Tokyo >> If you have been anywhere in Japan in the past 30 years, there is a very good chance you have come across Anpanman.
His round face, bright red nose, rosy cheeks and infectious smile will have beamed out at you from TV screens, billboards and supermarket shelves. He and his cast of food-based friends will have waved back at you from TV commercials, shopping centers, public libraries and doctor’s offices.
In the crowded and competitive world of Japanese cartoon characters, Anpanman is king. He stands astride a commercial empire worth an estimated $890 million to $1 billion in annual revenue, and holds licensing agreements with around 70 companies.
His picture book series has sold 79 million copies and the TV show, “Soreike! Anpanman,” just celebrated its 30th anniversary on Nippon TV.
Not bad for a superhero with an anpan (bean jam-filled pastry) for a head.
“Some children can say Anpanman’s name even if they’ve never seen the TV show or books,” said Rika Kataoka, managing director of the licensing department of rights holder NTVM. “Either their friends have Anpanman things, or their kindergarten or nursery has them. It’s a fact that kids can’t avoid knowing who Anpanman is.”
Anpanman was created by illustrator Takashi Yanase, who passed away in 2013 at age 94, and first appeared in the “Kinder Story” monthly magazine for kindergarteners in 1973.
Yanase came up with the idea of a just and true superhero who helps people in need by breaking off pieces of his face to give to them to eat. These acts of kindness weaken Anpanman’s strength and impair his ability to fly, but fortunately his on-screen creator, master baker Uncle Jam, can replenish his power by baking him a fresh head in his oven.
All about food
Anpanman lives in a world full of food-based heroes and villains, including his friends Currypanman, Breadhead-man and Cream Panda, and his archnemisis, the dastardly, germ-riddled fly, Baikinman.
The franchise set a Guinness world record for the highest number of characters in an anime series when it breached the 1,768 mark in June 2009. That number has since risen to more than 2,300.
“The target audience is maybe a bit younger than for some of the other iconic cartoon characters out there,” said film critic and cultural commentator Mark Schilling. “There are other shows out there that target very young kids, but they exploited the market so well with all the character goods. It’s become this big franchise.
“In the West you see something like ‘The Gingerbread Man,’ but the story is completely the opposite,” he says. “The gingerbread man is eaten by a fox, but in the Anpanman story, Anpanman gives himself to people. He takes part of his head off and gives it to people.
“In the American story, the character runs away to save himself. In the Japanese story he gives himself to the other characters. That strikes me as something very Japanese. You’re teaching very young kids to sacrifice themselves for others.”
Anpanman began life as part of a monthly picture book sold directly to kindergartens by publisher Froebel-kan. Some people at the company were initially skeptical about the idea of a main character whose face is gradually eaten away to nothing, but an enthusiastic response from children persuaded them to produce a special edition for general sale.
Further new editions were only released once a year, but kindergarten teachers began to tell Froebel-kan that their copies were becoming worn out from overuse. The company subsequently increased its output, taking the character to a wider audience.
The picture books’ popularity meant it was not long before an anime version of the series arrived, and a single-episode adaptation aired on NHK in March 1979. NTV launched the “Soreike! Anpanman” series in October 1988, and executives soon realized that the six-month run they had initially planned would not be enough to satisfy demand.
The animated series stuck largely to the themes and style of Yanase’s books, although several cosmetic alterations were made. The original books saw Anpanman break off so many pieces of his face over the course of an episode that he would fly back to Uncle Jam’s bakery headless, but that was deemed unsettling by TV executives and the character’s acts of kindness were rationed to two or three chunks at the most.
Over time, Anpanman became more rounded and cuter, losing his fingers and developing ball-like hands.
The success of “Soreike! Anpanman” exposed the character to a nationwide audience, and opened up lucrative new opportunities to market his image. Most of the roughly 70 companies that license Anpanman’s image — and emblazon his face on everything from toothpaste to clothing — have held their agreements for the 30 years since “Soreike! Anpanman” first aired.
Anpanman’s popularity has also spawned a chain of Anpanman Children’s Museums — children’s play areas with spaces for live performances, workshops, dioramas, puppet shows and the chance to meet mascots dressed as Anpanman and myriad other characters
The Yokohama museum, which opened in 2007, employs around 120 people, while the adjoining shopping mall, which features a range of stores all selling Anpanman-branded goods, employs around 380. The museum attracts between 700,000 and 800,000 visitors each year, and is set to relocate to a bigger location in June 2019. There are also franchises in Nagoya, Sendai, Kobe and Fukuoka.
“Soreike! Anpanman” has been shown in various nations, mostly in Asia, but the character has never really taken off overseas in the way that successful Japanese exports such as “Pokemon” have.
NTV producer Takahashi believes the very essence of Anpanman and his friends may be the problem.
“We broadcast a special 30th anniversary Anpanman show, and part of that involved interviewing people on the street. We asked some visitors from overseas what they thought of it, and they didn’t know what anpan, karepan or meronpan were,” he says, referring to varieties of bread based on bean, curry and melon.
“They’re all Japanese foods. These are things that are familiar to us, but people from overseas don’t know what meronpan is. You would have to explain it to them. It really is a show with very domestic Japanese content.”
Nevertheless, Anpanman has enjoyed some success abroad and, in September 2015, the first official shop overseas opened in Taiwan.
Earlier this year, South Korean pop group BTS, who have sold an estimated 9 million albums worldwide, recorded a song called “Anpanman,” explaining that they were inspired by the idea of a superhero who helps others.
Schilling believes there is potential for Anpanman to cross over into the Western market, but he admits there are significant cultural barriers.
“They have done it successfully with other shows,” he says. “Take ‘Power Rangers.’ With ‘Power Rangers,’ they just took the action scenes. They totally reconfigured it for the American market. They introduced American actors. If you just had the Japanese characters, it wouldn’t have gone over so well. So for something like Anpanman they would have to redo the whole thing. They would need a new food.
“But they’re doing so well in Japan. It may be confined to Japan, but why put in the effort to take it abroad?”
In June, Anpanman was named as the nation’s favorite fictional character among children aged 0-12 for the second year running in a survey conducted by toymaker Bandai, beating Doraemon, Glitter Force and Kamen Rider with 11.5 percent of the vote.
A vote was also organized through the Anpanman Fan Club to find out the most popular character in the series, and the results were announced on Oct. 3.
And the winner? Anpanman, of course.
“At the moment the show has a lot of support, but at ‘Soreike! Anpanman’ we’re always looking to create something new,” Takahashi said. “We don’t want it to always be the same. We have more than 2,300 characters and every week we’re looking for them to do something new.”
Here are some of the 2,300 characters in the Anpanman universe:
>> Anpanman: Anpanman was born when a shooting star landed in Uncle Jam’s oven as he was baking anpan. He is a champion of justice who gives pieces of his face to those in need, and will go anywhere to help someone in trouble.
>> Uncle Jam: Anpanman’s fictional creator is a kindly old man with gray hair and a bushy mustache. A master baker who lives in the Bread Factory, he is also a scientist who created the Anpanman Mobile.
>> Batako: The upbeat assistant to Uncle Jam is very forgetful. A good singer with a knack for comforting babies, Batako is also a skilled seamstress who fixes Anpanman’s capes.
>> Cheese: Cheese is a dog who was saved by Anpanman when he was a puppy. A loyal sidekick who helps Anpanman out when he is in trouble.
>> Currypanman: A friendly superhero whose head is made of pastry filled with red-hot curry. Can be quick-tempered and rough but is also a reliable big-brother figure who is loved by everyone.
>> Breadhead-man: A friend to Anpanman whose head is a slice of white bread. Something of a heart-throb, Breadhead-man is particularly popular with young children and girls.
>> Melonpanna: Female superhero who has an elder sister named Rollpanna. Melonpanna’s signature move is the Melo Melo Punch, which makes the person on the receiving end love sick.
>> Cream Panda: The youngest of Anpanman’s friends and a foster brother of Melonpanna and Rollpanna. Looks up to Anpanman but often gets pushed around by Baikinman.
>> Baikinman: Came from Planet Baikin to defeat Anpanman. His name means “Bacteria Man” in Japanese, and he can often be found playing tricks on people and bullying those weaker than him. His favorite phrases are “Ha Hi Hu He Ho” and “Bye Baikin.”
>> Dokin-chan: Baikinman’s female sidekick. Vain, selfish and greedy, she has a crush on the handsome Breadhead-man. Her name is a portmanteau of the Japanese onomatopoeic word to signify a beating heart, and the word for germ.