The title of KyoAni’s latest show, Tamako Market, seems like a straightforward affair. Tamako is the main character’s name and the market is an important part of the setting – no tricks there. But viewers with basic Japanese reading ability might notice something odd about the title (no, not the bird nested between the “ma” and “ke”). It is all written in hiragana, up to and including the obvious loanword maaketto (market), which you would expect to appear written in katakana.
Two seasons ago, we had Mankind has Declined replacing its kanji and katakana with hiragana to strengthen the fairy-tale feeling of the setting. But this is probably not what is going on here, though director Yamada did admit that at one point, Tamako Market was planned to include significant fantasy elements (with a prince from a mysterious land appearing and Tamako possessing a magical ability).
The Japanese writing system has a long history which affects how the different scripts are viewed. At the point when only kanji were used in Japan, the art of writing was accessible only to the upper classes. Similarly, the original use of katakana was for notes during study of Buddhist texts. Hiragana, on the other hand, was the script of the masses ever since its invention. For a long time, it would not appear in official documents but it would in poetry and fiction. Both men and women were expected to know it, and hiragana was the script of everyday life – short notes, diaries, shopping lists…
The kana syllabaries are an original Japanese creation, and hiragana was the most widely used of the two. This means that, to this day, hiragana is the script the Japanese feel most comfortable with. The Japanese also value hiragana characters for their soft, curvy shapes. Research shows that when presented with the same text written using different scripts (kanji, hiragana, katakana), Japanese readers tend to point to the text written in hiragana as ‘warmer, more pleasant’ than the other two. This might also have something to do with how hiragana brings to mind the sweet days of childhood.
So the non-standard hiragana usage in the title can be seen as part of setting the mood of the show – a promise of a heartwarming slice of life. That Tamako’s name is one composed entirely of hiragana characters is also surely no coincidence.
While Tamako Market is KyoAni’s original piece, the studio has already met with this phenomenon in works it adapted. Remember Lucky Star? The obviously English-inspired title ends up written not in katakana, as you would expect, but hiragana – らき☆すた. And K-On? Both kanji (軽音) and katakana (ケイオン) would be perfectly fine candidates for the writing of the title, but again we get hiragana instead – けいおん. The unexpected appearance of hiragana in those titles can certainly be linked to their identity as soothing slice of life shows.
On a side note, I see a mochi replacing one of the strokes in the “ta” in the title…