A few months ago, I was watching the second episode of the 2007 live-action version of “Chibi Maruko-chan” and happily enjoying myself when I caught a glimpse of Maruko’s bento, truly a split second of bento-goodness.
I can’t recall what the plot is for this particular segment, but this is Maruko’s mother preparing Maruko’s lunch before little girl goes off to school. With the original manga taking place in the 1970s, here the culinary goodies are nested in an aluminum box, a popular type for that era. Hirano Eriko, in her book Obento itadakimasu!, recollects how her kindergarten bento box was an aluminum one with cartoon characters printed on its lid and how those three “Boo Foo Woo” pigs became her lunchtime companions. For her, the bento box became a source of security and a token of a more familiar world as she sat in a classroom full of kids she did not know.
Like the box itself, the food is simple and down-to-earth: onigiris, tamagoyaki, apples, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes. And unlike the exceptionally embellished pieces that are often featured in books, magazines, and online, the contents of Maruko’s bento are simple but not simplistic. They remain in their typical forms while leaving a margin for fun, as the apple bunnies demonstrate. There are no great surprises here.
Although it is not painstakingly made and embellished, Maruko’s bento is an inviting one. I must confess that I thoroughly enjoy admiring and being inspired by the many intricate bentos I have seen, but their perfections can leave one hesitant to bite in. What Maruko would find in her bento is food that she enjoys and that does not take her mother hours to prepare. There is something to be said for the ordinary and the practical.
Maruko’s unglamorous bento is a reflective representation of her quotidian life. “Chibi Maruko-chan” is a series “without a hero.” The protagonist, Maruko, is not cute, pretty, and smart. Instead, she is lazy, unorganized, and sometimes unrealistic. Relatively poor, her family of six lives in a plain home with a TV that never quite function properly. Mummy Sakura is not an elegant lady in pastel suits but an obasan with a curly bob and lines on her face. Daddy Sakura is not a rocket scientist or an almighty police officer but most likely a low/mid-level office clerk. Grandfather Sakura, the most eye-catching family member who has attracted the devotion of many viewers, is naïve and too easily fooled for his age. Their lack of striking qualities in turn reinforces the Sakuras’ image as an average family.
Endings are never perfect either: Maruko may not get her dream birthday party, and she may not wake up in time to buy snacks for her field trip the next day. Yet through one way or another (most likely with the help of her family members), lessons are learned, and there’s still something cherishable at the end of the day.
This quality of averageness is one makes Maruko’s world easy for the viewer to identity with, whether this viewer is someone who grew up in the 70s or the 90s. Without our knowledge, it is often the average and the familiar that has captured our hearts. As studies have shown, our well-being is not marked by the few significant positive incidents but by minor repetitive events. At the end of the day, it may not be that special lunch for one’s first day of school that one remembers; perhaps, it is a fuzzy image of a prototypical meal, arising from a merging of daily recollections. Looking at Maruko’s bento, one can’t help feeling a sense of nostalgia and content.