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The scariest? Anpanman as doll horror

Kohei Kikuchi
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Introducing the world's first (?) lecture dedicated to dolls

In April 2014, I began teaching two courses at Waseda University's School of Culture, Media and Society titled "An introduction to studies of ningyo medium (spring semester)” and "Ningyos and horror (autumn semester).” These two courses, probably the only ones of their kind in the world, attempt to academically study all sorts of ningyos over the course of a year. (Ningyo is a Japanese word conveniently used to point out anything from puppets, dolls, marionettes, stuffed animals and so on.)

The lectures cover a wide range of subjects, such as puppet plays, stuffed toy animals, wax dolls, straw figures, ventriloquism, robots and sex dolls, but the underlying concept is to study ourselves through the medium of ningyos. Humans have always produced ningyos for various purposes, such as for use in incantations, for art, science and technology, as well as communication. It is possible to say that studying ningyos means nothing other than studying ourselves from various viewpoints. I have come to call this "ningyo medium studies," and day after day, have explored the world of ningyos from various periods in time, as well as other works and cultural events that are related to them.

At a glance, the movie Go! Anpanman: Dolly of the Star of Life is a touching story, but…

One class in the series of lectures that is particularly well-received by students highlights Anpanman, a popular Japanese character, and Go! Anpanman: Dolly of the Star of Life (hereinafter referred to as "Dolly"), a movie that was released in 2006, as the topic of the scariest doll horror movie. The story begins with a scene in which Dolly, a doll that was abandoned by her owner, is brought to life through the power of the Star of Life, which transforms her into a girl with curly, golden hair wearing a long, blue dress. Dolly, the series' first-ever tomboy character, thinks only of entertaining herself; therefore, people keep a distance from her. Halfway through the story, Dolly becomes distressed and seeks advice from Anpanman and Rollpanna but is unsure of how she should continue living. She then becomes the target of attack by a giant robot created by Baikinman. Anpanman sacrifices himself to protect Dolly and dies from multiple laser beams fired from the robot. At that moment, Dolly finally realizes what she must do and gives her life to Anpanman. Revived, Anpanman defeats the giant robot, but finds Dolly, devoid of life, beside him. At her funeral that night, many Stars of Life shower themselves on her body. Dolly's curly hair, reaching below her waist, is then tied into pigtails and her clothing changes from a blue dress to crimson overalls, completing her transformation into a human being.

The overarching plot, which is similar to Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), is that selfish Dolly commits an Anpanman-like act of self-sacrifice at the end of the story with her transformation in character, moving viewers to tears. The male-chorus version of Anpanman's March (hereinafter referred to as the "March"), which plays at the movie's climax, is closely related to the theme of the movie. This version is solemn rather than touching—so much that it could even invoke laughter. Thinking about it this way, this is a great movie for children. However, by paying attention to the doll in this story, Dolly, the nature of Anpanman as a horror story is exposed.

Anpanman could be the scariest horror story

In the middle of the story, Dolly asks Anpanman, "Why were you born? How will you live your life?" (Needless to say, these are quoted from the March). Anpanman answers, while gazing into the evening sky, "Probably to help people in trouble." Dolly, who is unsatisfied with his reply, snaps, "Boring," and then exits the scene. This short conversation highlights the nature of Dolly as someone who is difficult to deal with, but in fact, the subsequent conversation between Rollpanna and Dolly clarifies the true value of this scene.

One night, Dolly stares towards the street lights and off into the distance when Rollpanna shows up next to her. Dolly also asks Rollpanna, "Why were you born?" to which Rollpanna answers, "I don't know." When Dolly asks, "(Anpanman's answer is) a lie, isn't it?" Rollpanna replies, "It's not a lie. Anpanman really believes in that. But, I can't do that." Rollpanna is an extremely complicated character. Uncle Jam created her as the elder sister of Melonpanna, but due to certain reasons, Rollpanna has both a just and evil mind. Therefore, she is forced to live far away from Anpanman and his friends. This is the only scene where Rollpanna appears in this movie, but the effect of this dialogue, coming only six minutes after the earlier conversation with Anpanman, is significant. Rollpanna exists not knowing what she lives for but inevitably compares herself with and criticizes Anpanman, the perfect hero who has a keen sense of justice. As a result, Rollpanna is a lot more similar and easier to relate to us than Anpanman. On the other hand, Anpanman emerges as a character that is boring or, rather, too straightforward that he could even be perceived as horrifying. I am sure that I am not the only person who has such an impression of him.

This critical attitude toward Anpanman is also seen during the school scene at the beginning of the story when the chorus of the March is playing. As soon as she hears the children sing the familiar phrase "Why were we born? How will you live your life?," Dolly disturbs the people around her by shouting, "What a strange song!" She then says bluntly, "It's obvious why we live. We live to have fun!" Kabao and his friends around her refute by saying that is not true but cannot answer back when they are asked, "Why isn't that true?"

It is natural that one cannot easily find their purpose for living or way of life. Nonetheless, Dolly's idea is criticized as soon as it comes out of her mouth. Why? The answer is simple. It conflicts with the message of justice advocated by Anpanman, who believes in self-sacrifice. Worded differently, the story depicts the school as a place that denounces those who are against the students’ beliefs. If this is the case, the March could sound somewhat like their paean to the hero.

Even if I do not go as far as to say so myself, the repetition of these depictions underscores the fact that the world of Anpanman and his followers is in actuality, an extremely exclusive one. At the same time, the doll Dolly, who asks, "Why are we born? How will you live your life?" makes it clear that this story attempts to reevaluate the very world of Anpanman and his followers.

What’s more, the ending of this movie, which shows Dolly’s hairstyle and clothing change, is the most striking. Anpanman and those around him wholeheartedly accept Dolly, who is now a human being. Of course, the intent behind this transformation of Dolly, someone who had lived for herself only, was probably to illustrate the moral of the story, which is not to forsake the spirit of self-sacrifice and service to others.

An illustration included in the first edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Here, I would like to give attention to the fact that this story is similar to the plot of The Adventures of Pinocchio. Walt Disney's movie version of the Italian fairy tale is well-known, but in fact, Pinocchio is also famous as a satirical story which describes the violent nature of education in Italy at the end of the 19th century. There is not enough space here to go into detail, but Collodi, who was also a journalist, predicted the arrival of a totalitarian state that the fascist party aimed at building tens of years later, as well as the portrayal of self-sacrifice as just. He criticized the party's policy of uniting the nation through education and worried about the future of children by writing Pinocchio.

When bearing this in mind, considering the finale of the Anpanman movie as a mere happy ending, which takes a critical look at Anpanman-like justice, is difficult. Rather, Dolly is the only character who feels uncomfortable with Anpanman's world and expresses her discomfort. In the end, however, she is engulfed against her will by the social norm of the world she is in. Thus, the ending of the story could be interpreted as a hopeless, horrific situation. This is symbolized by the change in hairstyle and clothing, as well as her self-sacrifice in order to (unnaturally) earn approval from the community. In short, this movie is the modern rendition of The Adventures of Pinocchio and is nothing but a great doll-based horror story which depicts the terror of totalitarianism that underlies Anpanman.

Let me add one more point here. Originally, Anpanman was created in 1969 as a work that looked at existing hero stories critically. Its author, Takashi Yanase, believed that taking a simple attitude of wanting to help hungry people was essential for heroes rather than focusing on their strong body or supernatural powers. However, once Anpanman became a nationwide hit, Anpanman also became one of these existing heroes. Therefore, through Dolly, Yanase criticized heroes and the world they live in, and depicted the violent nature underneath them. In other words, the elements of the story described above indicate that in this film, Anpanman's original critical attitude toward conventional heroes is skillfully presented again using its own world, and this is something that should not be forgotten.

Building the world's only place for education and research on dolls

Students who take these courses have the opportunity to think about education, heroes and the world through Anpanman. Each year, feedback questionnaires collected from students after the course show that they seem far more enthusiastic about these classes than other ones. As I work with university students who organize their own curriculums, engage in learning and then go onto exploring the bigger world, I wonder whether there is a more suitable (and moreover, remarkably contemporary) work for them to study than Anpanman. In Anpanman, they encounter creations and dolls that were only thought to be as something for children, and come to face the ordinary but often forgotten fact that opportunities to reexamine the world can be found anywhere, any time.

As described above, through the medium of dolls, I attempt to study deeper into ourselves as humans and to discuss this with my students. It is hard to say that studies on ningyos and their related work, as well as of ningyo culture, are active. For this reason, I am advancing academic research in this field and at the same time, spurred on by the necessity of looking for ways to present these results externally. As part of my efforts to achieve this goal, I will continue to attend to my duties as researcher and educator and advocate my research while learning from the students I teach. My goal is to steadily build the world's greatest ningyo education and research hub in Japan, and I would be happy if this article would become a beacon for what I aim to accomplish in the future.

Reference materials

Go! Anpanman: Dolly of the Star of Life, Nippon Television Network, etc., 2006
・Koichiro Maenosono, An Anthropologic Study of Pinocchio: An Introduction to the History of Modern Education in Italy, Meeting for Discussion about Arts and Sciences, Aoyama Gakuin Women's Junior College, 1987
Official Anpanman website

Kohei Kikuchi
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

After serving as a Global COE research associate at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum and a member of the Research Fellowship for Young Scientists (PD) at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Kohei Kikuchi became an assistant professor at Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. His fields of expertise are ningyo expression and culture in general. Counterattacks by Studies of Ningyo Mediums (temporary title), a compilation of the content of the lecture mentioned above, is expected to be published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in the fall of 2017.

His major publications include:
Japanese Doll-Puppet Culture and Representation, and Godzilla as a Suit/Guignol ,"Studies of Media, Body and Image," No. 7, Waseda Society for Studies of Media, Body and Image, 2017
Why Does Rika-chan Not Gain Weight? Doll and Toy Research, No. 27, The Japan International Doll and Toy Research Association, 2017
Hatsune Miku as a Puppet, Body in Performing Arts in Japan—Death and Life, Dolls and Artifacts, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2017