At the beginning of the 1990s, Shinichi Suzuki got an offer he couldn’t refuse. Suzuki had been a Zelig-like figure in the history of anime and manga. He was one of the 1950s flatmates at the Tokiwa-so dormitory who ended up forming the nucleus of postwar manga, but he never really became a big-name manga artist. Instead, while his fellow creators dabbled in anime and largely retreated from it, Suzuki jumped in feet first, as an animator on Japan’s first anime TV series for Otogi Pro, and then as one of the main men at Studio Zero.
But Zero closed down in 1971, and Suzuki drifted from job to job, doing opening animations for kids’ shows, or the animated bits on commercials for household appliances. As he faced retirement, it looked likely that his claim to fame would be as the inspiration for a ramen-loving character in Obake Q-taro, a series that nobody had heard of any more.
And then, out of nowhere, UNESCO came calling. Or rather, the Asia/Pacific Culture Centre for UNESCO, an educational body that needed a cartoon. Suzuki was thrown in a room with the Malaysian comic artist Mohammed Nor Khalid, a.k.a. Lat, and ordered to come up with a book that promoted literacy among adults. They needed to make it fun, and they needed to make it transnational, and the result was the illustrated book Mina Smiles, a very simple story comprising colour images with comic-style word balloons placed outside the text.
An eight-minute cartoon soon followed. It was paid for by a Tokyo insurance company, and involved Suzuki heading off to Kuala Lumpur to direct. He was shocked at the abilities of the Malay animation industry: already using computers in 1993. The story of the dark-haired dusky-skinned Mina, a married mother of five, was translated into a succession of languages in order to take its message to illiterate adults all over the third world, initially on VHS. When the DVD of Mina Smiles eventually came out in 2007, it contained a whopping 37 language tracks, including Mongol, Uzbek, Kiswahili, Wolof and Lao, not to mention Portuguese (for Mozambique) and Spanish (for everywhere else).
Mina soon returned in other books designed to teach remote communities about ecological issues: Mina’s Village and Waste Management, Mina’s Village and the Forest, and the later, longer animation productions: Mina’s Village and the River and Mina’s Village and Fire Prevention. The simple Mina comic has reached an audience of millions, and the cartoon that accompanied it might be, for some, the only cartoon they have ever seen. Mina is an international star to rival Pikachu, recognised in classrooms over half the planet, but unless you work for UNESCO or learned to read in the Vietnamese jungle, you have probably never heard of her.
Shinichi Suzuki came back to Japan to enjoy an active retirement as the curator of the Suginami Animation Museum, but when he sat down to write his memoirs, he didn’t begin with his star-studded celebrity encounters with Tezuka or Mizoguchi. He started with Mina, who taught people how to read.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #81, 2011.