Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Paraphrasing the Bread Master

I had originally intended to write this article much earlier but I had number of midterms and couldn't make the time, but now here it is! Last month Takashi Yanase, the creator of the iconic Anpanman passed away at the age of 94. He was apparently working on a new Anpanman film - surely a trooper to the very end. Admittedly I had little knowledge about Yanase and likely wouldn't have known about his death if a friend of mine currently residing in Osaka, hadn't sent me info about it. Still I had some knowledge of Anpanman because, honestly if you spend any time in East Asia or familiarizing yourself with East Asian culture and products, you  will eventually encounter Anpanman at some point. Indeed his visage has appeared all across North and South East Asia, on food products, stationary, clothing and even bed covers.

Here's a few of the reported record-breaking 1,768 characters that appear in the Anpanman animated series.
Anpanman is literally a man made out of anpan, a red-bean filled baked treat which is popular in Japan and has several variants in China and Korea. He flies around and saves his world from Baikanman (that's the buggy looking purple guy in the picture with the giant grin) and his mischievous schemes. During his travels and exploits, if he happens upon a hungry person he gives them a piece of his head to eat which weakens him (which I remind you is made of anpan and presumably regenerates). The character of Anpanman appeared first in manga form in 1973 and eventually became so popular that he was given his own animated series in 1988 which is ongoing. Forays into cinema followed with the most recent film released in July 6th of this year. At first glance he seems like your average child-friendly animated hero character (though perhaps somewhat morbid, what with giving pieces of his face away etc.) but with the popularization of Anpanman, Yanase created an international legacy and it's interesting to reflect on why someone would choose to make a superhero who is made of bread and cures hunger specifically as one of his outstanding traits. And so, I decided to do some investigation into Yanase's life and see how the events he lived through influenced the creation of one of Japan's most iconic heroes.

The baker himself, the late Takeshi Yanase - looking very healthy for someone in their 90's.  
Many of the English-language articles on Yanase's death didn't really go into much detail about his back-story beyond the creation of Anpanman. Since I can't read nor understand Japanese language beyond the most elementary level, my previously-mentioned Japanese friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) volunteered to probe a number of Japanese sources on Yanase's pre-Anpanman life and as such I was able to find out a lot of interesting facts about his life.

This is what Anpan looks like by the way. Imagine having a head made of this! 
According to my sources Yanase's father had died at the age of 32, when Yanase himself was only five years old. Reportedly his father had always wanted to become an author and Yanase took it upon himself to fulfill this goal in his father's stead. At the time of his own death, Yanase was being treated for liver cancer (which had originally spread from a cancer which had taken over his bladder). Despite his decline in health he continued to take an active role in the editing process of the most recent Anpanman film until quite recently. He was famous for never missing a deadline in his life and had no children - though he considered Anpanman to be his honorary child which, with all due respect, is an adorable concept.

Yanase had also lived through World War II and had actually been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. Though, based on my information, it is not clear exactly where he was posted, he was evidently forced to endure harsh conditions and famine during his service. My friend has provided a number of translated quotes which I've edited together below which shed some light on his war-time experiences.

"[While] marching in formation, going around covered in mud, you can recover [your energy] after a good night sleep, but starvation you cannot endure. Not being able to eat is very very tough. When you are starving you even feel like eating human flesh and there is nothing you can do, so you boil and eat the grass around you. Some tastes bad, but most of it tastes sour. People who didn't go to war and remained behind had been through much worse. Even if they didn't experience the flames of war, they suffered from starvation."

Hiroshima, ground zero after the dropping of the Atomic bomb. 

With these limited though affecting words one can already draw some connections between the nature of Anpanman's powers and Yanase's war-time experiences. True enough those years right after Japan's defeat at the hands of the United States were a time of great suffering, poverty and famine for many Japanese people and Yanase would have seen quite a bit of hardship in those days both as a soldier and a citizen. Regardless it is obvious that Yanase had endured great hunger at the very least and it was likely these experiences that formed his sense of justice which deeply influenced the character of Anpanman and is explained in the following quotes, which I've again edited together. 

"Justice is relative. Justice for country A will not necessarily be accepted by country B. A kind of justice that doesn't change from side to side would be to save starving people. Even in politics, if there are people starving, there is something wrong with [the situation]. The Justice that people speak of at the top of their voice is unbelievable. Their is no good or evil. the only absolute justice is to feed the hungry.There is no battle in the name of justice. Justice will change suddenly some day and because of that [constructed notions] of justice are [untrustworthy]." 

Yanase's quotes echo a number of similar post-war Japanese dialogues in which a populace who had felt betrayed by the rhetoric of its government and military during war-time began looking inwardly at their own national identities while trying to identify exactly what beliefs and actions had led such a disaster to befall Japan in the first place. There was also the question of who was to blame (though these were not the only discourses at the time, they were popular ones). Still Yanase's ideas of justice and self sacrifice seem to shine through quite clearly in a character which literally gives pieces of himself away to help people. . .      

"It is difficult to do the right thing without hurting yourself in someway and when you do the right thing, there is no guarantee you will be rewarded, and at times you get hurt. We are all also very weak. We are not strong people. But at certain moments, we just act. I think that is what [a] hero is. Anpanman is an unstylish hero. His special attack Anpunch will defeat Baikinman, but it wont hurt him to a point that he falls down. If he sees a hungry child, he takes a part of his face and feeds the kid, and becomes weakened."

A t-shirt displaying the "Anpunch" among other things. 
Perhaps this is all rather on-the-nose but the idea that there is more to Anpanman than a cute bread head, is quite endearing to me. Aside from being a cheery cartoon character Anpanman was also one of the faces of 2011 Tohoku earthquake relief efforts. According to my sources, during the relief effort there was a pole for music to play for people who had lost their homes and those who participated in the relief effort. Though it was customary to play western songs in such situations apparently people thought it was fitting to play the uplifting Anpanman theme song. Which is quite uplifting indeed! Listen below! 

During the earthquake relief effort, Yanase actually came out of retirement and donated a number of Anpanman pictures with uplifting messages to encourage the people who were rebuilding their lives. Yanase himself even had his own message to those who suffered in the aftermath of the earthquake. . . 

"What is important is to live until the end of today, then you can live tomorrow even if it is a little tough. As you live day to day you will continue to see what's next. This earthquake will not go on forever."

Truly, Yanase seems to have been a pretty swell guy in life and I'm glad I took the time to do a bit of research on him. I had originally decided to write this article based on Anpanman's popularity alone but who knew that Takeshi Yanase lived just as much of an interesting and inspiring life as his little edible hero. While he may not have gone to space or won a peace prize, Yanase still comes across as being a genuinely nice person who put himself before others when he felt it was needed; he did his part when disaster arose and inspired generations of children with his child friendly cartoons. Yanase has said himself that "my philosophy is that you don't need to hold back against children" and as such Anpanman continues to be a successful, non-pandering children's show to this day. Hmm. . . Maybe I'll watch some episodes myself to see what all the fuss is about!   

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