It's a children's anime that's omnipresent in Japan, barely exists outside it and has notched up over a thousand episodes (and counting). No, I haven't watched them all. This is just a random Anpanman movie that Tomoko came home with one day, because a mother at playgroup was going home to Japan and had been unloading a bunch of stuff she wouldn't be taking on the plane. Obviously I watched it.
Tokyo Movie Shinsha have been making an Anpanman movie every year since 1989 and apparently they all have the same plot. This is the 2006 one. What happens in each of these films, more or less, is that someone (usually a princess) arrives from overseas and ends up helping Anpanman defeat his enemy Baikinman yet again. (Anpanman always beats Baikinman every single time he shows up in this anime, without fail, but I'm sure the help is still appreciated.) Baikinman will have invented something that can morph things or people. The visitor sometimes dies and gets brought back to life. The end.
To my astonishment, this particular film was really good. However before discussing that, let's give some Anpanman background.
The idea came from World War Two. Takashi Yanase (then in his twenties) repeatedly faced starvation and so, when the war ended, starting writing and drawing picture books about a hero who fed people. That's Anpanman. "Anpan" is a bun with bean paste filling. Yanase wrote and drew Anpanman for forty years from 1973 until his death and the anime it spawned is apparently in the Guinness Book of Records for having the greatest number of characters. There are over 2,000 of them, although you'd never guess given the neat, self-contained nature of any given story.
Anyway, Anpanman is a superhero made of bread. Uncle Jam baked him in an oven, but a Star of Life came down the chimney and got into the dough. Result: Anpanman. What's more, he's a textbook superhero. He can fly, he's strong, he has a cape and he goes around helping people. He has a supervillain (Baikinman) who builds secret bases and giant robots, although he's not a particularly scary villain and his two sidekicks (girly Dokin-chan and walking skeleton Horrorman) are downright cute. His head-rotting blobby mould Kabirunrun pets are a bit weird, though.
You might be wondering about eating bits of Anpanman. Sounds peculiar, right? Yes, it is. When Anpanman meets hungry people, he pulls chunks from his head and lets them eat his living flesh. Amazingly this looks almost normal when done by smiling cartoon characters, but it's still only one malicious reinvention away from cannibal horror. What's more, Anpanman never goes to the doctor to patch up the holes he's gouged in his own skull. Uncle Jam just bakes him a new head instead. Anpanman decapitates himself and puts on the replacement as if he's putting on a hat. Magic! No one Japanese sees anything weird or potentially creepy in this.
That said, though, his friend Shokupanman offers still more freak-out potential. "Shokupan" is ordinary Western bread, so this dude has a head like a loaf of bread, with his face on the cut side. Think about this. How do you think Shokupanman feeds people? Well, after standing in the sun to toast himself, he cuts off the front of his head and gives his face to his friends. You'll be relieved to know he does this with his bare hands instead of getting out a breadknife, which would be the reason why Anpanman isn't a J-horror franchise and its fans don't go around projectile-vomiting.
I should be talking about this movie, though, not the entire franchise.
We begin with superheroics. Baikinman ("baikin" is Japanese for "bacteria") has built a robot spider walker and he's making trouble with it, so it's time for Anpanman! What ensues is a surprisingly non-trivial fight. You're not scared or anything, but it's no walkover. Anpanman has to tear off the robot's legs, use an improvised shield against octopus attacks, etc.
After that's out of the way, we see Anpanman flying over the sea when he sees a beaten-up doll in a box, being tossed on violent waves. Naturally he rescues it, but it really is just a doll. It's got no clothes or hair. It looks like the kind of faintly creepy cracked thing that would probably start murdering everyone if this were a horror movie. Nonetheless Anpanman flies home with the thing and everyone puts it to bed... whereupon a Star of Life comes down from heaven and turns the doll into a girl. It's like Pinocchio. (The sky and the weather are like the hand of God in this movie, ever ready to unleash unpredictable phenomena upon you.)
Anyway, the dolly's name is apparently Doorii. She's amazed to be alive. It's almost moving to watch her doing cartwheels in excitement and discovering that she's now capable of getting hungry. She loves eating... but unfortunately she's also a bit of a brat. She's the four-year-old equivalent of a sociopath. She doesn't care about anyone but herself, but what's more, she thinks it would be morally wrong to do so. She thinks the point of life is to enjoy yourself with no thought of other people and she gets a bit upset and indignant when Anpanman disagrees. She even argues back, trying to prove him wrong! If people sympathise with her and try to make her feel better, she gets angry at the challenge to her worldview. She's not evil or or a bully, unlike Baikinman, but she's a self-centred mouth on legs and she often needs a slap.
This is kind of amazing. We have existential debates as characters argue about the meaning of their existences, but they're living in a world of metaphor made flesh. A doll can open a door in her chest, look inside at her own star/heart and wonder why it's shrinking and getting darker.
Fortunately this doesn't get heavy, because soon Baikinman's back to cause trouble. I like these baddies. They're more fun than the heroes, obviously, with Baikinman doing his best 007/Mazinger supervillain impersonation... but Dokin-chan will happily beat him up if he builds a giant robot that isn't girlie enough. Horrorman is cuddly. Them kidnapping Doorii is funny too. However soon everything's goes to hell as Baikinman's giant robot starts stomping and Anpanman's world has a little apocalypse.
It's like a Godzilla film. The robot trashes every building in sight and blasts everyone with his vomit beam attack. If this hits you, it solidifies into mud as hard as concrete. Suddenly it's a landscape from hell and even superheroics from Anpanman and his buddies aren't enough to stop this thing. Anpanman tries to protect Doorii and gets vomit-blasted into a mud statue over the course of about two or three minutes as he just stands there, refusing to run away. He was probably also getting toasted, given the flames that accompanied the vomit blast, although I can't imagine anyone being in a hurry to eat him afterwards.
It's all down to Doorii. She has to use her Life Star and... wow. It's fairly brutal, actually, and afterwards I thought the Life Star Stream was the hand of God lifting her broken lifeless shell up to heaven. The movie doesn't go there, though. That would have traumatised half the target audience, I'm sure. Instead we get reincarnation (as a tomboy, instead of her previous frilly girliness).
Roll end credits. Finn in shock. That was amazing. I'm sure it would seem less so if I'd watched all the Anpanman movies, but still... wow. Mind you, I've just been doing a bit of reading and it sounds as if Anpanman doesn't often have this kind of thoughtful conversation about himself, his history and what makes him tick. If so, this movie might in fact be a little deeper than usual after all.
I'm pretty sure you can't buy Anpanman in English. You can't escape the dude in Japan, since he's sold over 50 million books and his face is on every possible kind of children's merchandise, but outside it, he's nowhere. His target audience is too young to give him any toehold in the otaku market, looking like something aimed far younger than even, say, Pokemon. (You'd be surprised, though. Anpanman got voted the most popular fictional character among children aged 0-12 for ten years running. That's a broader range than I'd have guessed.)
Anyway, I really liked this movie. If Tomoko brought more home, I'd watch them all.