Anpanman Character Reviews:
Anpanman Himself

by Jonathan Wojcik and Rev Storm

(clip here)

If you didn't already know anything about Anpanman, you probably thought "what the hell was that?" and "why did any of that happen?" about two seconds in when a skeleton threw a disembodied head out of a bus. Of course, if you were ever a tiny child growing up in Japan, it's likely none of this was surprising to you in the slightest because these characters have been imparting tiny Japanese children with moral lessons since 1973.

Relatively unknown in much of the world, Anpanman is as household a name in some places as Elmo and Big Bird are on our side of the planet, and neither of them to my knowledge have ever been decapitated on-screen even once. Granted, it may not seem at first glance like the kind of thing I'm usually into reviewing, but this frankly gigantic cultural phenomenon has been an inspiration to me since before this website's very existence, and I'm hoping even those of you who never heard of it before might stick around to appreciate how gosh darn weird this is all going to get.

So, what PRECISELY is Anpanman, some of you ask? You've probably gathered that he's some kind of superhero, that his head comes off, and he inhabits a world populated by seemingly whatever the hell it felt like being populated with that day. There's talking animals, talking food, sentient vehicles, sentient buildings, sentient toys, sentient tools, giant robots, space invaders, demons, ghosts, a little girl whose head is an entire sea cucumber and even something called Butt Bird.

As a matter of fact, Soreike! Anpanman ("Go! Anpanman") holds a place in Guinness World Records for allegedly having the largest number of individually named characters to ever appear in a single animated series, with a total of 1,768 recognized by Guinness as of 2009 and these reviews are absolutely, positively, under no circumstances, for real this time, not ever going for completion. I am not going to write about another Anpanman side character every single day for the next five years of my life.

Like many other Japanese children's heroes, Anpanman was born during the horror of World War II, when artist Takashi Yanase found himself on the brink of starvation in service to the Japanese military and craved nothing in the world more than anpan, a type of bread roll filled with anko, or sweet red bean paste. Years later, brainstorming ideas for a children's story, he imagined what it might have been like for an Anpan-based superhero to come to his rescue.

Originally written as a mortal, human baker who merely delivers anpan in a short radio play, the character was essentially split into two by the time he became a comic strip: the anpan-headed hero we know today, and Uncle Jam, the baker who more or less created him in his own image. I say "more or less" because Anpanman was actually granted sapience by "stars of life," magical five-pointed stars that fall from space and periodically transform just about anything imaginable into the various creatures populating Anpanman's world. Most are the product of just a single star, but Anpanman was the result of stars pouring down Uncle Jam's chimney and into his oven, oddly enough emerging as a tiny baby that had to be taught and raised by Jam, his female assistant Butterko and their dog, Cheese.

From the moment he was birthed, Anpanman somehow just instinctively knew that his calling in life would be to feed himself to anyone in need, and in the original books, spent each day patrolling for hungry childen and animals until his headless body had to fly back home for a replacement bun.

If you think this seems a little grotesque for a children's character, you're not alone; kids at the time went wild for how bonkers this was, but their parents and teachers lodged more than a few complaints about how "cruel" it seemed for Anpanman to lose so much of his head.

Once it came time for the cartoon series, Anpanman's suffering was mitigated a little. To this day, he's typically only seen tearing a few small pieces of bread from his scalp before his old bun is pushed aside by a fresh one. They're careful to virtually never show his torso headless for more than a few frames of animation, and we never do see where the old head goes or how disgusting it must get if nobody's going to eat it anymore.

Still, I did say his suffering was only slightly toned down.

Anpanman is a pretty simple, pure-hearted hero on the surface, genuinely having almost no desires of his own but to protect the innocent and make everyone else happy. To those ends, he is possessed of lightning speed and enough physical power to lift a small mountain if he tries hard enough. Most notably of all, he can defeat virtually any foe in only one blow from his an-punch, which was the entire basis of the series One Punch Man. It's kind of tragic that most English speakers are more familiar with a series that began as nothing but an Anpanman parody than with Anpanman itself, which I think kind of robs One Punch Man of the very context that made it a hit in its own country.

In an interesting twist, however, Anpanman is actually more vulnerable than a regular person, because his Herculean strength is apparently in direct proportion to the quality of his bread-flesh. From the moment a new bun is plopped onto his shoulders, he's already beginning to weaken as it grows old and stale. He takes a significant nerf to his stats for every hunk he plucks off to feed somebody, and anything that deforms, contaminates or otherwise sullies that soft, delicate cranium will weakn him to the point of utter helplessness.

Even a little water can do him in.

This is, on one hand, funny as hell to witness...but on the other hand, it adds a surprisingly powerful dynamic to what would otherwise be nothing but a very bizarre Superman knockoff, because unlike the Son of Krypton or Bruce Wayne or a majority of other caped do-gooders, Anpanman actually, literally needs everyone else as much as they need him, if not moreso. He is absolutely helpless without someone else to bake and deliver his replacement heads as they are eaten, ruined, or simply get old and go stale each and every single day of his existence.

It's the surest route to making me love a character, really: just make them pathetic. Anpanman isn't an untouchable Man of Steel, but a glass cannon cursed with one hit point and an insatiable compulsion to put himself in harm's way for the sake of others, even knowing that he could be done in by a damp enough sponge.

This surprisingly precarious existence even makes Anpanman's seemingly simplistic personality more compelling. He has no major personal interests, he has no aspirations, he has no future plans, he rarely even has any real opinions, beliefs or ideas of his own whatsoever, but that's all by design - he is a character happily resigned to living for everybody but himself, and it makes his little, scattered moments of character depth seem all the more meaningful.

Among the very, very few things we know about Anpanman as a person are that he loves his bakers like family, he's fascinated by the night sky because the stars brought him life, and he is very, very socially awkward. He has a very hard time conversing or engaging with people, prefers to be a quiet observer even for events in his own honor, and the one thing he very visibly despises is any situation in which he is expected to sing, act or otherwise perform for an audience. I'm sure a lot of you out there probably just spotted something you relate to pretty strongly.

Many other mysteries abound, of course, and especially the more physiological aspects of this entity's existence. Many bizarre properties and powers have been seen only briefly, such as an ability to heal himself by absorbing a regular-sized anpan roll, take off his own head like some sort of Dullahan, and in one inexplicable story, even generate miniature Anpanmen known as bump men when his head was injured. Yeah. Nobody ever spoke of that again.

It is also entirely unknown what Anpanman's body is made of. It IS known that he doesn't require or enjoy any food or drink, but he does need sleep, so that's one confirmed biological process, right?

Stranger still, the composition and even size of Anpanman's head can affect his personality as well as his powers. He can, under some circumstances, adopt other foods or objects as temporary replacements, but he might behave like a completely different person, and the secret ingredient of his anpan, the magical flower of bravery, is virtually the only reason he's a hero at all. Without that rare and precious plant - which grows only in a single, secret location - he is absolutely petrified of danger to the point of hiding in his room.

The question stands, then, as to what it even means at all for Anpanman to be Anpanman. Where is the true seat of his consciousness? What is his true "natural" state? Can he rightfully be said to have one? Is he the same continuous being from day to day? Is ANYBODY? We don't even know what would happen if his head wasn't ever replaced. We know what "incapacitates" him, but we do not know what actually kills him, if that is indeed possible. Without his family to make him a new head, would he be basically bedridden for the rest of his life? Would he wander headless for eternity? Would his final anpan roll wither up into a nasty little grey crust you find under the refrigerator while he retires in a cave somewhere?

Maybe you think I'm reading just a little too deeply, too darkly into something intended to entertain babies, but if you know anything about his creator, you know that the tragedy beneath Anpanman's saccharine surface is no accident.

Yanase Takashi's father passed away when he was only a small child himself, and he and his brother were given up for adoption by a mother who soon remarried and never, ever spoke to her sons again.

While he loved his foster parents, he would never fully recover from the hurt of his abandonment, having thoughts of suicide well before his teens. It didn't help that his own premature birth left him physically weakened, and he was seen by others as dumb, awkward, weird and depressing. He even recalled grown-ass adults describing him, in earshot, as a "kind" but "not good looking" and not "pleasant" child. Not like his brighter, stronger, more popular younger brother, at least, whom he loved dearly but felt overshadowed by in almost every regard. Years later, when that brother perished in the war as a kamikaze pilot, he still thought it was a "waste" that he wasn't the one dead.

Yanase shared all this and more in his first autobiography, and discussed repeatedly how much of his life and his perspective he put into his characters. Reflecting how other people had perceived him, he deliberately designed Anpanman to be a kind and gentle hero, but neither "handsome" nor "cool," and just like Anpanman, one of Yanase's strongest desires throughout his life had only ever been to be "useful" enough to be wanted.

With literally thousands of cartoons, books, toys, songs, plays and even some entire parks devoted to Anpanman, I'd say Yanase got that wish and far more, though it's worth mentioning that none of his creations became such a megahit until he was in his 70's. Since then, literally millions of children have been delighted and educated by his characters, Anpanman's face adorns schoolhouses and children's hospitals, an entire museum opened to showcase his artwork and The Anpanman theme song was played to comfort the survivors of the 2011 earthquake. If you haven't listened to that song yet, we linked it at nearly the beginning of this page...but we didn't yet share a translation of the lyrics that Yanase himself wrote:
"That's right, you are happy
It's a joy to be alive
Even though the pain in your heart still aches

For what purpose were you born?
For what reason are you alive?
The thought you could never answer that--
That is something you can't stand!
Just what it takes to be alive right now
Is enough to keep your heart burning hot
That is why you go on, smiling all the way

That's right, you are happy
It's a joy to be alive
Even though the pain in your heart still aches
Ahh, ahh, Anpanman
You are just so kind
Go, now, to protect all our dreams

What is it that makes you happy?
What is is that brings you joy?
The thought of dying without ever knowing--
That is something you can't stand!
Don't forget them, those dreams
Don't shed them, those tears
They are why you fly on, to places far and near

That's right, don't be afraid
For the sake of everyone
Love and bravery are your only friends
Ahh, ahh, Anpanman
You are just so kind
Go, now, to protect all our dreams

Time goes by far too fast
The twinkling stars will all go out
That is why you go on, smiling all the way

That's right, you are happy
It's a joy to be alive
Even though the pain in your heart still aches
Ahh, ahh, Anpanman
You are just so kind
Go, now, to protect all our dreams"

In 2013, Yanase Takashi succumbed to heart failure at the age of 94 - and that awkward, weird, "unwanted" little kid had a country of millions in mourning.