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While people on social media have largely been preoccupied with the pandemic, the most buzzed-about happening online in Japan involves a crocodile — don’t roll your eyes just yet — which, at some point, transformed into a commentary on the follies of capitalism and its drive for continuous growth.

Since Dec. 12, Japanese Twitter users have been obsessed with “100-nichi-go ni Shinu Wani” (“The Crocodile That Dies In 100 Days”). This comic, created by an artist named Yuki Kikuchi, follows the daily life of a reptile that doesn’t realize that it will depart this mortal coil after 100 days. The individual strips offer glances into the relatively mundane existence of the central character, albeit with dark humor spiked throughout. The second installment captures this unease well — our green protagonist orders a futon, but finds out there is a year-long wait for the product. Unaware of what we know about its future, it happily buys it anyway.

This mix of the mundane and the morbid earned a large following, which logged in daily to see how the crocodile’s life would unfold. Readers developed a close connection with the character, albeit one clouded by knowing how it would all end. It’s not surprising that a comic dealing with everyday life would connect, but the twist with this work was the nod toward an uncomfortable truth in all stories. At some point, they will end, and you don’t know when.

Ahead of the 100th installment, interest in the series exploded, with longtime followers and newbies alike waiting to see how it would wrap up. On March 20, they reached the finale, featuring a metaphorically on-the-nose cherry blossom backdrop. That comic attracted more than 2 million likes and 760,000 retweets on Twitter, along with discussion online and in mainstream media.

It was 2020’s first shared pop culture phenomenon and, like all surprise hits, forces aiming to commercialize it swooped in. Almost immediately after the final comic, a pop-up store peddling products was announced, as was an online shop. Eagle-eyed users realized a new character company associated with the crocodile had ties to advertising giant Dentsu. People weren’t pleased with how fast this happened, as they were still grappling with the end of a series they loved.

The whole saga highlights how quickly companies can try to suck the joy out of a surprise hit, but also shows how people are still willing to defend the art they love from outside forces. Even if that art centers around a creature unaware that the grim reaper is just around the corner.

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