Celebrating Anpanman at fifty

  • Themes: Culture, Japan

2023 marks fifty years since the creation of Anpanman, the Japanese superhero with a head made of bread, who has represented hope, love and kindness for generations of Japanese children.

An Anpanman express train at Okayama Station in Japan.
An Anpanman express train at Okayama Station in Japan. Credit: Peter Elvin / Alamy Stock Photo

A very special Christmas present is on its way this year for fans of the legendary Japanese production house Studio Ghibli. Bearing at least a passing resemblance to Santa, with his white beard and twinkling eyes, Hayao Miyazaki – surely the biggest name in anime – is gifting audiences what is expected to be his final film. The Boy and the Heron is released in western cinemas in December (Boxing Day, in the UK).

Thanks to deals with Disney back in the 1990s, and latterly with Netflix, Studio Ghibli has come to play a central role in how western audiences imagine Japan: the cute, inventive magic of My Neighbour Totoro (now a hugely successful stage play); a harrowing portrait of children in wartime, in Grave of the Fireflies; and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, with its cast of colourful kami (deities).

As Studio Ghibli looks to a future without its founding father, Japan is this year marking the fiftieth anniversary of an animated character about whom few in the West will have heard and which no-one in Japan can avoid. His creator, Yanase Takashi, died ten years ago, but he and Miyazaki were part of the same postwar generation of animators, who hoped to see their art become a contribution to lasting peace.

Twenty years Miyazaki’s junior, Yanase was old enough in the early 1940s to serve with the Imperial Japanese Army in China. What he experienced there made him a lifelong pacifist. He saw Chinese villagers starve to death, and his own emaciated comrades staggering and then dropping out of their marching columns.

The deep disconnection between the billing of the war back home in Japan as ‘righteous’ and the sordid reality on the ground persuaded Yanase that, after the war, Japan needed not just new and better political leaders but a new kind of heroism towards which people in Japan – and, indeed, the world – might aspire.

At the war’s end, the Allied Occupation of Japan brought with it an influx of American culture, including comics featuring the likes of Batman and Superman. Japanese editors were clamouring for homegrown heroes. In 1973, Yanase belatedly obliged – but not at all in the way that was expected.

To Yanase, it seemed central to the characters of heroes like Superman and Batman that they remained aloof, superior, not really touching the lives of those they saved. The kind of hero needed by Japan, thought Yanase, had to live among ordinary people and, as a result, be inspired by real compassion.

‘Anpanman’ was born – and not, it has to be said, to universal acclaim. ‘Please, never write something like this again,’ commented one distressed parent, whose child had just finished reading Anpanman’s first outing. ‘We don’t need more than a single book of this type,’ said another. ‘Cruel,’ said a third.

Yanase’s new hero, aimed primarily at young children, was so deeply invested in the good of those around him that he fed the hungry and the distressed from his own body. If Batman or Superman did that, it would of course be rather macabre. Not so Anpanman. His head is made from Anpan: a bread bun, filled with bean-paste jam. He tears off a chunk for anyone who needs it, before requesting ‘Uncle Jam’ – Yanase’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred – to bake him a fresh one.

Anpanman was not just a rather unnerving superhero, for those encountering him for the first time (parents, at any rate – children took to him immediately). He also suffered from some serious vulnerabilities. Superman’s nemesis substance is kryptonite: poisonous green crystal from the planet Krypton, not easy for adversaries to get their hands on. The equivalent for Anpanman is troublingly ubiquitous: water. His arch-enemy Baikinman – ‘Germ Man’ – has only to squirt a little at his face, sitting at the controls of his tiny airship’s water cannon and cackling his famous cackle – and Anpanman tumbles out of the sky.

Anpanman’s friends – like him, based on various Japanese foods – find themselves having to rush in and bail him out on a regular basis: Shokupanman (Bread-man), Karēpanman (Curry-bread-man), and many more. Uncle Jam spends much of his time baking replacements for Anpanman’s soggy head.

Why offer up such a disappointingly vulnerable character as a hero for the children of Japan? Because Anpanman is really only ‘vulnerable’ if your ideal of heroism is standing alone against your enemies and against all the odds. This was precisely the kind of heroism of which Yanase had his bitter fill during the war, and which he was sure could no longer serve Japan. Anpanman, by contrast, is not just deeply invested in others: they are deeply invested in him. Yanase wanted to show that heroism and adventure are still possible in a world where people help one another. Love, kindness and co-operation: these things don’t have to be boring; they can be the stuff of gripping stories (at least, if you’re a small child).

From that first outing in 1973, the Anpanman universe steadily expanded. Children love adventure, and they also like food. Happily, Japan’s culinary scene makes it easy to move beyond a small cast of bread-based characters. Cupcakes, donburimono (rice-bowl dishes) and even a hamburger joined the roster – the last as ‘Hamburger-kid’: a horse-riding, lasso-wielding cowboy.

As with so many of Hayao Miyazaki’s characters, psychological complexity became part of the allure. Germ-man’s top lieutenant is Dokinchan. An orange-and-white germ, she enjoys inflicting suffering every bit as much as her boss – and yet she is also head-over-heels in love with the very charming Shokupanman, upbraiding Germ-man when he comes close to harming her amour.

From books, Anpanman moved onwards and upwards into television, films and an astonishing array of merchandise. A dedicated fan, able to bend parents to their will, may return home from nursery or school, carrying her Anpanman lunch-box, and enjoy Anpanman curry for dinner. An episode of Anpanman may follow, with its enormously popular theme-tune: the ‘Anpanman March’ features a chorus of cheerful, childlike voices over upbeat drums and flutes. Later, her teeth will be cleaned with Anpanman toothbrush and toothpaste before she is tucked into bed under an Anpanman duvet, her head resting on an Anpanman pillow and night-time terrors kept at bay with an Anpanman lamp and a bedful of his cuddly comrades.

Though he has yet to make it big in America or Europe, Anpanman looks like remaining a fixture of Japanese childhoods for many years to come, as the generation who first grew up with him have children of their own and share with them one of the most important characters from their childhoods.

Perhaps the finest moment for the franchise came in March 2011. An earthquake powerful enough to shift Japan’s main island eight feet closer to the United States struck its north-eastern coast. A dark, deafening, putrid wall of water came surging inland, sucking buildings and bridges, cars and people, out to sea or else scattering them across the ruined landscape. While all this was going on, news began to come in that a nuclear power plant at Fukushima had been damaged by the tidal wave, and might be facing meltdown.

Amid tragedy and uncertainty, as some of Japan’s darkest days unfolded, reports began to emerge about how local children were coping. They were singing.

The Anpanman March had become a temporary national anthem, vindicating Yanase’s ideal of what true heroism ought to look like:

That’s right! Don’t be afraid.

For everyone’s sake,

Let courage and love be our friends…

What makes you happy?

What makes you smile?

Don’t let it all end without finding out…!

 Go, Anpanman!

Protect our dreams!


Christopher Harding