We all may be from different parts of the planet, but there is at least one universal truth: cute sells. While I don't see as much of Tony the Tiger and Captain Crunch as I used to, colorful mascots appeal to children around the world, making products look far better than they actually are. A few of those characters have gone global, probably none so recognizably from Japan as Hello Kitty. An icon specifically created to sell stuff -- without a backstory, anime, manga, or even a children's book -- Hello Kitty became a worldwide phenomenon. My wife had Hello Kitty stuff, and while we have boys, their female contemporaries do too.
A Japanese character that most of us have never heard of is Kogepan. Kogepan literally means "burnt bread," and he's a bun that fell off his tray and wound up burnt in the oven. The Kogepan line includes stuffed toys, t-shirts, pins, sticker books, and pencils...all the typical paraphernalia. Kogepan's story was turned into ten 4-minute anime episodes in 2001. What sets it apart from other anime for children is not its simplistic artistic style or cute soundtrack but its philosophical bent, which alternates between cynically pessimistic and stoically hopefully. It's too slight to be a classic, but in the 30 or so minutes of actual content, there's far more than what we used to get from Saturday morning cartoons created to peddle us junk we didn't need.
Kogepan will never be eaten. He's trying to come to terms with that. Most days, he sleeps in late and moans to himself about the careless baker that let his fluffy skin get charred to a crisp. He drowns his sorrows in milk, which might as well be sake to a bun. Most other breads make fun of him, though he's made friends with a few other rolls that have turned out the wrong way -- like a cream bun whose jelly is lopsided. He may be a tortured soul who'd like to give the younger breads a piece of his mind, but he's just as likely to help them settle into their pan and look perfect for a quick sale as he is to grumble at them. Grumbling won't change his fate, after all...
As I mentioned before, it's not as if Kogepan is an artistic triumph. It's about as simple as anime gets visually. That isn't to say it's not appealing; I quickly grew fond of the little guy and his bakery pals. Watch all ten episodes and I guarantee the opening and closing themes will get stuck in your head. It's all suitably pleasant, no more and no less.
Kogepan is an odd duck in more ways than one. The show is funny and made me laugh out loud several times. Most of the humor comes from the unexpected, though it's not random or bizarre. However, I'm not sure it's humor children would readily understand. I could see a kid watching Kogepan and taking it seriously. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't have a young child's sense of humor.
That's how Kogepan rolls, though. He's cranky, frustrated, and altogether uncertain why he was ever made if he was just going to wind up useless. Yet he can be kind and thoughtful; another bread actually falls in love with him at one point. Kogepan isn't really about selling toys. It's a study in being different and ridiculed, yet finding one's place. It does not lecture; it doesn't tell the audience, "You should accept Kogepan in spite of his differences." In fact, Kogepan is downright difficult to love, and the show doesn't make him very winsome. It's not a show for insiders being told how to deal with outsiders. It's a show for outsiders who can look at it and say, "Hey...that's me!", and feel a little less alone.
While Kogepan is deeper than one would expect from a show about a blackened bun, it suffers from its randomness and lack of time. Repetition seeps in because each episode must stand by itself; however, there's just not enough time to play with. It's cute and enjoyable and, yes, far more thoughtful than the average kiddy show. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the old Charlie Brown and Snoopy show that adapted many of Charles Schultz's comic strips. But when you consider the whole of Kogepan's 10 episodes, you realize the show contains just about as much content as a 25-minute episode of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. The lack of material makes it feel like we're just getting started when the last set of credits begins to roll.
Kogepan is definitely more interesting than your typical program created to sell toys. There were times I found the anime downright moving. It appealed to me, and I'd watch more. Certainly, if you can appreciate a show that has much in common with young childrens' literature with a dash of philosophy mixed in, it's worth finding. But simply put, there's not enough available to be truly satisfying. It might just be like a great pastry -- lovely to taste, but gone just as you're warming up to it.
Kogepan -- mild situations (i.e. milk being a stand-in for sake) -- B+