More than once I have overheard Yokohama’s Anpanman Museum being referred to as “heaven for kids, hell for parents.”
While I find the thought of either heaven or hell too early for any of my family members, we decided to take our soon-to-be 3-year-old there, mainly on her own insistence. Several times a day she had been telling us how she wishes to visit the “Yokohama Anpanman Children’s Museum and Mall,” always carefully reciting the entire official name, like the television taught her.
If you are neither a Japanese child, nor the parent of one, chances are you will never have heard of Anpanman. He is a superhero with a head made of bread filled with red bean paste (the real-life snack is called anpan). Whenever there is somebody really hungry, he comes flying and lets them eat from his head. Once the anpan is entirely devoured, his headless body will fly back to the bakery, where his friend the baker will bake him a new one.
If your gaze is attuned to kids’ franchises, you will find that Anpanman’s round face penetrates all aspects of Japanese life at least as much as Hello Kitty does. However, this very Japanese tale of self-sacrifice never travelled very far abroad, to the best of my knowledge. Growing up on zombie movies and the Brother Grimm’s gory fairy tales, I appreciate the story of Anpanman. In good measure.
The Yokohama Anpanman Children’s Museum (and Mall) consists of three floors and a strip mall for souvenir shopping (including an Anpanman bakery and an Anpanman hairdresser). At first I was sure that there was a concept to the three floors of the main building (like “science floor,” “food floor,” “games floor”), but the longer I walked the noisy halls, I realized that the concept for all floors was the same: Bright, colorful stuff for kids to run around among and scream.
My wife soon observed that all the non-Japanese fathers (I counted three, myself included) at the Anpanman Museum (and Mall) wore the same blank stare. She assumed that was because they were in hell. And they were in hell, because they did not have any nostalgic connection to Anpanman and his many friends. My wife does not actively participate in the Anpanman fandom these days, but she did grow up on the original books and still feels a certain nostalgia for them that makes places like this at least bearable for her.
As I said, I like Anpanman. My blank stare was probably just a mask for deep thought, and elaborate calculation. I did not grow up on fairy tales and zombie movies alone. Marvel comics were also an important part of my cultural upbringing and education. So here is what I occupied my mind with among all those screaming children: According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Anpanman universe is home to 1,768 different characters, officially more than any other fictional universe.
Is that possible? I don’t doubt the number, but is it really enough for a record? Doesn’t the Marvel universe contain a much higher population; at least if you count everybody, not just the costumed protagonists and antagonists? In my mind I began going through all the reporters, politicians, police men, crooks, street workers, business men, lawyers, husbands, wives, widows, siblings, girlfriends and boyfriends and everyone else I could think of sharing the world of Wolverine and Howard the Duck.
I never got very far. Frequently I had to chase after my screaming child. And there were other distractions, too.
A couple of years ago I was researching for my book about Hello Kitty (the only undeniable flop in my writing career so far – turns out, nobody wants to read an entire book about Hello Kitty). Among the fun facts that I found was that they cut the skirts of the dancers in Sanrio Puroland shorter to make the place more fun for dads. I suppose they followed that same principle at the Yokohama Anpanman Children’s Museum (and Mall).
This is not exactly hell, I thought, as I casually watched the dancers at the two o’clock outdoor performance. This is just purgatory. With legs.