Sunday, 27 January 2013

Living in the Land of Cute!

A little while ago I was asked to draw some illustrations for a children's book that might be later adapted for a series for publications aimed at the Japanese market. During preliminary discussions, the matter of ‘style’ was discussed and in particular the need for the images to have that one essential element that will ensure popular success in Japan … ‘the cute factor’! This is apparently that intangible ingredient that is sprinkled over much of the commercial world, providing a particular visual aesthetic that instantly appeals to the Japanese public. They even have their own term for it … ‘Kawaii’, which refers to anything that is loveable, adorable or cute and can be widely associated with not only products or graphics, but with all manner of popular culture.

The driving force behind this influential phenomenon appears to have been young Japanese women, who began to change their sense of fashion having been influenced by the physical appearance of popular female manga comic book and anime characters. In the later years of the twentieth century, there was a deliberate effort to show more skin, exaggerate the length and colour of their hair and wear the tallest platform shoes they could find. Having a rounded child-like face became a highly desirable physical feature, while bold eye shadow further enhanced the ‘doe-eyed’ look. Over the years, ‘cute-couture’ was developed to complement the overall image and in doing so further establish a distinctly youthful trend that continues to defy the test of time. These days, such fashion statements remain as popular as ever and continue to broaden their appeal through mainstream fashion stores. This has resulted in a degree of frustration for Jules who can’t quite see herself wearing this sort of attire, even if it is somewhat toned down for the wider market. However, for the hard-core devotees of ‘Kawaii fashion’ there remains many specialist stores in downtown Osaka for young Japanese girls prepared to devote a sizable slice of their income to dress like human anima characters. In fact, one of the most popular singing stars in Japan, Hatsune Miku is not human at all, but actually an animated 3D hologram whose concerts are regularly sold out and her continued success further perpetuates the youth orientated fashion trend. Likewise, another pop sensation AKB48 has similarly provided a role model for millions of young Japanese girls. The group consists of around 90 female members (currently the largest pop group in the world) and has made a fine art of ‘sexing-up’ the cute aesthetic. Not surprising that they have also attracted a large male following who seem to adore the innocence and helplessness of these nubile young things.

Over the years the whole ‘cute’ phenomenon has morphed into a wide range of lucrative commercial enterprises and has become influential enough to become accepted as a recognizable aspect of the modern Japanese identity. Kawaii imagery can now be seen on all manner of graphics and merchandise; with the success of ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Hello Kitty’ spawning a myriad of little characters eager to entice you to part with your money in the cutest possibly way. Walking around town, we are constantly bumping into costumed characters or oversized blow-up figures designed to attract our attention and inevitably lower our consumer defences. The most popular of these characters have developed their own sub-culture making their merchandise particularly collectable, with their recognizable imagery even spilling over into their own television shows. They can be seen on t-shirts, bags, shoes, mugs, pencil cases, key rings, bento boxes and the dangly ornaments that hang from mobile phones. What is amazing however is that in Japan, these characters don’t just relate to children, but seem to be appreciated and enjoyed by all age groups, making them particularly potent commercial symbols.

While there doesn’t seem to be any signs of 'cute-worship' abating in the short term, it does at times seem to be at saturation point. Yet it remains an increasingly popular aspect of Japanese culture, reinforced by the power of the internet and global commercial expansion. I watched a news report recently that discussed the growth of ‘Kawaii tourism’ and the desire of visitors to experience the cute factor first hand. In a world that is so often tainted by hatred, violence and the seedier side of life, there are certainly worst phenomenon’s that can emerge from a modern day society. While at times there may be some serious undertones, on the surface it all remains bright and innocent. However, I sense that the ‘land of cute’ may be somewhat of an illusion that merely provides a pleasant form of escapism from the rigidity and more serious aspects of Japanese urban life. Yet it’s wide acceptance and tolerance of the more eccentric aspect of the craze suggests much about the sense of fun that so often lies just below its more austere cultural facade.

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