RIP Yanase Takashi

Néojaponisme Literature Editor Matt Treyvaud steps back to examine the basic themes of beloved Japanese children’s character Anpanman on the death of its original creator.

Yanase Takashi, creator of Anpanman, passed away on October 13 at the age of 94.

Today, Anpanman stands at the center of a vast mandala of characters and stories, crisply drawn and intricately differentiated. The original books published in the 1970s, however — the Pali canon of Anpanman, if you will — bear no resemblance to any of this. The art is shockingly crude, and the villains have little in common with the high-concept rogue’s gallery that Greater Vehicle Anpanman would develop. In the first book, Anpanman fights a giant gorilla. Baikinman shows up relatively early, but he is not the resource-rich techno-fetishist Bond villain of later imagining. He lives on a raincloud and spies on Anpanman through an ordinary TV set.

What is left of Anpanman, then, when the historical accretions are stripped away? Or, rather, what has been at the core of Anpanman through all his adventures and transmigrations? Well… anko. The underlying message of Anpanman is simple: Everyone deserves to eat. Anpanman fights for justice (seigi), but Yanase’s experiences during World War II left him with the belief that food security is justice, objective and absolute.

Yanase in 2011:

「アンパンマン」を創作する際の僕の強い動機が、「正義とはなにか」ということです。正義とは実は簡単なことなのです。困っている人を助けること。ひもじい思いをしている人に、パンの一切れを差し出す行為を「正義」と呼ぶのです。 […] 飢えている人に食べ物を差し出す行為は、立場が変わっても国が違っても「正しいこと」には変わりません。絶対的な正義なのです。

My strongest motivation in creating Anpanman was the question “What is justice?” Justice is actually a very simple thing. It’s helping people in trouble. Offering a hunk of bread to people who are hungry — that’s what I call justice. […] No matter what your situation or which country you’re in, offering food to starving people is always the right thing to do. It is absolutely just.

Anpanman, famously, doesn’t just carry food around to distribute — he is food. It’s easy to see him as a Christ parallel — “This is my head which is given for you” — and there are rumors that Yanase himself was a Christian (I don’t recall ever seeing it brought up in an interview or profile). But I have always seen Anpanman as a reflection of the bodhisattva ideal, whether Yanase intended this or not. He does not give of himself to share communion; he does not urge those he gives to to remember him. Anpanman just gives, out of what appears to be the proverbial compassion for all sentient beings.

This is why, despite its messed-up gender politics and ubiquitous merchandising, I cannot bring myself to dislike Anpanman. He could stand to anpunch Baikinman a little less, but still, when I look at Anpanman I see someone whose first reaction to a giant rampaging gorilla in that early story was: “Clearly this gorilla needs something to eat.”

Matt TREYVAUD
October 21, 2013

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

8 Responses

  1. MattAlt Says:

    Does Yanase’s passing leave 91 year old Mizuki Shigeru as the last living manga-ka from the generation who experienced the horrors of war so directly and viscerally?

  2. Matthew Penney Says:

    Chiba Tetsuya was a young boy in 1945 but his career was marked by vivid memories of escape from the continent and repatriation after Japan’s surrender.

    Shirato Sanpei was a teen and has written about the thought police harassing his father and witnessing violence against Korean forced laborers.

    I think that Mizuki is indeed the last active mangaka who was drafted in wartime.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yeah, with Nakazawa Keiji gone too the big names are definitely thinning out. Lately I have seen Chiba Tetsuya (early childhood in Manchukuo, family stuck there for a while after the war) turning up in that context but I’m not sure if he’s ever dealt with it in his actual manga as opposed to illustrations for exhibitions, essays, etc.

  4. Matthew Penney Says:

    I recall that Chiba did a manga short of about 16 pages on his experience in the 1970s (probably in Magazine), but I’m not sure if it has made it into a compilation. Mostly illustrated essays and single art pieces as you mentioned.

    He certainly takes a dim view of the Japanese military in Shidenkai no Taka and has written that his position was informed by his childhood experience.

  5. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Thanks Matthew! I didn’t see your comment pop up while I was writing mine last night.

    I guess the mantle, such as it is, has been passed to folks like Miyazaki Hayao and Matsumoto Leiji — mangaka who were in Japan as young children during the war/occupation and take it up, along with war in general, as a less explicitly autobiographical theme (Kaze tachinu, Uchu senkan Yamato, etc. — actually didn’t Matsumoto write some multi-volume epic directly about the war itself?)

  6. MattAlt Says:

    Are you referring to Leiji’s “The Cockpit”? As much as I enjoy it it’s much more of a romantic sort of thing than any of, say, Mizuki’s war diary manga. I believe a segment of it was translated by Fred Schodt for inclusion in “Manga! Manga!”

  7. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yeah, that whole “Battlefield Manga” series. That’s what I mean though — Matsumoto wasn’t on the actual battlefield, so he’s able to iconify + romanticize the imagery in a way that someone like Mizuki just never would. It’s the lack of direct, visceral experience, as you put it in your first comment.

  8. Matthew Penney Says:

    The passing of the torch:

    http://www.pixiv.net/member_illust.php?mode=medium&illust_id=39338030