Tarako (1960-2024)

March 9, 2024 · 0 comments

“Tarako” Isono, who died on 4th March, would often contend against the media’s assessment of her. Repeatedly in interviews, she would assert that she identified as a “singer-songwriter”, in spite of constant descriptions of her as a “voice actress”. But her career as a performer and lyricist, while manifold and long-running, was destined to be overshadowed for forty years by her most famous role in Japanese animation.

Born in Tokyo but raised in nearby Gunma Prefecture, she was a prominent member of multiple school clubs, favouring music over her initial interest in basketball, because the meeting times gelled better with her mother’s schedule. As she entered her teens, a schoolfriend noticed the resemblance of her voice to the toddler Tara-chan in the anime Sazae-san, and the nickname not only stuck, but became her default media identity.

She wrote her first song in high school, but had already decided to train as a voice actor, studying at the Tokyo Academy of Visual Arts. While holding down a number of part-time jobs, she also performed live sets at local clubs, in the course of which she was offered bigger gigs by the president of the Troubadour Music Office.

It was through him that she met Shigeharu Shiba, an anime audio director who auditioned her to play the role of Lum in the upcoming Urusei Yatsura. Although she failed to get the part, she did debut on the anime TV series in the role of a kindergarten child. Throughout her twenties, she enjoyed a dual career as both actress and singer, dovetailing her talents in regular appearances on radio, particularly on “Hyper Night” on KBS Kyoto.

In Japanese, tarako is the term for pollock roe, a common sushi ingredient for which she also expressed a strong preference. After suffering a food poisoning incident from eating a gift of tarako onigiri from a female fan, Tarako would appear as herself in an animated short film about the incident, appearing as part of the series Trivia Fountain: Wonderful Useless Facts. Among her many anime appearances, she gained a fan following for her roles as Chill in Xabungle and Meta-ko in NG Knight Lamune & 40, and more recently, Monokuma in Danganropa from season three onwards. She would write the theme songs and insert music for over 20 anime, and several of her compositions would also be used in commercials, sometimes also starring her live-action self.

Her truly big break was in 1990, when she was cast in the title role of Chibi Maruko-chan, ostensibly because her voice was almost identical to that of the original manga’s creator, Momoko Sakura. Maruko-chan was, and still is, a gentle comedy set in a nostalgic version of suburban Japan, and might best be parleyed as a pastiche of Sazae-san, as if told not by an omnipotent observer, but by the family’s precocious younger daughter. Benefitting from a broadcast slot just in front of Sazae-san on Fuji TV, the Chibi Maruko-chan series would eventually surpass it in the ratings. One episode in October 1990 would achieve an audience share of 39.9%, making it the highest-rated anime in the last fifty years. Today, in a more widely diversified broadcast environment, Chibi Maruko-chan’s share is more like 5.6%, which still gives it up to six million viewers, and double the ratings of One Piece.

pic from Comic Natalie

When Momoko Sakura died in 2018, Tarako was the lead speaker at her memorial ceremony. “If I hadn’t had you,” she said, “I think my life would have been different. I had a pretty tough life until I became popular with Maruko. I had so many part-time jobs, and even when I debuted as a voice actor, I was good at being poor, but… I was happy because my voice was similar to Momoko-chan’s.” She then switched into the voice of Maruko herself, addressing her own creator.

“To the [version of] me who has become an adult… You have made my dreams come true. You are truly amazing! … To the me who will grow up, become an angel, and go to heaven. Please draw Maruko once in a while. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kojikoji, Nagasawa, or a small child, please keep drawing wherever you go. Even if I’m reborn, I’ll always be you.”

She subsequently gave an interview, in 2021, on the theme of the afterlife. “When I realized that I would die one day,” she said, “I wasn’t scared anymore. But I live with four cats, and I would never be able to leave them behind. It saddens me, and I don’t want to even think about it, but I think it would great if I could see each of them off, properly, and then die in my sleep, surrounded by the memorial tablets of everyone I love.”

Jonathan Clements

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