Saturday 1 September 2018

Creepy-cute, Gory-cute, and the Fragmentation of Kawaii Culture: A Cry for Help?

The last post about yuru-kawa (laid-back cute) characters like Rilakkuma - whose popularity among over-worked Japanese was put down to their healing and comforting nature - got me thinking about how kawaii (cute) could function as a keyword to understand Japanese society as a whole. In an earlier post, I introduced Kinsella's thesis on kawaii as a rebellion against or escape from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood - in essence a rejection of Japanese society itself. This notion of rebellion fits in with the common image of the yankī (delinquent) whose car dashboard is typically covered with soft toys in much the same way as hot-rodders in the UK might have furry dice hanging on the rearview mirror.
To further unravel the kawaii mystery I visited Tokyo Character Street, an underground mall of 32 shops in Tokyo Station (pictured). These include a few non-Japanese characters too, including Miffy, Snoopy, and the Moomins, but the majority are Japanese. While some of the characters were clearly aimed at elementary schoolers or younger (think Purikyua=プリキュア) most seemed to be aimed at the older or even adult market. While in Britain hanging  character key-rings on your bag or collecting soft toys would be looked at as serious child-like behaviour, in Japan this is fairly common amongst adults: I used to know one woman who was so crazy about the Sanrio character Pompompurin she decorated her whole house with related goods; even the captain of my futsal team, a guy who you didn't want to mess with on the pitch, had an overriding fascination with Capybara-san (カピバラさん), a soft toy based on the South American rodent of the same name. So what's going on here?

The last post on yuru-kawa provides a hint: pure kawaii (like Hello Kitty, pictured) may be mostly for the kids but there are now a multitude of different genres and types of kawaii, including those aimed distinctly at the adult market. Indeed, Japanese character culture has become rather fragmented and nuanced in recent years. For example, there is kimo-kawa where kimoi means disgusting or yucky (sometimes interchangeable with busu-kawa/busa-kawa from busu meaning "ugly") and guro-kawa with guro meaning gross or grotesque (more recently called yami-kawa or dark/sick-cute). An example of the former (kimo-kawa) are the Kobitos (こびとづかん) pictured and Nameko the slimy mushroom (Crayon Shin-Chan probably also falls into this category); an example of the latter (guro-kawa) is violent and bloodstained Gloomy Bear (いたずらぐまのグルーミー).

To sum up, kimo (creepy) cute and guro (sadistic/gory) cute are but two manifestations of a recent explosion of distorted cute that acts as a (rather disturbing) window into the modern Japanese adult psyche. Do we need to be worried? Some certainly think so: this article sees it as an expression of psychological distress - a cry for help - in a country where depression and mental health remain taboo topics, and counselling is ofen seen as something shameful or embarrassing.

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