W hether it is through a reimagining of youthful daydreams or pop-infused satire of today’s hyper-consumer realm, kawaii pop is instantly recognizable for its kaleidoscope of colors and evocation of childhood heroes. These fantasy worlds present a form of escapism from everyday realities while also asserting an open defiance against social pressures of the times. 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. The works from this month's Contemporary Showcase explore the many ways kawaii culture has inspired contemporary art from all over the world.
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).
卡哇伊 ( kawai-i，形容詞)：(1) 神情痛苦、引起同情心，惹人憐憫，淒慘，可憐 (2) 具吸引力，令人無法忽視，受到珍惜，獲得鍾愛 (3) 本質甜美，可愛 (a) （年輕女性和孩童的長相和外形）漂亮，具吸引力 (b) （如孩童般）純潔，順從，動人 (4) （事物和形態） 小巧玲瓏，小巧且美麗 (5) 瑣碎無聊，拙劣可憐 （使用時略帶輕蔑意味）
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. Notable is the subgenre shojo manga, whose readership is mainly young girls and would typically focus on social relationships and romance subplots. The aesthetic fostered a particular brand of teenage angst, a refusal to grow up by indulging in one’s inner emotional world and the rejection of traditional norms and conformity.
Yoshitomo Nara’s protagonists are the embodiment of kawaii. With a big head, round face and large eyes, her attributes suggest angelic innocence, but they are juxtaposed with darker undercurrents of emotion. 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. As distinct from products that are expressly designed for children, the kawaii characters are themselves the embodiment of a lost childhood.
Cuteness is primarily the aesthetic of the powerless. The defining characteristics of kawaii have a wide range, with a heavy emphasis on the pitiable. Misshapen little monsters or grotesque creatures are especially lovable because we feel sorry for them and they inspire an instinct to protect them. But cuteness can be weaponized, and many kawaii characters, appearing to be feeble or harmless, are known to be fond of mischief and mayhem.
The bubbly little characters that reside in DoodleLand share many traits adjacent to kawaii pop, though they have a very different origin story. Mr Doodle, a.k.a. Sam Cox, developed a doodling style called ‘Graffiti Spaghetti’ which calls to mind the “fluffy hiragana” at the beginnings of kawaii culture. Like Mr Doodle’s style of graffiti, this style of schoolgirl handwriting that became popular in 1970s Japan was full of infectious cuteness – both embracing a distinctive childlike aesthetic.
外號Mr Doodle的山姆・考克斯筆下的「意粉塗鴉」令人聯想起1970年代在日本風靡一時、被稱為卡哇伊文化始祖的「丸文字」潮流。當時，日本女學生之間流行一種字跡圓潤、具鮮明西化特徵的手寫字體，常在字間添上心形及卡通笑臉等圖案。一如Mr Doodle的塗鴉風格，這種字體可愛感十足，惹人喜愛。
Manga and anime trace its roots back to the post-war U.S. occupation in Japan, 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 would become ambassadors of Western influence. Disney would have a sizable influence on early generations of animators, and in subsequent decades Japan’s manga artists would go on to create their own iconic characters: Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Astro Boy, Pokemon and other global cultural exports. Nostalgia continues to be a powerful creative force. These imprints upon childhood memories would in turn recur in the works of young contemporary artists all over the world.
Alice in Wonderland enjoys a particular love in kawaii culture, because many of the themes from Lewis Carroll’s books resonate with the cute fantasy aesthetic, from the girlish protagonist and anthropomorphic animals, to talking flowers and animated objects. Wonderland is an uncanny realm conjured by a hallucinogenic vision of riotous gaudy colors, a garden filled with shadowy supernatural beings.
Many of the most beloved manga characters have their roots in anime or various animated series, such as Doraemon. Celebrating his 50th birthday, the blue robot 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” was created during a decade of rapid technological change and captured the imagination of the times. 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 graphic, 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.
Anthropomorphism is common in children's literature, where we ascribe human attributes to animals. 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.