katsuo (Sazae’s mischievous 11-year old brother), and Wakame (9-year old sister).
And that’s all there is to it, as far as the show’s premise goes: it really is about domestic family life in Japan. A typical Sazae-san story have the main character go shopping, only to have her purse go missing. Another may involve Namihei’s life in the office and the things that happen. Or Katsuo’s struggle with schoolwork. Story-wise, nothing exciting happens, it’s all just a normal family life.
And you know what? That’s fine. Not every cartoon need to be exciting or have gimmick. And it works well with Sazae-san, which to this day is the highest-rated cartoon on Japanese television. The show has been airing on that Sunday evening time slot almost every week for more than 43 years. The show outlived creator Machiko Hasegawa, who died in 1992. As I write this, there are more than 2,300 half-hour shows in the can. I should note that each show is split into three segments, so there are over 6,800 shorts made. And that number is increasing every week.
Sazae-san also has the distinction of being the only TV cartoon in the world that’s still cel-painted. For years it was shot on 16mm film (common with TV anime), but after switching to HD, they began photographing cels with digital camera. The only piece of animation that’s handled digitally is the opening title sequence, which changes every three months.
Even with over 2,000 episodes under its belt, not a single one was ever released on VHS or DVD. That’s because, before her death, Hasegawa requested that none of the episodes will be released on home media format. This request is still honored today, even as we move into the Blu-Ray and digital download era. To make it even harder for the fans, older episodes are rarely rerun (common with Japanese television). As a result, episodes of Sazae-san made before VCRs became common are extremely hard to find. Occasionally they will rerun older episodes on TV as part of their anniversary specials, but otherwise, the only way to see old episodes is to have access to the studio vaults.
As expected, the show’s directors, writers, animators, etc. came and went during its 43 years and counting run. However, there’s at least one writer who’s been on the show since the beginning: Shun’ichi Yukimuro. A very prolific animation writer in Japan, he has written over 1,000 scripts for this show since the beginning and he’s still writing on it today. And even then, he has had time to write on dozens of other animes that began and ended during the length of time this show was on air, and even before that he was everywhere on television; his first animation story credit was on Kimba the White Lion back in 1965.
American anime fans may know TCJ (the studio changed its name to “Eiken” in 1973) for making Gigantor, but it’s clear that Sazae-san is what’s keeping them in business.
Here’s the first episode from October 5th, 1969: