(I reworked this one some since I last posted it a few days ago.)
As a child who spent most of the 80s sitting six inches away from the TV, my world was populated with many exotic and fascinating creatures, thanks to cereal and snack-food commercials. The myths and legends of Toucan Sam and the Quik Bunny were as real to me as any bedtime story.
Mind you, I had nothing against books—I enjoyed being read to—it was just that the beings I saw on television encouraged me to eat marshmallows for breakfast, something none of the characters in The Wind in the Willows ever did. And can you name a single fairy-tale inspired breakfast cereal? Show me Little Red Riding Hood Flakes, and I’ll show you a cereal that no child ever threw a tantrum in a supermarket aisle to make her parents buy. I’ll bet it wouldn’t have chocolate-covered Grandmother’s houses, let alone marshmallow wolves.
Snack-food mascots usually fell into one of two categories: they were anthropomorphic animals with crippling snack obsessions (Trix Rabbit, you poor bastard), or vaguely creepy people with questionable back-stories and crippling snack obsessions. (There was something off about dead-eyed Lucky the Leprechan. I can’t imagine any of the other cartoon mascots ever wanting to hang out with him outside of work). They sometimes had some sort of magical power—although often it was just the power of being chronically able or unable to obtain the object of their snack obsessions. Not the most enviable or inspiring power.
Having grown up with these rather petty food-related archetypes, I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Japan for three weeks in high school. There I was introduced to Anapanman, Japan ‘s most popular superhero. He has a giant round head, a big red nose, and small, kind eyes. “His name means ‘Bread Man’.” My host student, Mariko, explained. “His head is made of bread filled with bean-paste. He goes around rescuing hungry people by letting them eat his head. Then a new one is baked for him by his creator.” This was certainly a new spin on things.
The only remotely edible characters that come to mind from my childhood are the California Raisins. Even so, I can’t imagine them, as hip as they were, ever taking off their shades and letting themselves be gnawed on, even by the hungry. You didn’t mess with the California Raisins. Their success as spokes-food was also dubious; they didn’t make you want to eat raisins as much as they made you want to be a Motown singing raisin with tiny arms and legs and a slamming hat. Which is not beneficial to the raisin industry, although it is beneficial to my imagination.
It seemed that Anpanman’s premise was not to promote bean-paste filled bread, but to feed and empower the hungry. It was strange and exhilarating for me to see a food-related entity with its own liberal, humanitarian agenda. Rather than endorsing greed and selfishness, as the characters of my youth did; encouraging children to obsess over food and even withhold it from their others(those Trix commercials clearly scarred me), Anpanman gives up part of himself for the good and nourishment of those in need. Deep stuff for a cartoon superhero whose posse is made up of creatures with giant food for heads. (I particularly like his companion Tendonman, whose head is a bowl of rice with shrimp Tempura sticking out of it). And Anpanman’s lack of affiliation with any sort of brand name or sponsorship is a vital part of his appeal. A regenerating loaf-man who feeds the hungry? That really is magically delicious.