Child Stars and the Landscapes of Childhood

Does anyone ever really forget the landscapes of their childhood? The people, places, scenery and customs that shaped us in our early years can stay with us our entire lives, deeply influencing the paths we follow and the careers we carve out for ourselves.  This seems especially true of those who follow creative professions such as writing and art, music and design.  That premise is behind the new Magazine House book Comic Furusato Hokkaido which features works by twelve manga artists, all of whom were born on Japan’s northernmost island.

The style and subject matter of their work varies greatly but this book sets out to demonstrate that for all of them the landscapes of their childhood provided precious inspiration for their art. Some of the artists incorporated Hokkaido’s plentiful wildlife and harsh climate into their contributions. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who hails from Engaru north of Kitami, remembers the excitement of childhood trips to town in a horse-drawn sleigh made two or three times each winter. The wagon was bundled with blankets and hot water bottles to keep the family warm and with plenty of feed for the horse. Waki Yamato drew on urban memories of the Sapporo of half a century ago in Odori Koen de Kodomo Shiteta Koro (The Odori Park I Knew as a Child).

While the variety of manga selections is interesting, this is very much a manga-lovers’ book. Readers in search of more concrete information on the artists will be frustrated. Each contributor is given just a few paragraphs at the back of the book to present their views–and even those few paragraphs quickly reveal there is easily enough material here for another more penetrating study.  The only prose offering in the book is a two-page piece by Hokkaido’s most famous manga artist Kazuhiko Kato, born in Hamanaka on the eastern coast of Hokkaido in 1937. Better known by his pen name, Monkey Punch, Kato is the creator of the Lupin the Third manga. Several films and TV series have been based on the extremely popular series about world famous thief Arsene Lupin III, his accomplices and Police Inspector Zenigata, who is always hot on their trail but never seems to capture them.   In the essay, Kato remembers how he left the rural town east of Kushiro after high school feeling there was nothing stimulating there for a young person. Ten years later, after Lupin the Third took off, he returned for a visit and was shocked to discover the fantastic scenery, the flora, fauna and food he had taken for granted and which had seemed invisible to him before. He rediscovered the landscape of his youth and realized it had and would continue to be an important influence on his work.

On the same day the Hokkaido book was released, Magazine House also issued a companion volume called Comic Furusato Fukuoka, spotlighting the works of cartoonists from the northern Kyushu region. With the huge population of manga artists in Japan, it looks like the publisher has the makings of a long series ahead. Just 45 regions to go. But someone really should follow up with a prose volume that does justice to the lives and careers of these interesting Hokkaido creators.

The landscapes of our childhood influence our lives and careers but what about child actors who grow up laden with the burden of their own celebrity and surrounded by the somewhat unnatural landscapes of the entertainment world?  Many child actors have been known to face difficulties later in life. Ayako Kobayashi, the child actress who starred in the classic 1983-84 Japanese TV series Oshin, seems to have avoided such difficulties. She rarely appeared on TV after Oshin and went on to spend her childhood and teen years quietly before returning to the entertainment world as an adult to become a respected character actor. It has been revealed there are plans afoot to remake Oshin as a film and the cast is expected to be announced later this summer. It is nice Oshin, a 20th century women’s history lesson disguised as a drama, is being introduced to a new generation of viewers but it is hard to imagine anything ever surpassing the timeless original. Often rerun on satellite TV, it is still gripping drama over a quarter of a century later.

The 21st century Japanese TV drama world has been in the doldrums for several years now. The only thing that seems to be keeping it afloat is a large number of very talented child actors such as Mana Ashida and Fuku Suzuki. They starred in the very popular 2011 drama Marumo no Okite about a single office worker who attempts to raise his best friend’s orphaned twins rather than see them split up. Since that success, both children have lived their lives in the public eye appearing in one drama, variety show or film after another. Little Mana, who already has appeared in nine dramas and eight movies and released an album, has begun to look very weary.

What are the children’s summer plans? Fuku will star in a special Ikkyu-san drama on the Fuji network, June 30 at 9 p.m. Long an animated series favorite, Ikkyu-san is the story of the childhood of a 14th-century Zen Buddhist monk who offers clever, out-of-the-box answers to life’s most pressing questions. As the publicity shots at the Fuji website show, Fuku seems to be a perfect choice for this fun role.  Mana has had fewer fun roles. In July, she’ll star with Etsushi Toyokawa in Fuji’s Sunday night drama series Beautiful Rain.  She plays Miu, who is being raised by her widowed father Keisuke (Toyokawa), the cheerful, hardworking owner of a small factory in a Shitamachi Tokyo neighborhood. Life is going well until he is suddenly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This series looks like it will be a real tearjerker and a very hard job for an actress who doesn’t even turn 8 until June 23.