Japan's kawaii culture entered into the global artworld lexicon in the early 2000s, but it is an aesthetic that has evolved over decades from its roots as a subculture aesthetic to a global phenomenon.
T he Japanese term would often be translated as “cute", not quite capturing the full semantic range of the kawaii which manifests in a riot of kaleidescopic or pastel colours, populated by roly-poly creatures, inspired by nostalgic fantasies, and peeking at the viewer with wide-eyed innocence – all embellished with an excess of frills, winking smiles and candy hearts. While it would be easy to dismiss kawaii as an infantile obsession, such an assessment would also be unfair. Even a cursory consideration of the phenomenon and its development would reveal it as complex force of Japanese contemporary culture.
The importance of kawaii is evidenced through the works of pioneering artists such as Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami, who create nostalgic reimaginings of childhood fantasy or pop-infused satires of today’s hyper-consumer realm. This month's Contemporary Showcase: Kawaii Pop (11–18 May, Hong Kong) explores the many ways kawaii culture has inspired contemporary art from all over the world. Journeys into whimsy, folklore, childhood and the subconsciousness offer a form of escape from the realities of everyday while at the same time serving as defiant stance against social pressures. The global influence of kawaii pop recurs in the works of contemporary darlings outside of Japan, including Katherine Bernhardt, Jonas Wood, Joan Cornella and Kasing Lung. It also permeates through the works of younger artists such as Javier Calleja, Edgar Plans, Okokume and Super Future Kid, each artist synthesizing Japanese and Western popular culture with their own signature aesthetic.
The Culture of Manga
The manga tradition, a visual form of serial narrative, is responsible for the ubiquity of kawaii aesthetic in everyday life in Japan. Manga emerged in the post-war period as a form of popular entertainment, and through its success evolved far beyond the medium as a true driver of contemporary culture. The medium deals with music, sex, romance, crime, comedy and consumerism. Its characters represent the gamut of human desires, anguish and frailties. Kawaii's influence is a force behind fashion, film and gaming, and it has seeped into the landscape of contemporary art.
Many of the most beloved manga characters have their roots in anime or various animated series, such as Doraemon. The blue mechanical cat first appeared in 1970 in Coro Coro Comic and in the half-century has been a fixture of many a childhood. From the studios of Shin-Ei Animation, the series “Doraemon” came to life during a decade of rapid technological change and it captured the imagination of the times. Besides being a robot himself, Doraemon can produce from his pocket all manner of nifty gadgets, most of which are prone to backfiring. These magical devices were was often necessary to bail out Doraemon's boy companion, the hapless Nobita, and friends. Set against a historic backdrop of a rising impersonal hi-tech corporate culture, the robot cat as a guardian hero of an unspectacularly average child is a scenario that might be considered a type of wish fulfillment of the everyman.
It is fitting that Takashi Murakami would focus on such an icon of kawaii culture in his works. He is often billed as Japan’s Andy Warhol, and just like the American Pop artist, Murakami embraces and encourages contradictions, thriving on disruptions of logic. The artist's signature style, which he calls "superflat", makes no distinction between high and low culture, introducing anime-inspired images in large swaths of flat color. His design motifs are simultaneously an embrace and critique of consumerism, with which he has a very public relationship.
Nostalgia as a Global Cultural Export
The cultural contradictions in Murakami’s critique and embrace of consumer culture can find its roots back to the post-war U.S. occupation in Japan, from 1945 to 1952, when the power of American material culture would give rise to a hyper-consumerism and rapid technological change. Characters such as Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat had already been well-known in Japan in the 1930s, but it during the post-war rebuilding that that the influence of American popular culture was really felt. Disney would have a sizable influence on early generations of animators, and in subsequent decades Japan’s manga artists would in turn create their own iconic characters: Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Astro Boy, Pokemon and other global cultural exports. Nostalgia continues to be a powerful creative engine. It informs a pattern of consumption. These imprints upon childhood memories – not only from Japan and the U.S. but also locally created characters – would recur in the works of young contemporary artists all over the world.
Our Lost Innocence
kawai-i (adjective): (1) looks miserable and raises sympathy. pitiable. pathetic. piteous. (2) attractive. cannot be neglected. cherished. beloved. (3) has a sweet nature. lovely. (a) (of faces and figures of young women and children) adorable. attractive. (b) (like children) innocent. obedient. touching. (4) (of things and shapes) attractively small. small and beautiful. (5) trivial. pitiful. (used with slight disdain).
Kawaii has a wide semantic range, as the above definition suggests, from being sweet and lovely, to pitiable and pathetic. The ‘Nara’ girl is the ultimate embodiment of kawaii. Angelic features alight with mischief and mayhem, Yoshitomo Nara’s protagonists have captivated viewers in his native Japan and around the world, earning their creator a devoted cult following. Possessed of a big head, round face and large eyes, these attributes suggest innocence, but they are juxtaposed with darker undercurrents of emotion. Through these complexities of expression, Nara created his own distinctive style and visual language. The contradiction within these protagonists exposes the superficiality of cuteness – a highly mannered aesthetic that may appear to the unsuspecting as guilelessness, but at heart harbors something more sinister. These paradoxical aspects of kawaii resonate within us, heightening an empathetic response.
Childlike innocence is an important notion within kawaii culture; cuteness as a product is traditionally aimed at those in the liminal space between childhood and sexual maturity. Even adult consumers of cute material goods are in a sense gesturing toward a certain youthful fantasy, a recovery of an earlier emotional state. So innocuous that it inspires warm and fuzzy feelings, an antidote to the dehumanizing effects of a postmodern world. Kawaii is not just an idea marketed to children, even as the consumers are young. This is an important, albeit a fine distinction. Kawaii characters are metaphors and their appeal is that they are not just expressly designed for children but are themselves the embodiment of a lost innocence.
In a sense, the embrace of cuteness is an act of rebellion against tradition, conformity and the social obligations that come with adulthood. It is, in other words, a refusal to grow up. Any discussion of kawaii culture would usually trace its origins to a phenomenon called “fluffy hiragana” in the 1970s Japan. This is a style of handwriting characterized by bubbly or kittenish forms with distinct westernized features and hearts and cartoon smiley faces inserted. The cuteness was infectious. Soon many school girls would adopt this style, but educators were less than amused. Grown ups would eventually take disciplinary action and ban such writing. The behavior was seen as a wholesale rejection of respectability and cultural norms. It still persists today.
As discussed, kawaii aesthetics grew out of manga and anime. A notable subgenre is shojo manga, whose readership is mainly young girls and would typically focus on social relationships and romance subplots. Consistent with the emergence of cute hiragana, the popularity of shojo manga was fostered by a particular type of teenage angst, as young girls began to feel the social pressures of womanhood. This embrace of kawaii was seen as an aberrant regression, delaying the mantle of adulthood and instead indulging in a constructed unreality made up entirely of one’s inner emotional world and feelings.
Cuteness and Power
Perfection is antithetical to kawaii. Cuteness is the domain of the powerless. They are almost always beings of diminished status that require special care: children, pets, oddballs, etc. Possessed of exaggerated large heads and eyes, round cheeks and overall shape, these adorable biomorphs have the disarming characteristics of babies, and so we imagine that they are helpless and innocent. But this perceived lack of affectation is itself a kind of affectation. Cuteness can be weaponised, and many kawaii characters, appearing to be feeble or harmless, are known to be fond of mischief and mayhem.
The defining characteristics of kawaii have a wide range, with a heavy emphasis on the pitiable or pathetic, which would manipulate a sense of sympathy. Thus, misshapen little monsters or grotesque creatures are especially lovable because we feel sorry for them. They inspire a natural parent-child instinct to protect the defenseless. Anthropomorphism is common in children's literature, where we ascribe human attributes to animals. Again, they are not shown as fierce beings. Often wearing clothing and walking on two legs, animals typically appear not as they do in the real world, but as diminished — albeit furry and lovable — versions of ourselves.
There are certain worlds that were created apart from the kawaii tradition but enjoy so many commonalities that they would be embraced by connoisseurs of cute. Alice in Wonderland enjoys a particular love in the culture, because many of the themes of Lewis Carroll’s books align well with the cute fantasy aesthetic, from the girlish protagonist to the anthropomorphic animals, whimsical monsters and talking flowers. Wonderland is an uncanny realm conjured by a hallucinogenic vision of riotous gaudy colors, a garden filled with shadowy supernatural beings.
More recent styles of street art share some overlap, though they do not come from the manga tradition. In the world of Mr Doodle, for example, odd little characters noodle across the surface, and life is eccentric and light. But can we consider the denizens of Doodleland kawaii or are they just cute? The boundaries are fuzzy and it may not be worthwhile to parse these ideas so finely given the global influence of kawaii on contemporary culture. The origin story of Mr Doodle, a.k.a. Sam Cox, begins when the young artist was age nine and endeavored to scribble over any surface or object he could get his hands on, covering all paper and hard surfaces with doodles. His ‘Graffiti Spaghetti’ consists of dense clusters of characters and patterns that grow and multiply relentlessly. Mr Doodle’s delightful and childlike graffiti calls to mind the “fluffy hiragana” at the beginnings of the kawaii culture – both embracing a distinctive childlike aesthetic.