ISHINOMAKI, Japan – The battle between the buggy-eyed blue superhero and the evil sea monster and his ninja henchmen was a brief but refreshing return to normalcy for children in this Japanese coastal city.
Nearly two months after their lives were roiled by a massive tsunami, the boys and girls of Ishinomaki — many who still live in shelters or half-ruined homes surrounded by debris — were treated to the stage show as part of Children's Day celebrations.
"It's been a long time since the kids were this excited," said Yukiko Takeyama, who brought her two boys, aged 4 and 6, to Thursday's event at the town's famous cartoon museum.
Takeyama's family lives on the second story of their house because the ground floor was destroyed. She spends most of her time trying to clean up and comfort her boys, who still cry and run to be hugged when aftershocks rumble each day.
The show was hosted by the Mangattan Museum, built in honor of Shotaro Ishinomori, one of Japan's most well-known "manga" cartoon authors. It has sat dark, without power or water, since the tsunami hit, but the distinctive spacecraft-shaped building still stands out from the wreckage in the middle of the city.
"This is a symbolic place for people here," said 40-year-old Kyoto Sugawara, who volunteered to run a small generator-powered movie theater inside for the special day.
Outside the building, giant streamers shaped like carp, a spring tradition in Japan, flapped from ropes tied to the roof. The museum's main entrance had been cleared of debris, but off to the side a grounded yacht listed next to a ruined church, the ground covered in mud-caked debris and felled trees.
Families waited in line for hours to get inside, fed by volunteers who cooked fried noodles and chicken on skewers.
Inside, the museum was cold and dim but the air was filled with the smell of fresh caramel popcorn and the shouts of children, many with their faces painted. The youngsters played with donate gifts such as stuffed animals, plastic action figures and hula hoops.
"I got candy!" shouted 4-year-old Mio Atsuta. "It was great!"
Her mother, Motoko, said she was grateful for the donations, but sighed and added that Mio had been too loud for the local shelter, so they had to move back to their ruined home.
Other volunteers included science professors who set up a booth to make small blinking lamps, and professional soccer players from nearby Sendai who cleared a patch of dirt in the debris for a pitch and faced off against local youths.
"The field is a bit small, but this is so much fun," said 11-year-old Ren Yamauchi, ignoring a crumpled car and broken jungle gym next to him.
The one-day event took the place of what is usually a weeklong festival for Golden Week, a string of national holidays during which many families travel in Japan. Most of the normal festivities along the northeast coast have been canceled in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, which left about 26,000 dead and missing and 130,000 in evacuation centers.
"Normally we would have a lot of tourists from far away, but this is more for people nearby," said museum director Hitoshi Kimura. "Everyone is just doing what they can."
For Sea Jetter Kaito, the blue superhero, that included striking a victorious battle pose after vanquishing his enemies — and putting a smile on the children's faces.
Jay Alabaster can be reached at http://twitter.com/jayalabaster