Crayon Shin-chan is one of the biggest anime franchises of all time. The series has spanned over 20 years of constant production and has a level of popularity overseas that rivals The Simpsons. And yet, you’d be hard pressed to find many fans of it in most anime communities. It isn’t surprising: with the series as long as it is, it can be hard to know where to begin. This post will give a clear introduction to the series for those interested in trying it out.
Shin-chan is a family cartoon in the style of The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, King of the Hill, and others: it stars a middle class family’s daily life and their occasional run-ins with extraordinary, supernatural phenomenon. The appeal of these kinds of shows comes from the characters and the main family members here are all very endearing. The titular Shin-chan is an elementary school boy with a constant poker face and unwillingness to take anything seriously. Even when he and his family are in dangerous life-or-death scenarios he’ll go out of his way to make dumb jokes. With him are his infant sister Himawari, his nervous dog Shiro, his parents Hiroshi and Misae, and a large expanded cast set against the backdrop of the Saitama Prefecture. While Shin-chan’s unserious personality generates much of the show’s comedy, I find the best characters to be Hiroshi and Misae. As is the case in most of these family shows the parents can be as selfish and juvenile as the kids, but they always rise to the occasion without it feeling inauthentic. In contrast to the parents of American family cartoons like The Simpsons or Family Guy, they’re more overworked and stressed out than lazy, which makes it easier to emphasize with them for me. They’re always having to rescue their reckless children from strange and implausible circumstances despite being completely out of their depth. They have great chemistry too, even if they’re easily distracted by attractive members of the opposite sex. It’s this honesty in Shin-chan’s portrayal of the Japanese middle class that made it such a hit.
Part of this honesty is the show’s extreme lowbrow comedy. You might not know it going in but Shin-chan runs the gamut of toilet and sex jokes. Everything is caricatured; no one is allowed to be cool in Shin-chan without also having a name that sounds like “Poop” or being excessively ticklish. Body humor is the great leveler in the Shin-chan universe and is usually the reason why Shin-chan himself comes out on top. A few of the jokes might feel outdated or come across as sexist and homophobic but it all follows from the show’s anarchic satire of the middle class mentality.
When talking about Shin-chan it should be noted that there’s really two Shin-chan series: the weekly television show and the highly successful yearly film series. Though I’d recommend starting with the latter before getting into the former, it’s worth covering the TV series in detail as it was where everything started.
Each episode of Shin-chan TV is split into 2-3 vignettes that depict everyday scenarios of the Nohara family and their acquaintances. Each vignette has a separate director, writer, and animation director so it’s fairly common that episodes will be a mixed bag but the quality is quite high overall for a Shin Ei show. Given the flexibility of the format, the success of any given Shin-chan episode usually has to do with execution. Thankfully Shin-chan in its prime had more production muscle than Shin Ei’s other big franchise Doraemon. The most immediate differentiator is in the animation, which is what initially drew many normal anime fans to the show. The weird wavy-line designs weren’t present in the original manga but were an innovation brought about by various animators, most notably Shizuka Hayashi. Hayashi not only spearheaded the development of the new designs, she also introduced the idea of greatly modulating framerate during funny scenes (including animating Shin-chan’s “butt dance” on the 1s). Three other sakkans followed her lead and diversified the show’s animation style further: Masami Otsuka, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, and Masaaki Yuasa. Background animation, psychedelic colors, and strange designs became part of the show’s visual identity. Even today when the show is firmly past its prime, the series likes to present its experimental animation front and center.
Over the years Shin-chan TV has hosted several talented directors: Sunao Katabuchi (Mai Mai Miracle), Kazuki Akane (Escaflowne), Masayuki Yoshihara (Eccentric Family), and Itsuro Kawasaki (Sengoku Basara) are among the most prominent. However, far and away the best director on the series was Masaaki Yuasa. Today Yuasa is famous among anime fans but back in the early 90s when Shin-chan was taking off he was relatively unknown. Shin-chan was actually his first opportunity to direct rather than just animate and the setting’s mixture of trippy whimsy and low slapstick fit his sensibilities perfectly. Yuasa’s two best contributions to the show are the “Adventures of Buriburizaemon” specials and the SHIN-MEN miniseries. “Adventures of Buriburizaemon” was a four-part story released over a couple years in the numerous specials. Set in Japan’s past, it’s a sublime mix of sword fights and sight gags wholly directed, written, and animated by Yuasa himself. The specials also represent the apotheosis of the show’s designs with many shots so abstract that characters look like assemblages of geometric shapes. SHIN-MEN, on the other hand, is a mini-series from 2010, long after Yuasa had left the show and reflects Yuasa’s development as an artist by combining the aesthetics from Kaiba with tokusatsu action and Shin-chan’s peculiar brand of comedy. If you can only watch two things from Shin-chan TV, make it these two specials.
Unfortunately, due to Shin-chan’s obscurity in the English-speaking world, actually watching the TV series can be a pain. Fifty or so episodes were licensed and dubbed in English but they’re hardly a cross-section of the show’s best. Torrents for older Shin-chan episodes are often dead or nonexistent. If you want to watch Shin-chan TV the best method is hunting down Spanish dubs. Shin-chan is huge in Spain and Spanish sites generally have the most complete backlogs of the older episodes. However, another difficulty arises in that the broadcast order for the specials and even some of the episodes isn’t the same as the Japanese broadcast order, making it frustrating to track down a specific episode. That and the fact that it’s a hard series to marathon are the main reasons why I caution against starting with the TV series. If you wind up getting invested in the series, I recommend watching a few episodes here and there, keeping on the lookout for episodes sakkan’d by the main four (Hayashi, Otsuka, Yuasa, Sueyoshi), rather than bulk-watch entire seasons.
Another reason to skip the TV series and start with the films is that, well, the films are really good. The films are what got people watching Shin-chan in the first place and are a distillation of everything that makes the show great. They were intended to expand Shin-chan’s audience and cater to non-fans so you don’t need experience with the TV series to enjoy them. Above all, the films set a new bar for the yearly franchise movie. It isn’t that there haven’t been well-produced franchise films before – Hosoda’s One Piece film is still the pinnacle – but that they kept up this consistency unbroken for a decade. The first ten Shin-chan films represent the strongest streak of work in Shin Ei’s history.
Shin-chan defies the stereotype of the rote, procedural franchise film by having tons of creativity and verve injected into every installment. Starting with the second film, the director would always write the script themselves. Outside animators like Hiroyuki Nishimura, Yoshihiko Takakura, Hiroshi Shimizu, Yoshiji Kigami, Masahiro Sato, Mieko Hosoi, and Masahiro Ando (yes that Masahiro Ando) were brought on to spruce up the action. Each film after the first got a claymation opening by Takuya Ishida in what has become a tradition for the series. Ambition in animation, storytelling, and direction was the norm.
The Shin-chan films are broken up into different eras based on who was chief director of the TV series at the time. The chief director was always responsible for directing the films with the second most prominent director on the show as the assistant director. Whoever was assistant director would take over the series once the chief director retired from the series, leading to a pseudo-teacher/student relationship between the chief director and assistant director. The first in line was Mitsuru Hongo, who directed the first four films as well as directing the early seasons of the TV series. Hongo was the one who pushed for the Shin-chan films to become as lavish and well-made as they are. He used the TV series as a training ground for animators and directors, and whoever stood out there would be assigned big roles on the films. Hongo’s M.O. has always been to encourage unique animator talent (as in Outlaw Star and Kizuna Ichigeki), but the long-running nature of Shin-chan allowed this to an even greater degree. Yuasa in particular has sung the praises of Hongo’s supervision in interviews, saying that it was on Shin-chan under Hongo that he first experienced true creative freedom.
Hongo’s films are freeform, gag-heavy adventures that showcase the diverse range of talent on the Shin-chan series. Many of the norms for the series were set by Hongo: the musical interludes, the CQC fight sequences, and the tendency for each film to riff on a different genre (globe-trotting adventure, espionage, tokusatsu, etc.). The characterization is weaker than the subsequent films and the storytelling, while structured and coherent, isn’t exactly gripping. What they lack in pathos, however, they more than make up for in cool shit; Hongo’s films are full of grandiose setpieces that brilliantly mix comedy and action. Most significantly, Masaaki Yuasa was “setting designer” for the first six films, meaning he designed the different fantastical locations Shin-chan & co visit. Nowhere is Yuasa’s presence more strongly felt than in Hongo’s films, which are more fantastical in nature than the later films. The first, Action Kamen vs Haigure Mao, shows the most age of the ten and outside of Yuasa’s scene towards the end there isn’t that much that impresses. The second film, The Secret Treasure of Buri Buri Kingdom, is closer to the later films than the first, especially in terms of its tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes and extravagant presentation. Strangely, Yuasa didn’t animate anything in the second film despite doing so for the rest of the first eight films. The third and fourth films, Unkokusai’s Ambition and Adventure in Henderland respectively, are the best of the Hongo set. Unkokusai is a Sengoku era time travel mecha adventure which, despite the premise, is probably the most straight-faced of the Hongo films with tons of intense fight scenes and striking compositions. Yuasa designed the alternate future world towards the end and animated the over-the-top mecha battle finale. Number 4, Henderland, is set in an amusement park where Shin-chan gets entangled in a magical battle. The big draw here is the Henderland amusement park designed by Yuasa. Not only is the park’s design imaginative and vivid, the art director for the film was Eriko Shibayama, who did Yuasa’s Space Dandy episode and the best backgrounds in Rolling Girls, so the designs are done great justice by the background art. It also features a stunning finale animated by Yuasa which is in the running for his best scene in the entire series. Movie 4 is currently unsubbed.
Hongo’s films are good fun but never really displayed a strong authorial voice. Hongo conceived of the films as a way to promote the talent of others rather than a director’s singular vision. This changed when he passed the torch of chief direction to Keiichi Hara. Hara was a minor figure at Shin Ei whose previous projects 21-Emon and Esper Mami hadn’t taken off like he wanted them to. Hongo recognized Hara’s skill and let him storyboard all the quiet, lowkey sections of his films, something Hara evidently had a talent for. Hara directed films 5-10 and under his direction the Shin-chan series reached its broadest appeal. While Hongo’s films were great spectacles, Hara’s films aimed for something more “cinematic” in their presentation and storytelling. They served as an outlet for Hara’s many ideas and a springboard for his later solo career. The best comparison to Hara I can think of would be Mamoru Hosoda, who was doing similar work at Toei around this time. If you want to start somewhere with Shin-chan, Hara’s films are the best place to start.
The fifth film and the first by Hara, Pursuit of the Balls of Darkness, is a parody of martial arts films that has better action that most actual martial arts films. Masahiro Ando did great work on other entries but his fights here are incredible. The movie has a higher density of musical sequences too, a commonality of the Hara films. The climactic standoff on the tower has that classic Shin-chan balance between dead serious situations and goofy anticlimactic humor. Hara would revisit the tower motif in the ninth film and his later Summer Days with Coo. The sixth film, Pig Hoof’s Secret Mission, somehow goes farther in the production values. It’s a spy thriller parody with an amazing cold open animated entirely by Masayuki Yoshihara. Yuasa’s section, the film-within-a-film starring his favorite character Buriburizaemon, is another standout moment. One thing Hara’s films clearly do better than Hongo is the chase scenes – the car chase in 5 and the dogfight in 6 have no parallel in the earlier installments. There’s also a (mercifully brief) bit of experimentation with CG, which back in 1998 would not have been a cost-cutting measure. Hara’s films are satisfying both as conventional Shin-chan misadventures and as the genres they parody. They’re damn good at the basics while having a willingness to try new things. Above all Hara’s biggest accomplishment in these films was his mixing of the serious and the stupid and not making it feel strained.
The seventh film, The Hot Spring’s Feel Good Final Battle, is the weak link among the Hara films. It isn’t bad – the onsen mecha scene at the end is fantastic – but it’s not on the same level of the other Hara films. It lacks a distinctive identity even though the production is generally on-point. However, you should definitely watch the ‘Made in Saitama’ short film preceding the actual movie. It was directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, Hara’s assistant director who went on to establish a successful career in TV animation (including the recent Shirobako). It’s a collection of random vignettes featuring a musical about constipation and the debut of Yuichiro Sueyoshi’s brilliant background animation. A friend of Yuasa, Sueyoshi had contributed mock ‘gekiga’ scenes with thick sketchy lineart in the previous films but it was here that he first displayed his talent with hallucinogenic moving backgrounds. The eighth film, The Jungle, is a tropical adventure with the one-two punch of Ando and Yuasa for the finale. Interestingly it was something of a spiritual remake of the second film, as the tenth film would be for the third. Unfortunately Yuasa’s regular contributions to the films ended after the eighth. Movies 6 and 7 are currently unsubbed.
The ninth film, The Adult Empire Strikes Back, is generally singled out as the best in the series. It succeeds in the same way the previous Hara films do – loads of great setpieces, a structured narrative, effective characterization, and unusually good cinematography – but there’s a greater thematic pull than the others, jabbing at Japan’s culture of nostalgia and how it relates to Shin-chan’s popularity. By this film Hara was frustrated with the yearly grind of Shin-chan and wanted to branch out into non-franchise filmmaking, and Adult Empire contains a lot of that restless ambition. Some of the scenes, like the finale on the Tokyo Tower, reappeared in Hara’s first non-Shin-chan film Summer Days with Coo because Hara was already sketching out ideas for original stories. The ninth film saw Shin-chan at the height of its popularity and was for many a fitting capstone to the series.
However, the last Hara film, The Battle of the Warring States, might be my favorite of the ten. It’s neglected compared to the ninth but is in its own way just as ambitious. Here the Shin-chan characters are a thin pretense for Hara to make an Akira Kurasawa-esque historical drama with a surprisingly sophisticated depiction of contemporary ground warfare and behind-the-scenes politicking. It’s the only Shin-chan film to have uncorrected or at least minimally corrected drawings from Masami Otsuka. Otsuka was one of the most distinct sakkans on the show and mentor to Yuasa and Masatsugu Arakawa (character designer for Windy Tales and yet another talented person to emerge from Shin-chan). His style is Shin-chan at its most cubist and though he animated many of the song and dance sequences on the preceding films, his drawings were always heavily cleaned up. The film also originally had a lengthy crane shot that had to be ditched due to time constraints but the expertly staged mass battles that remain are just as impressive. Warring States retains much of Shin-chan’s signature humor but while watching you can tell that yearly films couldn’t contain all this talent anymore. You get the sense that Hara et al were too good to be wasting their time on family cartoons and deserved to work on bigger and better projects. This is the downside to fostering so much individually-minded talent: eventually they’ll want to move on.
After the tenth film, Hara more-or-less left the show to pursue his own ambitions as a director. It was a decisive moment for the franchise, when both the films and the TV series significantly declined in quality. Hayashi, Otsuka, and Sueyoshi stayed on as regular sakkans but the directorial pool dried up and the series suffered a poor transition to the digital era (the show’s vivid color being the biggest casualty). Tsutomu Mizushima was Hara’s successor as chief director but his tenure was brief. He directed the 11th and 12th films and though they aren’t failures per se and have plenty of great setpieces (from a production standpoint they feature Tetsuya Takeuchi, Yasunori Miyazawa, Ryoutarou Makihara, Kyoto Animation, and the triumphant return of Yuasa to the franchise), it was clear Mizushima didn’t have a vision for the future of the series. He was more interested in television direction anyway so his talents were ill-suited to yearly feature film releases.
Shin-chan after Mizushima’s departure and under Yuji Mutoh is even more of a desert. Occasionally the recent films have brought on outside talent (I’ve heard the 15th and 19th ones have some good animation, and the 21st has a script by Yoshio Urasawa of all people), but nothing comparable to the early run. However, even in its degraded state Shin-chan can still produce talented individuals. Two from recent years that are worth keeping an eye on are Kimiko Ueno and Wataru Takahashi. Ueno is a screenwriter who made waves last year by writing some of the funniest episodes of Space Dandy. She still works on the series with regularity but has been branching out recently and I hope she continues to do so.
Wataru Takahashi is a director who worked closely with Mizushima during his short reign and seemed to be the next in line to run the show but for whatever reason didn’t get an opportunity to direct until last year’s film Robot Dad Strikes Back (the 22nd movie). Takahashi’s film is easily the best entry since the 10th and a return to the spirit of the show’s glory days. Kazuki Nakashima of Gurren Lagann and Oh! Edo Rocket fame wrote the script and his penchant for bombastic unsubtle allegory works wonderfully in Shin-chan’s bizarre version of Saitama. Nakashima personally knew Shin-chan mangaka Yoshito Usui before Usui died and helped him edit the Shin-chan manga early in its run. He’s been a producer on some of the later Shin-chan films but this was the first one he served a creative role on. There’s more attention paid to the animation as well. Michio Mihara makes a guest appearance and the finale mecha battle was produced by Science Saru and directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa’s part is done in flash and though the animation feels floaty, the actual designs and choreography are well done. The storyboarding is also quite good and has a level of polish the other recent Shin-chan films noticeably lack. While I don’t think Robot Dad comes close to the highs of Hara’s films, I’m hoping that Wataru Takahashi directs more features and we see a modern revival of Shin-chan in the vein of Ayumu Watanabe’s revival of Doraemon in 2006. He isn’t directing this year’s film, so it’s unlikely he’ll be taking the reigns completely, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make another one in the next couple years. Movie 22 is currently unsubbed.
….And that’s the gist of Crayon Shin-chan. It’s a shame Shin-chan is so underrepresented in the English speaking world. It’d be great if a fansubbing group took the initiative to sub the first decade of the show or at the very least the remaining films that don’t have subs but the interest doesn’t seem to be there unfortunately.