I’m working at the moment on a Glasgow-based project looking at ‘transcultural psychiatry‘ – exploring how and why ideas about mental health and illness seem to vary between different cultures, from minor depression through to major psychoses. It has a lot to do with how people grow up learning to interpret and respond to their own inner experience, moment by moment, as well as to the behaviour of others. So it’s a fascinating experience joining my three-year old son, who’s growing up bi-lingual and bi-cultural, in front of the TV now and again to see how particular norms of ‘correct’ feeling and behaviour get advertised to children through Japanese pop culture.
Enter, at this point, ‘Anpan-man’. Given that he’s not the cartoon and commercial phenomenon outside Japan that he is inside, let me explain…
Firstly, it might not be obvious from this frolicking snapshot but his head is made from a bread item popular in Japan, called ‘Anpan’ – bread (‘pan’) filled with red bean paste (‘anko’). Tastier than you might think, but I still feel shortchanged when I think I’ve bought a jam doughnut and I end up with a mouthful of anko.
Bread-related characters in Anpanman’s happy entourage include Shokupanman [sliced white bread], Currypanman [curry bread], and Creampandachan [bizarrely, a cross between a cream bun, a panda, and a toddler – given Japan’s draconian drug laws you wonder how this programme was ever thought up].
Anpanman is the hero of the piece, but is not without his problems. Where Superman’s nemesis substance, kryptonite, was relatively rare on Earth, Anpanman’s is troublingly ubiquitous: water.
His head is made of bread, so fair enough, but still it’s hard to root for such a pathetic hero.
Back to that in a moment, but first let me spoil for you the plot of every single episode of Anpanman that I’ve ever seen – and that’s a great many:
Anpanman gets into some kind of scrape with his enemy, Baikinman, in the course of which – yes that’s right – his face gets wet or dirty. Cue the famous phrase: ‘kao ga nurete, chikara ga denai…! [Oh no, my face got wet, my powers have gone …!]’.
Anpanman promptly falls out of the sky and his three bread-making friends (bottom-right of the picture) rush to the rescue with a new head for him. Cue a second famous phrase: ‘genki hyakubai: Anpanman! [Power restored 100 times over: Anpanman!]’.
Finally, there’s the delivery of a fist-spinning ‘An-punch!!’ and Baikinman is banished once again.
That really is every episode – some enterprising YouTube-er has condensed thousands of viewing hours into the essentials right here.
Now, let me give you five reasons why Anpanman is in fact the villain and Baikinman the hero:
1. Anpanman is pathetic: a soggy face puts him out of the game, and his feelings are easily hurt. Baikinman (whose name means Germ-man, or Bacteria-man – a nod to Japan’s hyper-hygienic culture) carries on regardless, whatever comes his way – and when he’s finally vanquished he bows out with a gallows-humour play on his own name: ‘bye-bye kiiin!’
2. Anpanman relies excessively on the help of other people. His victories are always team victories, where Baikinman is independent and single-minded – not seeming to mind whether his sidekick Dokinchan sticks around or goes off to look for Shokupanman (with whom she’s infatuated, for those of you who’re really getting into the characters).
3. Baikinman is a funnier, richer character than the moralising and one-dimensional Anpanman, and I always want Baikinman to win (it’s a disappointing sign of his immaturity than my son roots for Anpanman).
4. Anpanman is kind, generous, diplomatic, and dislikable in many other ways besides, whereas Baikinman is realistically self-seeking and prone to anger.
5. Anpanman is passive: he never goes in search of Baikinman, seeking to put a final end to his dastardliness; instead he hangs around talking to children until Baikinman shows up with some new scheme, and then he flounders about getting his face wet until his friends come to bail him out.
By this point, naturally, you’ll be crying out to see an episode. There’s one with English subs here (you’ll need to turn captions on). For now, let’s finish on a song…
embedded by Embedded Video
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