Takashi Yanase, the creator of Anpanman, Japan’s most adored children’s character, passed away in a Tokyo hospital on Sunday. According to his agency – which went public with a statement last night – the celebrity cartoonist, writer, poet, and lyricist succumbed to heart failure. He had been receiving treatment for liver cancer since August. Yanase was 94.
“Anpanman, while not as recognized abroad as other Japanese pop culture exports such as Hello Kitty, has become Japan’s singular most popular children’s character since his creation in 1973,” writes RocketNews24. “The series spans most forms of media, from traditional manga, to the beloved anime, to more modern mediums like video games and arcade games.”
Yanase, who was born in Tokyo in 1919, came of age during the Second World War. He was drafted into the Imperial Army in 1940 and sent to China. Faced with constant hunger due to strict food rationing, Yanase dreamed of eating anpan – a popular Japanese bread filled with sweet red bean paste. He would go on to create Anpanman, a benevolent hero who would offer pieces of his own anpan head so that others wouldn’t have to go hungry.
After the war, Yanase found work at a newspaper in his native Kochi prefecture. He then moved on to a job with the Mitsukoshi chain of department stores, coming up with wrapping paper designs among other tasks. Yanase became a freelance manga artist in 1953. Twenty years later, Anpanman appeared in a children’s picture book. Then, in 1988, Anpanman made his animated debut
“Yanase was considered a late-blooming manga artist because he was in his 70s when Anpanman became a hit,” wrote the Asahi Shimbun.
The massive catalog of Anpanman cartoons includes more than 1,100 episodes – Yanase himself also wrote the series’ theme song. In 1990, it was awarded the grand prize by the Japan Cartoonists Association. An Anpanman Museum opened in Kochi prefecture in 1996.
In 2009, Anpanman was recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most characters ever in an animated series – 1,768 of them, often bread-inspired.
Yanase, who served as the chairperson of the Japan Cartoonists Association since 2009, briefly retired in early 2011. However, he came out of retirement following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region – upon hearing that the Anpanman theme song was being played to cheer up survivors.
Just one day before his death, Yanase was reported to have met with staff regarding an upcoming Anpanman film set for 2014.
“Mr. Yanase was the Anpanman. He embraced us gently and taught us to share,” said Keiko Toda, the actress who voiced Anpanman, said in a statement. “We’ve lost a precious guiding post.”