145: Hail to the Kitty

Hail to the Kitty

"Despite my later rejection of all things feminine, the Kitty never really let me go. I was in college when the first Hello Kitty keyboard was introduced, and despite my earnest philosophy major, anti-materialism, anti-corporate, anti-the man attitude, the sight of it cast a searing lance of pure commercial lust through my very soul.

"The power of the Kitty is undeniable. I knew I had to unlock its mystery if I was ever to truly escape."

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One of my best friends in college was obsessed with 'Hello Kitty' and looking back she definitely had a tinge of that 'wanting to be a girl forever' vibe. The TV, the calendar, stickers everywhere...I never thought much about it until you pointed it out.

There was a fantastic and dark anime that satirized this element of Japanese culture called Paranoia Agent. It's made by Satoshi Kon and was creepy enough to merit comparisons to David Lynch by a lot of people. Highly recommend it, here's a trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBv42_TOmtA

L.B. Jeffries:

There was a fantastic and dark anime that satirized this element of Japanese culture called Paranoia Agent. It's made by Satoshi Kon and was creepy enough to merit comparisons to David Lynch by a lot of people. Highly recommend it, here's a trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBv42_TOmtA

Yay, Satoshi Kon :D

I'm not particularly feminine (I don't think, anyway) but I rather like browsing Hello Kitty stores. My DS Lite is pink. My camera is pink. And when my boyfriend bought me a 360 controller and it was pink, well, I was giddy with delight.

It could be social conditioning that pink = happy, feminine. Maybe I'm trying to capture with color what I don't think I already have. Same thing with Hello Kitty, perhaps?

Man, I could have written this. I've been a Hello Kitty fan since I was a kid, and even though it's just a drawing, I can't help just loving the cuteness.

But no mention of the upcoming MMO or the woman who's been in charge of her since the early 80s, Yuko Yamaguchi? Yamaguchi (along with her team) has been the driving force behind many of the decisions made, and all the design and theme changes for almost 30 years now.

I just realized I'm actually wearing Hello Kitty slippers as I type this.

I don't have hello kitty stuff, but in the Netherlands we have out own avatar of cuteness- Nijntje (picture; http://www.bambinotoys.nl/images/nijntje.jpg). She's called Miffy everywhere else, not as feminine, but i heard she is also a great success in japan. And I know someone (a guy) that has 3 boxes full of Miffy stuff.

Wow, I had no idea.

This seems like the perfect place to relay this little story.

One of my friends (no, this is not a case where my "friend" is me) is a history buff, obsessed with costumes. He went to the Ring Game dressed as a Bavarian mercenary, carrying a 15-foot pike (one of the other players asked him, "Compensating for something?" and he replied instantly, "No, I just believe in truthful advertising!"). He spends summers working at a Renassance Faire, and always comes to my Halloween parties in some incredibly elaborate period costume.

But anyway, back to my story. One time, at an original costume contest following the RenFaire, he and a group of his buddies got ahold of some Nazi costumes, replaced the red armbands with pink ones, changed the Swastikas to Hello Kitty icons, and called themselves "The National Socialist Hello Kitty Party."

There's a Hello Kitty Darth Vader as well. Would that be Darth Kitty or Hello Vader?

I really, really, really wish the avatar options on this site were 100x100 or larger, because then I could use one of my favorites icons, which features the iconic Kitty's face and a caption that reads, "I have no mouth and I must scream." Unfortunately, the text is not legible at 75x75.

I'm not actually a Hello Kitty fan (HUGE "Paranoia Agent" fan, though), but I wouldn't might a Badzt Maru phone dongle or some such.

Thanks, all, for the comments.

@ Owlchick -- hi. :) I am right with you, and what you're describing is the strange selective affinity I also have for pink things in small doses. I actually think it's a bit of contrarianism or anti-establishment even against my own anti-establishment personality. It's about not fitting yourself into a box and liking what you like regardless of the opinions of others. I also think HK is a lot about reclamation of childhood, the same way guys will keep Transformer toys around -- it's a little piece of a simpler time. (I have Voltron toys, too, though. And a few battered My Little Ponies.) I don't know. I think it actually is somewhat complex, which was why I was interested in writing about it. There's a distinct draw toward this kind of highly stylized cute stuff even for girls that are vehemently un-feminine -- and yet the hyper-feminine girls also love them.

@ Anarien -- I wanted to include a bit on the actual creators of HK herself since I do think that's important -- both the original designer, Yuko Shimizu, and as you mention, Yamaguchi, her current and long-time overseer. But there's only so much space in an article, and for the Escapist's purposes, a general rundown on the phenomenon is a lot more pertinent than a detailed history lesson. (And I probably already pissed off enough tough boy gamers by writing about Hello Kitty in the first place. \m/ ) But I do think it's important to note that while Tsuji is credited for Hello Kitty just about everywhere, he did not design her, and Shimizu gets very little attention for having done so considering how much of Sanrio's brand rests on Hello Kitty's shoulders.

@ Girlysprite -- thanks for the link! I saw on Wikipedia that Nijntje (how in the world do you pronounce that?) is a potential Hello Kitty predecessor/inspiration. I know I've seen that rabbit style a lot, with the 'X' for the nose/mouth.

@ Sylocat -- a story like that demands photographic evidence.

@ mscherbatskaya -- I love that Darth Vader. Though it could stand a more stylized v.2, using some of the different fabrics and patterns from HK, in order to be truly terrifying...

While a rather interesting read, you still haven't answered the big question yet; why?

Why is a Hello Kitty so friggin' popular?

I mean, yeah, the business behind it all is a great, big part of making it a success, but there still has to be something, a hook, a catch, something that draws people to this brand over the others.

Why Hello Kitty and not, say, Sailor Moon, or Lucky Star, or Cardcaptor Sakura?

Why does a brand, not even the shallowest of characters, but a brand, deserve so much admiration from so many people?

Was it the way the whole business was so masterfully handled?

Was it the right time, right place?

Was it pure luck?

I just don't get it myself...

Yeah, you're correct, I didn't provide a sort of big wrap-up answer to the question of why Hello Kitty became the anthropological cultural icon that it did -- mainly because I think I felt it would be arrogant to do so, and if I really knew, I'd have a very different job than I do and would probably would be making a lot more money.

In answer to your question, though, I think it's a little bit of everything, and I think the progression of the article does go through that. Tsuji as a businessman did have a very accurate bead and perception of what was going to be successful in Japan when it did. He also, probably entirely accidentally, timed his local perception *just right* so that when Japanese culture became attractive to the west (as globally assimilated previously isolated lands tend to do -- which might project that Arabic culture will be the next big rage in about 10 years) Hello Kitty rode that japanophile wave straight up. (Which explains why not Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura -- they came too late, when Hello Kitty had already filled the exclusivity niche.)

But he also hit on some universals. By not limiting Hello Kitty to one personality, by reinventing her and making a thousand variations on her, he made her an icon of personal expression. By marketing to children he created a purity of brand emotion that made her universally desirable as an icon of simplicity and childhood. And there is always a lot of money in marketing to children in general, because they're very vulnerable to consumerism when they're in that pre-cognitive developmental state of just figuring out how to identify and match something they see on television or with their peers and then act upon by being the agent of its acquisition (by nagging parents or relatives).

I think if you combine all of those things you can see why Hello Kitty went super-big -- but it's not the kind of thing that can be reverse engineered for another product exactly. There is certainly a lot of luck involved, a lot of factors that lined up that you couldn't reasonably predict.

SatansBestBuddy:
While a rather interesting read, you still haven't answered the big question yet; why?

Why is a Hello Kitty so friggin' popular?

I mean, yeah, the business behind it all is a great, big part of making it a success, but there still has to be something, a hook, a catch, something that draws people to this brand over the others.

Why Hello Kitty and not, say, Sailor Moon, or Lucky Star, or Cardcaptor Sakura?

Why does a brand, not even the shallowest of characters, but a brand, deserve so much admiration from so many people?

Was it the way the whole business was so masterfully handled?

Was it the right time, right place?

Was it pure luck?

I just don't get it myself...

I feel you have answered your own larger question with the successive specific ones. I would warn away from attributing any rise in popularity--or general success, for that matter--to any one circumstance, and instead credit all of the above.

Anyway, further reading: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/08/10/notes081007.DTL&hw=morford&sn=066&sc=860

Wow. Mark Morford is one of my favorite nonfiction stylists -- though admittedly I unsubbed from his newsletter last year because he was starting to get kind of repetitive for awhile, which was why I missed this one. I'm surprised I didn't find it in my mad googling. Thanks for posting the link.

You're welcome. I was reminded of Morford's piece by your phrase about soulless and empty eyes, for some reason.

And Morford does love jabbing at Dick Cheney in consistently hilarious ways. In every article. Again and again and again.

My girlfriend is the biggest tomboy I've ever known. She rejects all things pink and feminine.

However, her one weakness is Hello Kitty. I've always found that interesting. She's all gruff and masculine until she sees that cat.

I'm a heterosexual guy and I think Hello Kitty is awesome. I will buy a Hello Kitty guitar soon, I definitely want a Hello Kitty keyboard and if I ever was in the unfortunate position to need one, a Hello Kitty assault rifle would be my preferred choice of firearm if I could get hold of one. I'm not sure why I like it, I just think Hello Kitty is cute I guess, it's a cute character and I like the aesthetics of it. Cuter than Sailor Moon for sure. That's really the only reason I can think of. Maybe I also secretly like it a little because I like to see the looks on people's faces when they see that I'm a guy and I like Hello Kitty stuff, but mainly I just like it because I like how it looks. It's an appealing visual motif, just like pirates, ninjas, police, cowboys, nazis, star wars, barbie, etc. all have visual design characteristics that are incredibly distinctive - so does Hello Kitty. It is very unique and unmistakable, and visually appealing to some.

I'm a rather tomboy chick, but something about that kitty just gets my cute squeal wailing. Maybe it's just pure cuteness that draws me to it, but Hello Kitty has been pretty varied throughout time so I could understand widespread appeal. This year I bought some Nerd Hello Kitty items like a necklace and such. She's just hard to deny with those little Buddy Holly glasses on. I'm not really trying to gain any childhood back from buying her either. It's just a carefree whim.

 

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