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Japan's Most Popular Museum: The Anpanman Museum

Kosei Ono takes us on a tour of the Anpanman Museum in Japan, where Japan's favorite edible superhero comes to life for the entire family.

Anpanman and his pastry friends help make the world a better place. © Yanase Studio, 1999.

Anpanman Museum, or Yanase Takashi Memorial Art Museum, located in the cartoonist Yanase's hometown, Kahoku-cho, Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku, in the southern part of Japan, opened on July 21, 1996. Financially speaking, this is, at the moment, the most successful cartoon/animation related museum in Japan, and is now receiving more visitors than the Tezuka Museum in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. This is a museum devoted to an enormously popular cartoon hero created by Mr. Yanase, who was born in 1919, graduated from Chiba University as an industrial design major, and went on to become a cartoonist, illustrator and author of children's books. Yanase is also quite well known among animation enthusiasts as the director of the animated short Yasashii Lion (The Gentle Lion), produced by Mushi Productions in the 1960s, and character designer of Osamu Tezuka's animated feature A Thousand and One Nights.

Yanase created the Anpanman character in the picture book Anpanman, published in 1973. The original story goes a little something like this: A baker named Uncle Jam was baking bread one night. Suddenly, a fragment of a golden star fell through the chimney, and became the character called Anpanman. Anpan is one of the most popular pastries in Japan and is a round bread with sweet bean paste filling. Anpanman, a fairy tale superhero with an Anpan-head, can fly and fights for justice, but hates violence. He tries to save the world not with his physical strength, but rather by sacrificing himself. For instance, he saves a hungry boy by allowing him to eat his head. After his job as a superhero is done, he returns to Uncle Jam. Anpanman's head is often half, or even completely, eaten up. Thanks to Uncle Jam though his head is revitalized over and over again, because baking the Anpan-head is not a difficult task for the baker.

One Baked Man's Success

Anpanman moved to a monthly picture book Shi to Marchen (Poetry and Fantasy), which is edited by Yanase himself and was serialized. Soon Anpanman stories became popular among children, and an Anpanman picture book series followed. In October, 1988, the TV cartoon series Go Go Anpanman was launched on the NTV (Nippon Television) network. This half-hour cartoon series continues even to this day. Anpanman also became the Sunday color comic strip in the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the three major newspapers with a nationwide circulation, and won the Japan Cartoonists Association's Grand Prix in 1990.

Mr. Yanase at the Museum surrounded by his beloved and financially-rewarding pals. © Yanase Studio, 1999.

Since the TV cartoon series began, Yanase has created more than six hundred side characters for the series. Surprisingly, all of them have names. Anpanman's arch villain, Baikin-man (Germ Man) always tries to beat Anpanman and his bread friends, who are the good guys, but never succeeds. Although Baikin-man is a threat to the bread world, this cute, sloppy villain is also popular with the child audience. Most of the side characters are derived from various kinds of food, such as bread, sweets, etc. Many female characters have also been created as members of the Anpanman family. The popularity of the series owes much to the variety of side characters like Cheese, a dog, and Loaf Bread-man -- all related to children's favorite snacks and foods. The first Anpanman animated feature film was released through Shochiku Films in the summer of 1989. Every summer since then, children await for a new feature to open. So far ten such features have been released. The Anpanman films feature simple animation for children, but are also filled with good songs which they can easily sing. This is another major point of its popularity. To ensure quality, Yanase never fails to check the script. Once, a film was almost completed, but Yanase was not satisfied, so it was re-shot. During the summer of 1999, Yanase will be checking the script for the new feature, which will be about Anpanman's adventures in space.

The Amazing Draw of Anpanman

When the Anpanman Museum was built, the Mayor of Kahoku-cho was quite anxious. He figured the museum would only be maintained with a minimum of 100,000 visitors per year. To his happy surprise, the museum received 300,000 visitors during its first year!

The museum is a four-story square building on 3,766.7 square meters of land. The top or fourth floor is an exhibition hall for Yanase's original Anpanman illustrations, drawn and painted especially for the museum. Visitors can see about a hundred of these Anpanman pictures. Animation cels are also exhibited on this floor.

The second and third floors consist mostly of storage space, but the glass walls enable visitors to peek in. Mr. Yanase is the Honorary Director of the museum and has an office on the third floor. With his home and studio in Tokyo, Mr. Yanase travels from Tokyo to Kochi almost every week. Besides the exhibition in this museum, Anpanman-related exhibitions are held somewhere in Japan all of the time, so Mr. Yanase is definitely one of the busiest cartoonists in Japan.

The Anpanman Museum in Kahoku-cho. © Yanase Studio, 1999

On the first floor, one will find the museum's souvenir shop and Anpanman Theater where one can see Anpanman television cartoons on video. On the basement floor is Anpanman World, a sort of playground for children where they can play with Anpanman dolls or be fascinated by miniature scenes. On Sundays and holidays, members of the staff wear Anpanman or side character costumes and entertain the children. The Anpanman Museum is for children who enjoy their first anime experience through Anpanman cartoons, and become interested in this medium. However, the museum personnel were surprised to discover the wide range in their visitors' age groups. The age span has been from 18 months to 90 years-old! The museum never expected visitors of such varied ages. It is not uncommon for three generations to arrive in a family sedan, holding perhaps five people. The Anpanman Museum is an attraction for the whole family in the truest sense, appealing both to infants and senior citizens alike. Since 1997, a new trend has seen an increase in the number of junior and senior high school girls among visitors.

Costumed Anpanman characters delight people of all ages on Sundays and holidays. © Yanase Studio, 1999.

A Wide Range of Influence

Before the Anpanman Museum opened, Kahoku-cho was a totally unknown town. Now, however, it is very different with Kahoku-cho blossoming into a boom town. To get to the museum, it is a 30-minute drive from Kochi Airport, or a 45-minute drive (or an hour bus trip) from the center of Kochi City. Last August, Kochi Prefecture was hit by a typhoon, and traffic conditions were at their worst. Despite this, the museum received quite a lot of visitors. As of July, 1998, the total number of visitors since its opening has reached an amazing 500,000.

The Anpanman TV cartoon series is aired in Korea, Thailand, Spain and Brazil. Anpanman picture books have been published in Korea and China. NTV is now preparing to sell the series to English-speaking countries. Reflecting the popularity of Anpanman are the amazing sales of Anpanman-related merchandise, which in the past ten years has reached a total of ¥400 billion (roughly US $3.5 billion). So far there have been over 350 Anpanman picture book titles, and Anpanman videos have sold more than two-and-a-half million copies.

In truth, the significance of Anpanman is in its simplicity. To be accessible to children, the storylines are simple, and so are the drawings which are created using only simple lines. A child can easily draw Anpanman. Yet the philosophy behind this superhero character is not necessarily that simple. Yanase created this character with this thought in mind: Those who do justice must somewhat sacrifice themselves, too.

People waiting in line to experience the popular Anpanman Museum. © Yanase Studio, 1999.

Anpanman Museum Details

Address: 1224-2, Birafu, Kahoku-cho, Kami-gun, Kochi-Lon, 781-4212, Japan Telephone: (81) 08875-9-2300 Fax: (81) 08875-7-1410 Hours: July-August: 9:00 a.m. -- 6:00 p.m. September-June: 9:30 a.m. -- 5:00 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays. Entrance Fee: Adults: ¥600 Junior High -- High School Students: ¥400 Children (over three-years-old): ¥300 Senior Citizens (over 65) or Handicapped: Half Price Access: From Kochi railway station: 45 minutes by car or 1 hour by bus. From Kochi port: 1 hour by car. From Kochi airport: 30 minutes by car or taxi. Kosei Ono is a Tokyo-born graduate of the International Christian University of Tokyo. A writer and film critic, he is also a member of ASIFA Japan. His books include: History of Chinese Animated Films (1988), Tezuka Osamu (1990) and Asia no Manga (Cartoonists of Asian Countries) (1995). He is also a translator of such books as Little Nemo in Slumberland and Bone. He is currently preparing the book, History of Japanese Animated Films.

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