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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Goodbye to Hello? 5 Reasons to Lament the Demise of Hello Kitty

The New York Times recently reported that after 36 years, the white cartoon cat Hello Kitty may be running out of product lives. Sales of this multi-billion dollar global commodity are down, and Sanrio is looking for the Next Cute Thing to replace her.

Say it ain't so!

Other, yet-to-be-nearly-as-successful contenders include Spottie Dottie, a pink-frocked Dalmatian; Pandapple, a baby panda; My Melody, a rabbit; or TuxedoSam, a penguin.

Tondemonai deshoo. How do I account for my attachment to Hello (as I like to call her) and why I do not wish to see her deposed by these or any future creatures Sanrio dreams up? (Jewelpet?! Let's not even go there...)

1) We go back a long ways. I knew her before she became a global phenomenon and when she was just a cute kitty. Imagine venturing all the way to the Japans in the late 1980s to See the Elephant--and being greeted by Hello Kitty. I'm full of nostalgia for those days...

2) Her brand of cute is quintessentially Japanese. At first I assumed she was designed for kids, and happily bought up Hello Kitty souvenirs (pencils, erasers, coin purses and so on) for my little nieces back home. But as I became more Japanized, I understood that Hello was also for adults. Not only did I start collecting memorabilia--including a set of winter-spring-summer-autumn dolls (which I suspect would qualify for the Kitty Hell blog)--but I came to enjoy the kawaii aesthetic the cat represents.

3) Over the years, this cartoon cat has grown on me, achieving the status of Treasured White Elephant. The Hello Kitty Junkie blogger lists 15 reasons for why the cat brings her so much happiness. For me, 10 of them seem eminently reasonable:
  1. Hello Kitty reminds me of my childhood (youthful innocence).
  2. Hello Kitty reminds me of Japan.
  3. Hello Kitty loves everyone.
  4. Hello Kitty is a universal poster child for caring, sharing, happiness, friendship… And all that other good stuff.
  5. Hello Kitty embodies innocence, sentimentality and harmony.
  6. Hello Kitty just wants to be loved, trusted and respected.
  7. Hello Kitty is Japan’s official ambassador of tourism.
  8. Hello Kitty is a pop culture icon.
  9. Hello Kitty is a fashionista.
  10. UNICEF named Hello Kitty “Special Friend of Children.”
4) The haziness of Hello's back story, the weakness of her characterization, and her lack of edginess only add to her appeal. When Sanrio created a talking Hello Kitty for a pilot cartoon series, it set off a fury among fans loyal to the cat’s mouthless look. It turns out that a mouthless cartoon character cannot easily break into television animation, which is where the action (and the revenue) is nowadays. To prepare her for her TV debut, Sanrio went to great lengths to invent a back story about Hello Kitty--something about how she was born in London and likes to eat cookies--but that's more than any of us needed to know. (I've also just now discovered that her full name is Kitty White, another disappointing detail.) As for Sanrio's experiments to make Hello less cute by using as much black as pink? Not good.

5) Following from 4), thank goodness Hello is nothing like Walt Disney characters. There's such a thing as having too much character. Mickey Mouse, Bambi, Lilo and Stitch: their stories get a little old after a while, and one grows weary of their company. Call it strange, but for me Hello Kitty will always be a Goddess of Blandness, and sometimes bland food is best, just what the doctor ordered. Like this blog's eponymous elephant, she deserves a longer life span than 36 years. Helloo!!!

UPDATE: Lady GaGa to the rescue! At the end of last year, GaGa went to London to shoot a campaign in celebration of the famous white cat's 35th birthday (note: the New York Times says that the brand is 36 years old--but that's okay, who's counting?). The photos have just been released (July 13, 2010), and as one might expect, they more than do justice to Hello's unique blend of Zen-plus-kitsch. Among GaGa's get-ups are some truly spectacular items: a gown adorned with stuffed Hello Kitty dolls, a bedazzled Hello Kitty belt, and some sky-high Hello Kitty-covered pumps. GaGa has also announced that these photos will feature on the cover of the special, limited-edition reissue of her hit album, The Fame. With support like that, we can safely say that reports of Hello's demise has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Sanrio has already reported a 30% boost in share performance.

Question: Do you agree that Hello Kitty deserves Treasured White Elephant status?


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid for me Hello Kitty is forever associated with the "Hello Kitty Murder," a particularly grisly case even for Hong Kong, where it took place. Sparing you the details, the Kitty connection is that the poor girls' skull was hidden inside a Hello Kitty doll...

ML Awanohara said...

That story evokes for me England, not Japan: there's something very Miss Marple-ish about it. Maybe Hong Kong criminals are influenced by Brit culture? In any case, I can appreciate your aversion to this particular white elephant!

ML Awanohara said...

Waiting outside my apartment door yesterday morning: a paperback copy of "Hello Kitty Must Die," a darkly comic novel by a young Chinese-American, Angela S. Choi. Apparently, Choi wrote the book in order to "skewer the stereotype of Asia girls as Hello Kitties." The cover is bright pink with white writing, and the cover art shows a skull-and-crossbones Hello Kitty (red bow and all).

Oh dear, oh dear. And here was me thinking Hello was the personification of blandness! Apparently, she has a lot to answer for!

(The book was a gift from a neighbor and good friend in the building, who bought it for me as a gift after reading this post. Nothing sinister in that, at least...)

Angela S. Choi said...

Hi ML!

It's Angela S. Choi. I'm so happy to read on your blog that someone gave you a copy of my novel. I hope you enjoy it. Hello Kitty has been around for a long time and has become a symbol for many things. I don't think she can be replaced by Pandapple. It's just not the same. But my favorite has always been Tuxedo Sam.

I've never heard of the Hello Kitty Murders in Hong Kong until I read the comments on this blog. I'm going to have to check it out. Hope you enjoy the book!

Angela S. Choi

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