The hit US animated series Adventure Time is known for its post-apocalyptic–yet by no means dystopian or pessimistic–world setting. Much has been written about this rather optimistic view of a society after modern civilization, and for many it appears as a breath of fresh air: a break away from the grim tales of humanity struggling for survival in a ravaged world.

Yet while Adventure Time makes allusions to what happened in the past through some subtle hints and clues, the world of Gan Gan Ganko-chan from the very start just outright tells you nonchalantly that everyone you ever loved is dead–and with a big, cheerful smile, too.

When a little human boy named Gen time travels from the year 2020 and ends up in the far future, he discovers that there are no people around, his smartphone doesn’t work, and things are far different from home. But the real horror is yet to come. Stepping out of his time machine, he comes across the titular Ganko-chan, a cute little pink creature.

Ganko-chan is actually a popular small children’s character on Japan’s NHK network, having been on television as part of NHK-E’s educational programming for twenty years. The star of the puppet show Zawa-zawa Mori no Ganko-chan, she is a curious and mischievous little dinosaur girl in her first year of elementary school. Gan Gan Ganko-chan is the bright, colorful, first animated incarnation of the character, which has just started airing to coincide with the anniversary.

The educational programs featuring the character of Ganko-chan are not limited to Zawa-zawa Mori and the new animated Gan Gan, there are also English-language learning shows for young kids.

Interestingly, Ganko-chan appeared alongside other famous NHK children’s puppet show characters recently. The occasion was an NHK commercial (one in a series of several) to remind viewers that their contributions, in the form of subscription fees, help fund children’s television programming, no matter the time period. Actress Yuina Kuroshima encounters announcer Nachiko Shudo in the Zawa-zawa Forest, where they meet Ganko-chan, as well as characters from Renzoku Ningyo-geki Purin-purin Monogatari, with singer Hitomi Ishikawa and voice actor Akira Kamiya reprising their roles as Princess Purin-purin and Ruchi Shogun, respectively, after forty years. Kuroshima grew up with Ganko-chan, and Shudo was raised on Purin-purin, showing a clear lineage in quality educational programs.

The object of the shows are to teach ethics and morals to kids, such as how to get along with friends, the virtue of sharing, and other such valuable life lessons for growing up.

It all sounds very nice and adventurous, doesn’t it? Well, it turns out that this future world that Gen has landed on is actually a post-apocalyptic desert-land. After the over-pollution of the atmosphere and the collapse of the ecosystem long ago, humans went extinct. However, before doing so, it appears they had managed to succeed in successful gene-splicing techniques to genetically engineer highly-intelligent dinosaur lifeforms. This dinosaur population ended up surviving and inheriting the planet, forming their own civilization–which looks remarkably like ours. As it turns out, there are small areas that were spared complete destruction and where nature continued to flourish, and that was the Zawa-zawa Mori, or “Rustling Forest.”

In order to introduce the animated show, NHK screened a special edition of the puppet version of Zawa-zawa Mori no Ganko-chan at the end of last year, titled, rather ominously, Episode 0: The Secret of the Zawa-zawa Forest and the Desert. In it, through Ganko herself going back in time to the last days of mankind, it was revealed that the planet is mostly desert-land because the people of Earth had all died and turned into sand. A little girl notes how when her mother disappeared, there had been a strange pile of sand in the house. Her father died and turned into sand having discovered that there was water (and thus hope) in the oasis of the Zawa-zawa Forest. Her brother also apparently turned into a pile of sand on the bed where he lay in the morning. In the end, Ganko returns to her time, and as she looks out at the enormous dunes extending into the distance, there is an unmistakable melancholic air in the scene, punctuated by a shot of the wind blowing up small grains of sand near her feet, as she recalls her human friends. Interestingly, she actually appears blissfully oblivious to their fate.

Needless to say, there was quite a lively discussion on Japanese social media in the following days, some questioning what NHK was thinking targeting this kind of depressing material to young children. Some were genuinely entertained by the “hard sci-fi” angle that did not disappoint. Some thought it was a horror show, and would make kids cry. Others had concerns as to the particular lesson that the viewers were meant to take. For instance, the human girl’s father died just as soon as he found the forest, filled with hope; her brother died the day after speaking to Ganko, possibly finding out about the fate of the people, thus he was probably severely shocked and depressed.

Is the takeaway from all this that the girl–and by extension, the children in the audience–should not have strong emotions? The program made a point that humans were wasteful creatures that threw away a lot of things. When Ganko arrives, she is shocked that their meals consist of nutrient capsule blocks and that they don’t have any sense of food being delicious, or the activity of eating being a social, fun one. When she grabs a cactus and prepares it as a dish, they are overjoyed at how good it tastes.

Despite all of this gloom and doom surrounding the forest, Ganko herself remains a joyful, happy-go-lucky dino-girl.

In contest to Ganko’s trip to the past, Gen in his trip to Ganko’s future is far more concerned with his smartphone not working than with the weird surroundings he finds himself in. The realization that human civilization has crumbled to ashes only comes after wacky hijinks with a kappa and oddball conversations with him trying to make sense out of what Ganko is telling him. She explains that there are no humans around anymore (with the visuals intriguingly hinting that a later point in human evolution actually involves alien “greys”!) and Gen collapses to the ground in shock. But this may be the wake-up call he needed, so he can learn valuable life lessons about independence and interdependence in society.

It is surprisingly not that rare for children’s anime to feature some dark themes and overtones, at times played for black humor, at other times hinting at an imperfect society where we have to share the responsibility to work together and improve things for a brighter future. Ganko-chan’s message seems to be that being happy and enjoying life is the ultimate goal of humans, and so to do that, we must make great effort to avoid selfishness and look at the people and the world around us. Its future setting serves as a warning… Because otherwise, we know what happens.

Gan Gan Ganko-chan is currently only airing on NHK BS Premium. No plans for an overseas release have been announced. However the show has had its first five-minute episode uploaded officially to Youtube.

Additionally, you can watch Zawa-zawa Mori no Ganko-chan: Episode 0 officially streaming on NHK here.

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