April 9, 2013 posted by

The Longest Running TV Cartoon, Ever


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.

Gigantor_smallJapanese 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.

Sazae-san_comic200However, 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.

sazae_200Even 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:


  • It’s interesting that these sort of ‘slice of life’ shows never became as popular overseas in America. (Personally, I think they can have a lot charm and be quite relatable at times.) Also, is there a reason as to why Hasegawa was against releasing any episodes to the home format? It’s rather unusual to say the least.

    • Supposedly she didn’t want people comparing new episodes with the old ones. Maybe she was worried they would stop making new episodes if older ones were readily available.

    • Probably so they can reuse the same plots every five or ten years. With no home video releases or reruns, no one would be able to tell the difference!

    • “Probably so they can reuse the same plots every five or ten years. With no home video releases or reruns, no one would be able to tell the difference!”

      I can see Eiken’s game here! No doubt repeating yourself without much recorded evidence thereof makes it all the more reason to keep the gravy train piled up and moving along without stopping!

    • There was at one point in time, along with it’s usual Sunday showings, a “Tuesday” show. which I think repeated earlier episodes of the series. Here’s it’s opening sequence

  • “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.”

    Well, yeah. Gigantor was made in the 1960s. Is Eiken doing anything besides Sazae-san today?

    • Yes, they’re doing yet another “Gigantor” revival called “Tetsujin 28-go Gao!” which debuted on April 6.

    • “Yes, they’re doing yet another “Gigantor” revival called “Tetsujin 28-go Gao!” which debuted on April 6.”

      Whether the US fans take note, who knows.

      Here’s a rundown of works over the years courtesy of their webpage!

  • One thing Sazae-san proves that the American media giants do not get is how you don’t always have to keep changing to stay fresh at all. Of course I suppose Japanese TV has always been this way for quite a long time, but it’s something that feels very unique and not as stuffy or in-your-face as I’ve noticed American TV becoming with every passing year.

  • I like the sounds in this series. I only wish that there was an English translation–that is a reason enough to give it a home video release, for the collectors who might like to add this to their library…and, hey, an alternate track could be created with English translation. This is a period in anime history that I enjoy, because the actors used for English translations were talented nad could keep up with the very fast Japanese dialogue.

    • Best we managed to get is several collected volumes of the comic strip in English you can find over at Amazon (these were published by Kodansha International back in the 90’s).

      Being off-topic for the moment, another Japanese comic strip (or “4 koma” as they call it) that did see an animated feature film released c/o Studio Ghibli was “My Neighbors The Yamadas”. I suppose I only bring this up because the film did see a US DVD release with a decent cast for the English dub. It’s quite a good film.

  • Sazae-san has also never had an animated film, apparently there are two live action movies that predate the show, even when its ratings rival Chibi Maruko Chan had at least one. Meanwhile other top rated series like Crayon Shin Chan, Doraemon and Detective Conan practically have one new film entry each year.

    • There was also a live-action “Sazae-San” TV series that pre-dates the cartoon.

    • Perhaps it proved difficult to sustain the family outside those 6-7 minute episodes or an occasional special here and there. I wouldn’t mind seeing one if or when it happens.

  • …. where do they get their budget?

    If there are no reruns and no releases other than the TV broadcast, how do they expect to get money to produce more episodes? Do the Japanese just have that kind of habit when watching TV?

    • Well their longtime sponsor is Toshiba, I’m sure they fit the bill long enough, though lately they’ve opened up to other sponsors who come and go in every show. Here’s an ad with the guys using a mochi maker!

      I mentioned earlier about the specials, here’s one from around 2004 to coincide with the show’s 35th anniversary…

    • The cartoon is also overwhelmingly the highest rated anime on television even today, always at the top of the charts. Those princely ratings are what guarantees the continued renewal for the series.

  • Thats most unique, no DVD release ever, not because the material of the show is considers offensive. Now Japanese are know for keeping there honors agreements no matter what, not sure if such agreement would be honored elsewhere, all though we do know for the fact that no new Peanuts strips have been made ever since Charles M. Schulz passed away. Would also be intresting to know what happens to this show if it ever get cancelled.

    • That would be a sad time I’m sure Kristjan unless there’s a way they could repeat the episodes on a satellite channel elsewhere in the country.

    • Yes, Cris, at lest we can hope they don’t employ some junking policy, thus all those epiodes are saved, that have been employed by various studios and cause many early TV shows to go lost. Like BBC’s Doctor Who (live-action), although I don’t know top of my hand about examples from America.

  • Insert Oggy and the cockroaches for 20 Yrs running

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