The Charles in Charlie Brown

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

The advertising surrounding “Ever and Never: The Art of Peanuts” focuses on the cutest character from the classic American comic strip. So much so, promotions for this exhibition at the Mori Arts Center Gallery has been dubbed the “Snoopy Exhibit,” a title that also graces the Twitter and Facebook accounts associated with “Ever and Never.” It’s not a bad strategy. Snoopy is in the same cartoon-icon tier as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny — and he’s especially popular in Japan.

Thankfully, the world’s most famous beagle is treated as just one part of the “Peanuts’” story at “Ever and Never,” which offers a well-rounded look at the cartoon’s creator, Charles M. Schulz, and the evolution of the Peanuts gang over the years. It features hundreds of comic strips and personal items from Schulz’ life, curated by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. “Ever and Never” is a must-see for any “Peanuts” fan in Tokyo, and is an overall great overview of one of the most important cartoons of all time.

Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1922, and “Ever and Never” devotes one-third of its space to his background. This section features objects from Schulz’ youth, ranging from a childhood baseball glove to letters he wrote while serving in World War II. Plenty of space is also devoted to the works that influenced Schulz alongside his pre-Peanuts work, including his Peanuts-in-chrysalis “Li’l Folks” strip for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. There’s even a life-size replica of his work office at the show.

Yet the highlight is how “Ever and Never” reveals the way Schulz’ personal life bled into his art. Often a detail of his life — such as a description of his father working as a barber, or Schulz’ enjoyment of golf — is followed with an artwork, a comic strip influenced by the biographical detail. And the exhibition isn’t shy about Schulz’ melancholy side. “Peanuts” is critically celebrated partially because of its tendency to be less than upbeat, the World Encyclopedia of Comics calling the series “the great American un-success story.” “Ever and Never” touches on how Schultz’s loneliness and unrequited loves emerged in his work through the often down-on-his-luck Charlie Brown.

The meat of the exhibition is a collection of comic strips tracing major developments in the series. Set in a room painted in the yellow and black of Charlie Brown’s famous shirt, it features memorable “Peanuts” moments, ranging from the first appearance of a new character to the first time Snoopy stood on two legs. It also highlights the introduction of recurring scenarios that have become so common in American pop culture, including Snoopy pretending to be a fighter pilot and Charlie Brown failing to kick a football. Every strip features a card beneath it with the dialog translated to Japanese.

“Ever and Never’s” finale focuses on “Peanuts” beyond the strip, showcasing a handful of “Peanuts”-related merchandise and allowing visitors to snap photos (and, shrewdly, encourages them to share these images online). It’s the weakest point of the show, and the one place where insurance company MetLife, which has been using “Peanuts” characters in its promotional materials since 1985, is a suffocating presence. Here, it misses an opportunity to expand on the 1960s animated television specials starring the “Peanuts” characters, which do get a small room all to themselves, but lack satisfactory documentation of their history.

“Peanuts” is heralded as one of the most influential comic strips of all time, yet “Ever and Never” is humble about the impact Schulz made, choosing instead to place the history and development of the series under the microscope. There is plenty of Snoopy to go around, but way more to actually take in.

“Ever and Never: The Art of Peanuts” runs till Jan. 5 at the Mori Arts Center Gallery; open daily 10 p.m.-8 p.m. (Tue. till 5 p.m.) ¥2,000. www.snoopy-exhibition.jp