Characters, most of them cute, from Japanese anime, manga, animated cartoons, computer games, books, and consumer goods of all sorts, in news that’s come my way recently: an Economist story about Mario; California license plates featuring Totoro; plus a note on perhaps the most famous of these characters in the U.S., Hello Kitty; a news story on a new character, Aggretsuko; a note on one of my favorites, Afro Ken; a look back at Tarepanda on this blog; and a glance at the character Pingu, who’s not Japanese.

Some background. First, on the concept of kawaii, from Wikipedia:

Kawaii …, “lovable”, “cute”, or “adorable” is the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms.

And on the major purveyor of kawaii, from Wikipedia:

San-X … is a Japanese stationery company known for creating and marketing cute characters such as Tarepanda, Rilakkuma, and Kogepan [and Shin Chan, Jiji, Anpanman, Doraemon, Pikachu, and other characters I’m about to discuss]. The characters are usually anthropomorphic representations of animals or inanimate objects. Each character has its own quirky traits; for example, Momobuta is a pig with a head shaped like a peach, who enjoys karaoke and painting her nails. San-X head designer and creator of Tarepanda, Hikaru Suemasa said in 1999: “It’s not just being cute. There is something different – a relaxed look, powerless”.

San-X characters can be found on stationery sets and pencils, as small figurines, keychains, and stuffed toys. They are sold as blind boxes, gashapon and in UFO catchers and other prize machines in Japan’s arcades. There are also anime series, video games and children’s books featuring the characters.

Mario. The the Economist‘s Christmas 2016 issue, “It’s a-me!: How Super Mario became a global cultural icon. A pudgy Italian plumber who lives in America, was conceived in Japan and is loved throughout the world”:


The evolution of Mario

The izakaya has a name, but it cannot be published. Its location is a closely guarded secret. Entry is restricted to members — celebrities, media types and otaku, a particularly devoted kind of pop-culture geek. They do not come for the food, though it is excellent, nor for the drinks, which are well mixed. They come for Toru “Chokan” Hashimoto, the Nintendo alumnus who runs the place, and for his friends and their memories. On one wall is a sketch of Pikachu, a popular character in Pokémon games, drawn by its creators when they dropped by. On another is the original sheet music from a classic Nintendo game, a gift from the composer. Front and centre is a drawing of Mario signed by Shigeru Miyamoto.

Mario, an extravagantly mustachioed Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn, is Mr Miyamoto’s most famous creation. He is also the foundation of Nintendo’s fortunes; David Gibson, an analyst at Macquarie Securities, a broker, reckons that his antics account for a third of the company’s software sales over the past ten years. Games in which he features have sold over 500m copies worldwide. His image appears on everything: not just T-shirts and mugs, but solid gold pendants.

… Mr Miyamoto wanted his character to be a regular guy in a regular job, so he made him a chubby, middle-aged manual worker—originally, a carpenter. Some design decisions were dictated by the technical limitations of low-resolution displays: the hero got a bushy moustache so that there would be something separating his nose from his chin; he got a hat because hair presents problems when your character has to fit in a grid just 16 pixels on a side; he got bright clothes so they would stand out against the black background.

His name was an afterthought. Top billing on the game was always going to go to the gorilla. (“Kong”, in the context, was more or less a given; “Donkey” was found by consulting a Japanese-English dictionary for a word meaning silly or stupid.) The protagonist was simply called “Jumpman” for the one thing he was good at. But Minoru Arakawa, the boss of Nintendo in America, wanted a more marketable name. Around that time, writes David Sheff in “Game Over”, an authoritative account of Nintendo’s rise, Mr Arakawa was visited at Nintendo’s warehouse outside Seattle by an irate landlord demanding prompt payment. He was called Mario Segale, and he had a moustache. Thus does destiny call.

“Donkey Kong” was a colossal hit.

… Sequels followed, including, in 1983, “Mario Bros.”, in which the game moved to the sewers of New York. Mario traded in his notional hammer for a figurative wrench and became a plumber; he also gained a brother, Luigi.

… In 1985 Famicom was released in America as the Nintendo Entertainment System, with “Super Mario Bros.” included in the price. The new game revolved around Mario’s quest to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, a giant evil turtle. But if the set-up of damsel distressed by unfeasibly large animal seemed familiar, very little else did. The game took place under a clear blue sky at a time when most games were played on a space-y black background. Mario ate magic mushrooms that made him bigger, or “Super”, and jaunted from place to place through green pipes. “Super Mario Bros.” offered an entire world to explore, replete with mushroom traitors (“Goombas”), turtle soldiers (“Koopa Troopas”) and man-eating flora (“Piranha Plants”). It was full of hidden tricks and levels. It was like nothing anybody had ever seen.

… By 1990 American children were more familiar with Mario than with Mickey Mouse.

Totoro. From Wikipedia:


My Neighbor Totoro … is a 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli. The film – which stars the voice actors Noriko Hidaka, Chika Sakamoto, and Hitoshi Takagi – tells the story of the two young daughters (Satsuki and Mei) of a professor and their interactions with friendly wood spirits in postwar rural Japan.

My Neighbor Totoro set its writer-director Hayao Miyazaki on the road to success. The film’s central character, Totoro, is as famous among Japanese children as Winnie-the-Pooh is among British ones. The Independent recognized Totoro as one of the greatest cartoon characters, describing the creature, “At once innocent and awe-inspiring, King Totoro captures the innocence and magic of childhood more than any of Miyazaki’s other magical creations.” The Financial Times recognized the character’s appeal, “[Totoro] is more genuinely loved than Mickey Mouse could hope to be in his wildest – not nearly so beautifully illustrated – fantasies.”

Totoro is my friend Kim Darnell’s totem; her life is full of Totorobilia. Now including this California license plate:


Hello Kitty. From Wikipedia on the princess of kawaii:


Hello Kitty … is a fictional character produced by the Japanese company Sanrio, created by Yuko Shimizu and currently designed by Yuko Yamaguchi. She is depicted as an anthropomorphic white Japanese Bobtail cat-inspired character with a red bow.

Shortly after her creation in 1974, Hello Kitty greeted the world with a “Hello!” on her first product. The Hello Kitty vinyl coin purse was introduced by Sanrio in March 1975. The character was then brought to the United States in 1976. The character is a staple of the kawaii segment of Japanese popular culture…

Originally aimed at pre-adolescent females, Hello Kitty’s market has broadened to include adult consumers. She can be found on a variety of products ranging from school supplies to fashion accessories and high-end consumer products. Including various diamond necklaces. Several Hello Kitty TV series, targeted towards children, have been produced. Hello Kitty is also the main character at the two Japanese Sanrio theme parks, Harmonyland and the indoor Sanrio Puroland.

Aggretsuko. Now from the FactMag site on the 6th, “Meet Aggretsuko, Hello Kitty’s angry, death metal-loving red panda friend” by Clare Lobenfeld:


The character on her forehead translates to “violent, extreme, furious”.

The Hello Kitty universe has a new character and it’s one of their most relatable: a red panda named Aggretsuko who takes her workday frustration out with lots of beer and karaoke.

Here’s her, um, bio: “It’s always been a dream of Aggretsuko to work as an accountant, especially in this part of the city. But in reality, her bosses are unsympathetic and give her harsh deadlines. She ultimately has become a pushover within the company. When she gets pushed to the limit, she goes out after work and takes out her frustration and stress with heavy metal karaoke sessions!”

Aggretsuko was developed in 2015 for fans who were looking for a character with an office-theme. She fulfills both that interest and plays on a common frustration with Japanese work culture, Gamespot notes.

So: violent, extreme, furious — but in a sort of kawaii way, extending only as far as beer and heavy metal karaoke.

Afro Ken. A favorite of mine from the Sanrio stable, a dog with a rainbow Afro:


Well, lots of different rainbows. Clearly, the attraction for me is the rainbow motif. I’ve worked Afro Ken stickers into some of my XXX-rated collages, but haven’t yet posted these.

Tarepanda. I posted on 11/3/13 about the floppy panda, with an illustration. I happen to have two strongly panda-identified friends.

Pingu. Because penguins, I posted on 10/21/16 in “Pingu watches over the gay boys” about this character. Pingu’s a stop-motion claymation penguin figure from a British-Swiss studio, not Japanese at all.

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