In memory of Takashi Yanase

imagesTakashi Yanase, who created the beloved manga and anime “Anpanman,” died last week. His creation was the subject of the first Media Mix column I wrote, and I’ve reproduced it here.

Media Mix, Jan. 19, 1995

Faster than a speeding Pop Tart

A woman who works as an interpreter for visiting performers once told me about a stagehand with a Canadian ballet troupe who bought a toaster at Akihabara and asked her to translate the instructions for him. As she explained the part about what not to do, he studied the illustrations accompanying the text and said, “I get it. Just don’t make the toaster cry.”

Anthropomorphism certainly isn’t unique to Japan: the Walt Disney Company has cornered the market on singing-and-dancing household implements. The Japanese are more flexible in their use of it, though, and more shameless. In one particular animated television show, it has become an end in itself: “Sore Ike! Anpanman” (Nippon TV, Mondays, 5 p.m.) may be the only cartoon where almost every character is an inanimate object.

Anpanman is a superhero whose head is an anpan, the Japanese confection of soft bread filled with sweet red-bean paste. He does the usual superhero things, but his special trait isn’t about “power” in the usual superhero sense. When Anpanman encounters someone who is hungry, he allows the poor soul to eat his face, even though it saps his strength. In order to regain his strength, his friend the baker (Jamu Ojisan, or–George Clinton fans, take note–“Uncle Jam”) has to provide him with a new face. Anpanman’s selling point as a superhero is not his ability to fly or fight, but his selflessness.

Many of the characters in the series are foods, either baked goods, like Currypanman and Shokupanman (white bread man), or the lower phyla of Japanese cuisine: Omusubiman (rice ball man), Tendonman (deep fried prawns on rice man), and Ramentenshi (the ramen angel). The rest are things familiar to all children–mud, pillows, scissors, etc.

The villain of the series, Baikinman, heads his own category. Baikin means “germ.” It makes just as much sense to attribute “evil” intentions to the behavior of bacteria as it does to attribute “good” intentions to the non-behavior of pastry, but Baikinman enjoys making people miserable, even if he never has any practical motives for it. This is understandable since it would be too much to expect preschoolers, the target audience for the program, to comprehend the motives behind cruel actions. For the same reason, though, I think it’s too much to expect them to understand the positive values that the show tries to instill.

These values (never judge people by their appearance, patience is a virtue) are certainly worthy, but 3-year-olds learn values more readily through personal experience than by example.

The original comic book was created by poet Takashi Yanase in 1973. Yanase belongs to the generation that experienced the war as adolescents, a generation to whom food was not yet something that could be taken for granted. Offering food to another person in those lean days sometimes meant the difference between life and death.

Yanase has said that he wants Anpanman to teach children to be brave and good, and it is easy to see why he chose an edible object to do the teaching: To him, it not only represents goodness, but life itself. Nevertheless, preschoolers these days probably get all the anpan they want, and selflessness, as Anpanman practices it, is a sophisticated virtue. The reason they love Anpanman is not because he’s upstanding, but because he’s cute, he always wins, and everybody likes him.

Baikinman, on the other hand, for all his bad intentions, is as much an object of derision as he is of fear. Recently, I visited the Anpanman Store in Yotsuya with a friend and her 3-year-old daughter. When I asked the daughter if she liked Baikinman she said she didn’t, but she couldn’t say why. Watching the other children playing in the middle of the store, I didn’t notice any particular preference for Anpanman toys over Baikinman toys, and according to the woman behind the counter, the store sells an equal number of both. Baikinman may be a nasty little microbe, but he’s still cute.

That means he has uses other than that of being a foil for Anpanman, especially in the development of Anpanman products, which weaken Yanase’s original aims. Social values associated with hygiene and nutrition are easier to teach to preschoolers than moral ones are.

They’re also much more profitable: The series’ runamok anthropomorphism has built-in marketing potential. Among the cartoon’s non-food-group chracters are erasers, notebooks, toothpaste, calendars, and even pumice stones. Today’s generation of young parents is less inclined to use overt discipline with their children than their own parents were. Rather than forcing a child to take a bath, they prefer the carrot-and-stick approach: Let’s take a bath with Anpanman.”

The problem with all this indiscriminate anthropomorphism is that it can lead to oversimplifications that obscure the reality of the thing represented. This isn’t to say that Anpanman fans will grow up believing that burning a slice of bread in the toaster is an act of torture, but last year, while I was waiting at my local public health office for some test results I picked up a mutlilingual pamphlet on AIDS in which the HIV virus was depicted as a snaggle-toothed critter with antennae and a pointy tale. Not unlike Baikinman, I thought.

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