Last month, on my way to the Tokyo headquarters of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, I stopped at the Tokyo Tower for a bit of sight-seeing.
A communications tower located in Shiba Park, Minato, Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower is 332.6 meters (1,091 ft) tall – which makes it the tallest self-supporting steel structure in the world. Built in 1958, this Eiffel Tower-like structure supports an antenna that broadcasts television and radio signals for important Japanese media outlets including NHK, TBS and Fuji TV.
At the base of the tower, I had an unexpected encounter with an old friend. I know him as Gnana Katha Malliya, the name given to him in the Sinhalese adaptation that I watch on Sri Lankan television.
Anpanman is the creation of Takashi Yanase, a Japanese writer of children’s stories. Each animated cartoon is approximately 24 minutes long, split into 2 episodes of approximately 12 minutes each.
Yanase has been writing Anpanman since 1968. He became inspired by the idea of Anpanman while struggling to survive as a soldier in World War II. He had frequently faced the prospect of starvation which made him dream about eating a bean-jam filled pastry called Anpan.
Anpanma is indeed a superman made by a baker. His head is a bun made by Jam Ojisan, a kind-hearted baker. He was created when a shooting star landed in Jam Ojisan’s oven while he was baking.
Anpanma’s name comes from the fact that he is a man with a head made of bread that is filled with bean jam called an anpan. His weakness is water or anything that makes his head dirty. He regains his health and strength when Jam Ojisan bakes him a new head and it is placed on his shoulders. Anpanman’s damaged head, with Xs in his eyes, flies off his shoulders once a new baked head lands.
The most endearing attribute of Anpanman is his sense of sacrifice. When he comes across a starving creature or person, he lets the unfortunate creature or person eat part of his head. Jam Ojisan has to keep baking an endless supply of heads for our hero.
And it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘eat my head off’.
Baikinman is the villain in the stories. He comes from the “Germ World” and is the leader of the viruses. His name means “Germ Man”, and his ambition is to destroy Anpanman and turn the planet into another “Germ World”.
According to the Wikipedia, as of September 2006, Anpanman’s books had collectively sold over 50 million copies in Japan.
The Anpanman television series is called Soreike! Anpanman (meaning ‘Go! Anpanman’) – it has been on the air in Japan since 1988. More than 800 episodes have been made to date. There are also 18 cinematic films featuring the characters.
According to the Japanese toy company Bandai, Anpanma is the most popular fictional character from age 0 to 12 years in Japan.
As I found out, Anpanman is such a cultural icon in Japan that his images adorn railway carriages, and there is an Anpanman museum opened in Yokohama in 2007.
Anpanman is also popular in many countries across Asia. He has a large following in China and Korea, where the comics and TV series have been a popular Japanese cultural export for years.
And, as it turns out, I’d been enjoying his exploits on Sri Lankan television for years without even knowing his original Japanese name! This reinforces the point I made in Feb 2008, writing about another favourite character Madeline – originally French, but whom I encountered on a visit to Manila and Los Banos in January this year.
I wrote: “It’s becoming impossible to discern or define what is ‘local’ anymore in this rapidly globalising and integrating world. Sociologists and communication researchers who split hairs about preserving ‘local content’ have a romanticised notion that is hard to find in the real world.”
Read my Feb 2008 blog: What’s local in our mixed up, globalised world?
Watch a sample story: Anpanman to Hamigakiman