Butt Biting Bugs and the Wacky World of UrumaDelvi

I first heard about Oshiri Kajiri Mushi, or “The Butt Biting Bug”, from the popular blog Boing Boing in August 2007. According to the blog, this children’s cartoon was the biggest craze in Japan at the time:

The repeating monotonic line “Oshiri kajiri mushi…” ingrained the song into my brain so much that I ended up singing the tune to myself for the rest of the day. I also found the cartoon to be hilarious, especially how the bug goes through samurai endurance training to get back his motivation for butt biting.

My fascination and love with the cartoon has not gone away in the two years since then, so when I found out that Delvi of UrumaDelvi, the husband-and-wife team who created the bug, was going to be in New York last weekend, I leapt at the chance to talk with her about the popular short and their career in animation.

The Popularity of the B.B.B.

UrumaDelvi first met each other while at design school. They started off their careers in illustration, but then they bought a computer and began goofing around with animation. Through all this experimentation, they came up with enough material for a demo reel. They submitted the reel to a TV station, who then bought it and thus began the current 14-year career of the duo. Since that time, they have created over 400 cartoons with over 500 characters.

As Delvi explained to me following her presentation at the Japan Cuts film festival last Saturday, their most popular character actually started off as a playful joke between the married couple. “One day when I was washing the dishes at the sink, my husband suddenly came up from behind me. Apparently I was sticking my butt out, so he said to me, ‘If you stick your butt out too much, the Butt Biting Bug is going to come up and bite you!’ And so that’s where the name of the character came from.”

Urama wrote the song and the pair animated the cartoon together using Flash. The short began airing on the national television network NHK during the children’s show Minna no Uta (“Songs for Everybody”) in June of 2007. But the couple didn’t realize just how popular the cartoon had gone until two months later, when the Japanese newspaper Sports Nippon wrote a huge article on the short animation.

The song was released as a CD single that summer, and it peaked at number 6 on the national Oricon music charts. “At the time in Japan, there just weren’t any good songs for people to enjoy. So I believe that Oshiri Kajiri Mushi became so popular because it was simple and fun to dance to.” The character of the Butt Biting Bug then became this subject of many merchandise tie-ins, from plushies to keychains to books to even a game for Nintendo DS.

The Language of Animation

The presentation of UrumaDelvi shorts in New York debuted an English version of Oshiri Kajiri Mushi. “We just wanted people in America to be able to enjoy it as well,” Delvi laughs, “and I believe that music and animation is not bound by actual borders.”

The short now officially dubbed the character as the Bottom Biting Bug and made frequent jokes to the alliteration of B-sounds in the English name. It might have just been my familiarity with the original song, but something did seem a little off putting about the English version. I also sensed a lukewarm reception from the festival audience as well.

However, the other short that was also translated in English for the festival – a two-part series of songs centered around a girl named Sumiko – was hauntingly beautiful.

Like the original, the English version of Sumiko is sung by what sounds like a little girl. However, it is not sung perfectly, as the girl is often off key and struggles to reach the high notes. This is all done on purpose, because imperfection is the central theme of Sumiko.

“She’s definitely not one of those cute girls you’d find in children’s anime,” says Delvi. With a pretty mother and a homely looking father, little Sumiko is unfortunate enough to have only inherited her father’s looks. Her big furry eyebrows and huge mole on her face make her look like a parody of Chibi Maruko-chan.

Yet the unique look of Sumiko caught the eye of a major retailer in Japan, who partnered with UrumaDelvi to create the music, the video, and exclusive merchandise to be sold in the store. “She’s very complex, and I think that the fact that she is not cute is the reason why she’s so interesting.”

Another catchy cartoon was Capsule Samurai, which featured four samurai singing, fighting, and training to the beat of a big drum. Delvi was just playing around with egg-shaped character designs for her website, and a samurai character connected to her. “So then I was just singing to myself, ‘Capsule Samurai, dun, dun, Fighting, fighting, dun, dun!’” They created the cartoon completely in English for the English-teaching program Eigorien 3.

Yet most of the cartoons shown last weekend did not require a translation as most of them did not contain spoken dialogue. “While many cartoons tend to focus on a story line, we tend to focus on music and movement in our animation. Like the Disney movie Fantasia, it’s all about merging the image and music beautifully.”

The audience’s favorite piece that night was Shikato, a series of shorts about deer mindlessly walking forward with no regard who or what they were walking into. There is no dialogue at all, and the shorts are accompanied by a soundtrack of loud yodeling. Without the language barrier, the American audience loved it and laughed hysterically at the silliness of it all.

Animation in the Digital Age

One of the reasons why Delvi traveled to New York was to promote the English version of their website, UrumaDelvi Deluxe. Uruma is very tech savvy and has been very passionate about embracing the internet and new media.

“We, as artist, don’t want to be restricted to just mainstream media to spread our art around. That is why we set up the website. Now we are able to speak directly to the public on our own terms.”

By asking for a small $3 / month subscription fee for full access to the website, the team is bypassing the traditional means of media distribution and is trying to make a living off of the independent business model. In addition to the massive amount of content added to the website every week, Uruma teamed up with a Tokyo University professor to create UrumaDelvi Paint, a computer program that would make it easy for both kids and adults to create their own cartoons.

“Flash is a great program and up until this point, it is what we use to create all of our cartoons. But I feel that when I draw one of my characters in Flash, it just doesn’t look right. It’s no longer one of my characters.”

The key feature of the UrumaDelvi Paint program is that it automatically smoothes out the user’s drawing, which would normally come out squiggly because of the difficulty of controlling the mouse. On top of that, the program allows the user to record movement to the beat of a metronome, making it very easy for the cartoons to dance to music.

Delvi demonstrated this new software to the Japan Cuts audience on Saturday and again with a new crowd at the Kinokunya bookstore the next day. In both demos, the audience awed in amazement over how easy the software looked and how cute and funny the cartoons looked in just minutes. Then Delvi invited people up to try the program out themselves, and the entire audience laughed along as their peers created silly looking cartoons in a short amount of time.

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The world of UrumaDelvi is wacky, weird, and entirely unique. Their cartoons have been described by the Japanese as being very foreign looking, while foreigners would easily describe the toons as being totally Japanese. But with their devotion to centering around music rather than words to tell their story, and their openness with the global medium that is the internet, their works can be enjoyed by children (and adults) all over the world.

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