Anpanman: Hero or Villain?

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.

Anpanman

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.

The gang: two villains on the left, and then Shokupanman, Anpanman, and Currypanman

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:

Baikinman

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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12 Comments

  • Yoshi Inoue
    April 20, 2012 - 8:11 am | Permalink

    Chris, for the first time, I completely disagree with you. Your argument is so radical that most Japanese people (including myself) would not take you seriously. But, for those of you who has not yet had the pleasure of knowing Anpanman, I am going to answer all the points Chris has raised in an attempt to defend the misunderstood hero. But first of all, it is important to know that Japan has embraced the originally Western tradition of baking, and have created various kinds of unique bread. We love all the types of ‘pan’ that appear on the show. I guess British equivalent would have characters based around the Sunday roast: ‘Yorkshire-Pudding-Man’ with his friends ‘Cauliflower-Cheese-Man’, ‘Roast-Potato-Woman’, ‘Gravy-Baby’ etc. Imagine that for a second, that way you may be able to feel the culinary context in which the characters really appeal to us…
    1) “Anpanman is pathetic.” – Perhaps, if you compare him to the superheroes of Marvel or DC Comics… But, in my opinion, his imperfection is part of his charm. Which leads us to the next point:
    2) “Anpanman relies excessively on the help of other people.” – Taken out of Japanese socio-cultural context (which essentially condemns Western-style individualism), it might seem rather unheroic to be utterly dependent on other people. But it is a healthy, symbiotic relationship. It teaches us the importance of friendship and cooperation. Baikinman is always beaten, not because he is inadequate, but because he is too self-reliant.
    3) “Baikinman is a funnier, richer character than the moralising and one-dimensional Anpanman.” – Yes, Baikinman is as charming as Anpanman!
    4) “Anpanman is kind, generous, diplomatic, and dislikable in many other ways.” – Anpanman is sincere, that is who he is, and that’s why we love him. Sometimes, he even breaks off a portion of his head to feed hungry friends – isn’t that shocking but at the same time admirable?
    5) “Anpanman is passive: he never goes in search of Baikinman.” – Anpanman is very forgiving and he believes one day Baikinman will realise his wrongdoings. Shichi-Shou-Shichi-Kin [????], change must come from within – you cannot force someone to be good (http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/jn2/97891/m0u/)

    • Chris
      April 20, 2012 - 8:31 am | Permalink

      A spirited defence! Yes, I was being very mean to poor Anpanman, and he’s rightly loved for many reasons in Japan.

      I wonder about point 2: certainly lots of people have observed that Japanese literature and drama valorises co-operation, but I always worry that non-Japanese commentaries on the co-operative/collective thing might be rather essentialised. Do you think this kind of analysis of the Japanese ‘self’ is sometimes over-done in the UK and elsewhere? Do you see Japanese ideals changing of late, with more and more heroic figures emerging in popular drama?

      Point 4 – when I first saw Anpanman break a piece of his head off, to be chomped on by a little child, I was quite disturbed; I’ve clearly lost that fantasy dimension that children seem to have. (Or maybe academics are just incorrigibly literal in the way they view the world.)

      Point 5 – a wonderful insight! I’ve never seen Anpanman in that light, and I think I’ll enjoy my next episode all the more now…

  • Yoshi Inoue
    April 20, 2012 - 10:26 am | Permalink

    2) – It’s definitely much easier for me to make a bold statement about ‘the Japanese’, because I am one – and I don’t need to worry about the possible accusation of being a racist or being a mere outside observer – which you may encounter in Japan as a “gaijin”. I think to analyse the Japanese ‘self’ (collective) as being the opposite of the Western ‘self’ (individualistic) is inaccurate and overdone. But, I do feel that when I am in Japan, I have to adjust the way I present my’self’ to people around me – and this is not just a linguistic difference but a profound cultural and possibly philosophical difference. I haven’t really noticed more heroic figures emerging in Japanese popular drama – do you have any example?
    4) – I do think academics have the tendency to over-intellectualise everything. But in this case, I think it’s more cultural. I don’t think any Japanese person would find anything wrong in Anpanman’s self-sacrifice. Whereas, I know, many of my British friends would find it weird/funny. This may be an inappropriate comparison, but there are some Japanese people who find the story of Jesus Christ (European hero) rather disturbing too.

    • Katie Phair
      May 5, 2012 - 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Chris, I’m going to be a fellow foreigner and stick up for you here! This is quite clearly tongue-in-cheek, but come on, Anpanman is VERY formulaic…

      I’m too nervous to properly question Yoshi’s quite ardent defence of what he thinks Anpanman is supposed to achieve precisely because I’m not Japanese and maybe it just means something more to you than it does to me!

      However, I’m going to contrast how formulaic and, frankly, dull I find Anpanman with my favourite programme growing up. “Raggy Dolls”, a show about a pretty pathetic bunch of dolls placed in the “reject” bin of a factory, is narrated by one man and is really basically illustrated. Where it is different from Anpanman is that each one of the characters is fully formed and individualistic, each having a different imperfection that makes them unique and ‘rejected’. They were united by their oddity and became a form of anti-heroes for kids of the 80s and 90s (I was born in 1989). I loved it so much that I copied Hi-Fi’s stutter and it took my parents about a year to figure out that their 2 year old didn’t actually have a speech impediment! :)

      Basically, I just think it’s a more varied formula, with a French character (!!), imperfect anti-heroes who are just curious about the simplest things. It doesn’t have a grand narrative of hero or villain, it isn’t purporting to be deep or meaningful and I think that’s why it’s so cherished/utterly awesome!

      Here’s a little insight into the wonderful world of Raggy Dolls (this one is a bit more moral than some of the others!):

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmJzmx1mJig&feature=relmfu

      …maybe provide a Japanese perspective on it?? :D

      • Yoshi Inoue
        May 8, 2012 - 9:52 am | Permalink

        I find the quality of animation rather intolerable… That is my “Japanese perspective” on it.

        • Katie Phair
          May 9, 2012 - 8:15 pm | Permalink

          Tragic.

          • Yoshi Inoue
            May 10, 2012 - 9:54 am | Permalink

            for you, yes..

  • mamiko
    April 22, 2012 - 12:18 pm | Permalink

    [The original Japanese version of this comment can be found by clicking here (WordPress doesn’t like Japanese script, and I’ve not yet found a way around it; even the uploaded Japanese document isn’t perfect). Here is an English-language summary of the comments:]

    —–
    I certainly think Anpanman is a hero, and not at all a villain.

    Points 1&2: Certainly Anpanman is a little pathetic and relies on the help of others, but I think this is precisely where his potential to become a hero comes from. A ‘perfect’ hero would feel a little cheap. (Other programmes much loved by Japanese children similarly feature a hero who is about to lose, and who is helped out by his colleagues – ‘Go Busters’ being one example).

    Points 3&4: Is Anpanman really one-dimensional? He feeds the hungry by tearing off pieces of bread from his own face, and despite his own weakness he sets out to defend others. I think it is rather rich and profound that – as the theme song goes – Anpanman sees our truest friends as being love and strength.

    • Chris
      April 23, 2012 - 3:19 am | Permalink

      Well now I feel thoroughly ashamed of my Scrooge-like (albeit mostly tongue-in-cheek) brutalisation of Anpanman… ;)

      Mamiko, thank you for these wonderful comments. I really hadn’t seen this kind of value in Anpanman before, and thanks to you and Yoshi my interest in him and his adventures has been revived. So thank you!

  • Ben Epstein
    May 11, 2012 - 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Siding with the bad guys!

    I’ve been meaning to reply to this for some time. I guess first of all I can see where the uneasiness of one of your early commentators stems from but I think it might be slightly misdirected unease… Let’s not forget the point about transcultural psychiatry, which is where this discussion started! As Arthur Kleinman put it beautifully: “Culture influences the experience of symptoms, the idioms used to report them, decisions about treatment, doctor-patient interactions, the likelihood of outcomes such as suicide, and the practices of professionals. As a result, some conditions are universal and some culturally distinct, but all are meaningful within particular contexts.” YES! (http://coe.stanford.edu/courses/ethmedreadings06/em0601garcia1.pdf)
    Another matter is how we deploy popular culture to make statements about things as profound as ‘ideals of behaviour’ or even ‘psyche’. Quite a complex can of worms! Anne Allison’s “Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan” (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Permitted_and_Prohibited_Desires.html?id=ZBuAkps4jkUC) is a case in point. Some readers might find her probing to be just right, but I think in general it’s hard for a writer who relies on psychoanalytic theory to not fall into the trap of a facile kind of essentialism.
    Perhaps we shouldn’t be questioning Chris’ disquisitions about the virtues of Mr. Anpanman, who may or may not be the perfect expression of a typically ‘Japanese’ kind of collective mentality, on the basis of private opinions. I personally take umbrage with arguments about the ‘Japanese sense of self’ (see for a flagrant and utterly dismaying example of this http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/honors130/culture.html), and I don’t find any value in trying to prove or disprove such assertions. I’m also weary of arguments about culture, for the issue of validity and verifiability means that here too we are often relegated to the gates of personal opinion. Much more interesting would be to see how and what psychiatry does in Japan that is different anywhere else, (if anything!) Mainly, I have to say I struggle to see the relevance of Anpanman although I remember watching ‘Wacky Races’ for hours as a kid and always siding with Muttley and Dasterdly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uSTOHa4Im4&feature=related for the most epic giggle in history!) so maybe there is something there after all.
    I’d love to hear more about how a bi-cultural kid, such as your son, might see this character. All the best! b

  • Jeff
    July 4, 2012 - 2:12 pm | Permalink

    All of the comments are valid, but what about the violence in the show? Anpanman punches to get rid of his problems or to make things right? I’m not comfortable teaching my son that he can use violence to solve his problems, or that people will be happy from thus doing so. If I was to do so, I’d rather let him play a war simulation or watch the history channel.

  • December 15, 2012 - 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Chris, all your points are well taken but not because I have a Japanese cultural background (I’m half Japanese half Danish grew up in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Kobenhavn ) I have to side with Yoshi Inoue’s points. First of all, all Children’s hero’s have a weak points. Popeye gets beat up first and need a can of spinach. It is a repeated plots over again but that gives a comfort to children that fallen Hero can be restored and will win at the end. All winning comes from an obstacle and cooperation of others therefore even a hero need a help of others that teaches a importance of friendship and allies. Yes, I agree that Baikinman is more creative and self reliant but that comes from him being a bad guy. A bad guys don’t have trust, integrity so he doesn’t have a friends. And he is conceited with his own power though as an adult female we all are attracted to bad guys, but that is not a really heathy psychology. Anpanman stories nothing different from other cartoon heroes, don’t make any big deal between the cultural differences when there is none. Only thing different from Anpanman is they use a lot of old stereo types and reference to Japanese items (food, old folklore characters) so if you are familiar with old life style of Japan it is quite clever character development with the unique usage of dialect and colloquialism of the language. I think Anpanman is one of the most highly accomplishment of the modern cartoon from Japan. I wish Anpanman would be more appreciated by other counties but since it pertains to Japanese items it is hard to be understood by other children of the world. Chris, you read into this wonderful children’s cartoon too much. Just enjoy and children are simple and repetitious.

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