‘Kobo-chan’ keeps 4-panel manga tradition alive for 40 years

“Kobo-chan Kessakusen” by Masashi Ueda

Kobo-chan Kessakusen (Kobo-chan: an anthology) by Masashi Ueda (Chuokoron-Shinsha)

In one strip of the manga “Kobo-chan,” a girl stumbles on the street and lets go of the balloon she was just given. The eponymous main character, who also got a balloon, sees the girl crying bitterly. What do you think he does next?

I’ll never forget the excitement and emotion that swept over me when I received this strip in 1997 from mangaka Masashi Ueda, the 5,256th installment of his “Kobo-chan.” Most people would expect Kobo-chan to give his balloon to the crying girl to comfort her, but he doesn’t. What did he do instead?

“Kobo-chan,” a four-panel manga series that has been carried in the morning edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun since April 1982, celebrated its 40th anniversary on April 1. It has now surpassed 14,000 strips, setting a record for the number of strips printed in a major national newspaper in Japan.

Ueda sends in a new strip daily, and the task of preparing it for the shakaimen, or general news page, of The Yomiuri Shimbun is assigned to a staff member in our cultural news department. This was my responsibility from 1994 until 2007.

Other media have asked me more and more frequently in recent years which installment was most memorable, from the viewpoint of a former editor. I always chose the one I described above. I’m also very happy to see that Ueda is becoming more famous as a result of being featured on TV and other media.

Sixty volumes of “Kobo-chan” books were published by Soyosha, but those are now out of print. In 2004, Hobunsha Co. took over and published “Shin Kobo-chan” (New Kobo-chan), which has reached 51 volumes in print. A digital version is also available online through The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The new publication I’m recommending today is an anthology commemorating the 40th anniversary of the manga. It comes in just one compact volume but is full of interesting and varied content, including a long interview with Ueda, best strips selected by theme, and commentaries on current affairs that served as the background to the comic over the last 40 years.

The most original element is the chapter “My best Kobo-chan,” which features strips chosen by six former Yomiuri Shimbun editors of “Kobo-chan.” Since I’m one of the six, I’m singing my own praises, but I think it turned out to be a fun, engaging project to see how our different personalities were reflected in our choices.

To choose my 10 favorites, I spent a whole week re-reading the available manga books and referred to The Yomiuri Shimbun to check the dates of their first printing. As I did this, I was impressed once again by the universal appeal of “Kobo-chan.”

Toward the end of the 1980s, there was a huge boom for “absurd four-panel manga,” which was led by Sensha Yoshida. The traditional story-telling style of kishotenketsu (a four-step dramatic structure with introduction, development, twist and conclusion) was considered unsuited for four-panel manga.

However, Ueda alone stuck to this classic approach. Re-reading his work, I saw again that he did this by using his drawings to express humor. For example, he’s excellent at finding things that look curiously similar to something else. Only someone who observes the world carefully and inquisitively can constantly come up with such ideas. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Ueda wanted to become a news photographer when he was young.

I was further astonished to find that the endings of some of the manga in the new edition were different from the originals carried in the newspaper. Even after the manga has been printed, Ueda continues to improve on the strips that left him dissatisfied. This is remarkable professionalism. I’m certain that this fact is not well known, so I’ve taken this opportunity to draw attention to it.

What does Kobo-chan do in that comic I mentioned at the beginning? He lets his own balloon go, then places his hand on the girl’s shoulder and says, “Your balloon’s not lonely anymore because now it has company.” Isn’t that wonderful?