Following last week‘s introduction to the outré charm of Russia’s Soviet-era animation, I’d like to bring the the whole experience a little closer to home – with a character that plenty of you reading this will have seen, whether you are aware of it or not: Cheburashka.
Unfamiliar? Ah, you may be surprised. If you are an ardent follower of the Olympics in both its ‘Winter’ and ‘Regular’ flavours, then lodged in your memory from 2004 to 2010, there is probably the image of a certain Russian mascot that you will assumed to have been a cartoon variation on the traditional Russian bear. Not so: Cheburashka is something of a big deal, and a national icon in his own right in fact. The moderately attentive may have also have noticed the ongoing fur-colour change from white to red to blue for the 2006, 2008 and 2010 events respectively – that’s outside of the character’s normal brown of course.
He has featured in children’s literature and animation since his first appearance in written tale, published in 1965 by Russian author Eduard Uspensky. His animated debut occurred a mere 4 years later. In the original drawings, the character was decidedly more animalistic than in later renderings, resembling a jungle-dwelling beaver with Mickey-Mouse ears surmounting his furry head.
However, Cartoon characters across the globe develop and morph over time until they settle into their iconic form (witness early and late Simpsons) – and Cheburashka is no exception. These days he is depicted as being roughly the height of a young primary school child, though still with bear-like fur and proportions. His main identifying characteristics are his human/animal hybrid face and enormous, circular side-mounted ears. Yes, with age, certain features have headed South.
In the original tale, the creature – as yet unnamed – falls asleep in a crate of oranges after stuffing himself unconscious and is subsequently exported from his homeland, into a Russian city (probably Moscow). There he rolls out of his crate and is promptly christened Cheburashka by a surprised shopkeeper, a moniker derived from the old Russian colloquial: cheburakhnulsya or “tumbled”. After being rejected by the local zoo, as an unidentified animal, Cheburashka finds himself living in a phone box and working as a window display model. He has escapades with his close friend Gena, the accordion-playing, pipe-smoking crocodile. Naturally.
The drama (?) is expanded by the machinations of mischievous antagonist Old Lady Shapoklyak and her pet rat Lariska! All great characterisations, and with a certain dry Russian humour to boot. Witness the animals nonchalantly clocking-off from their day-shifts at the zoo, before heading home in their overcoats!
As you can imagine, the style and depiction of Cheburashka has “Japan” written all over it (or rather him). I assume by accident. Nonetheless, since the early 2000’s his popularity in this new territory has continued to flourish – and of course with some involvement by Studio Ghibli, surely the Japanese go-to producers of this particular character style. You can view Cheburashka’s initial animated outing on youtube – yes, with English subtitles, and in stop-motion puppet form (the original 3D animation).
(Photo by sugagaga)