Newsmaker: Hello Kitty

She’s five apples tall, collects “small, cute things, like candy, stars and goldfish” and her bland, expressionless face is used to sell everything from nail polish to motor oil. Despite her declared weakness for all-American spelling, ­”delicious cookies” and “mom’s apple pie”, Hello Kitty, designed in Tokyo, was born and lives to this day near […]

She’s five apples tall, collects “small, cute things, like candy, stars and goldfish” and her bland, expressionless face is used to sell everything from nail polish to motor oil.

Despite her declared weakness for all-American spelling, ­”delicious cookies” and “mom’s apple pie”, Hello Kitty, designed in Tokyo, was born and lives to this day near London, England. And notwithstanding that name and all appearances to the contrary, she might not even be a cat.

Let’s face it. There’s something strange about the international Japanese marketing phenomenon that is Hello Kitty, whose latest venture is a live stage show that’s in the UAE for four performances this week.

Right-thinking parents here, as around the world, find themselves on the horns of a cute, furry dilemma. Should they take their young daughters to the shows, in the Western Region, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, and tell themselves that Hello Kitty is nothing more or less than a harmless personification of cuteness that will simply delight their child? Or should they say goodbye to Hello Kitty, on the grounds that she’s a cynical front for a weird Japanese subculture peddling outdated messages and products for today’s young girls?

Hello Kitty, who will celebrate her 42nd birthday on November 1, is the first and most successful offspring of Japanese company Sanrio, and during the past four decades has become one of the icons of kawaii, the ­Japanese obsession with cuteness.

What we know about Hello ­Kitty – courtesy of Sanrio – is that she was born in 1974 in suburban London, where she still lives, that her real name is Kitty White and her blood group is type A.

In addition to being five apples tall, she’s three apples heavy and “a bright and cheerful girl with a heart of gold” whose favourite word is “friendship”. What isn’t clear, however, is how she can even say “friendship” or, come to that, enjoy all those cookies and apple pie, because she has no visible mouth.

Kitty-chan, as she’s known in Japan, has a family, some of whom are even more likely than her to give modern parents bad dreams. Her “mama”, Mary White, as well as being famous for her apple pie, “loves cleaning and washing”. Hello Kitty’s best friend is her twin sister Mimmy, described as “a little shy and very girly” and distinguishable from Kitty solely because she wears her ribbon on her right ear. Mimmy’s dream, apparently, is “to be someone’s bride”, which probably explains why her favourite subject is not maths or physics, but home economics. Go girl.

Naturally, Hello Kitty has her own Facebook page, which has been “liked” by more than 13 million people, and 195,000 followers on Twitter, which she joined in April 2007 (as Hello Kitty always says: “You can never have too many friends.”).

Despite a penchant for gender politics right out of a 1950s Hoover commercial, there’s no denying the worldwide appeal of the mouthless mog. Discouragingly in a post-feminist world, a ­Google search for Hello Kitty yields over 32 million results, twice as many as generated by Elsa, the wildly popular and supposedly feminist icon from the 2013 hit Disney cartoon Frozen.

Endurable, ageless and ready to be associated with any product, small wonder the Hello Kitty brand earns its creators – a small company that started out in the 1960s selling rubber sandals decorated with flowers – a reputed US$7 billion (Dh25.71bn) a year.

Hello Kitty came into the world as an illustration on a child’s ­vinyl purse. From there, her appeal, and her empire, has blossomed ever outward, encompassing anything that ­Sanrio sees fit. Last month, melons bearing the feline’s face went on sale in Tokyo for $50 each. In Taiwan, she even has an entire airline, Hello Kitty Eva Air, offering Hello Kitty-themed flights on seven Hello Kitty-­liveried aircraft between Taipei and ­destinations including Osaka, Bali, Houston and Paris, with a fleet of three similarly franchised Chinese cruise ships launching this ­summer.

In 2012, Sanrio opened its first Hello Kitty beauty spa in Dubai, offering “posh pampering” for “girls young and old”, and last month, Europe’s first Hello Kitty pop-up cafe opened in London’s Soho. Hello Kitty has also lured her share of children to feast on McDonald’s Happy Meals.

The cat is more popular in some regions than others. Despite her global fan base, her appearance in the UAE is probably down to the large number of Filipinos living here. Her popularity in the Philippines can be judged by the fact that the four gigs in the UAE will be followed by a 16-date run in Manila later this year.

Biogs of the “cast” of the live shows make depressing reading for anyone with even the most modest of aspirations for their daughters. Hello Kitty and her (apparently other) best friend, My Melody, “love chatting about fashion”. Easy for My Melody, at least – she has a mouth.

Dear Daniel is Kitty’s boyfriend. Apparently, they grew up together, although there was no sign of him in the early days. Also mouthless, he’s presumably the silent type, but no matter: “She likes fashion, he likes dancing and photography – kind of a great mix.”

The cast of cartoon characters are joined onstage by a real live human being, Sophie, who’s “everybody’s friend”, and according to her potted biography, it’s not hard to see why: “She’s funny, cool” and – most important, girls – she “wants to be a model”.

Hello Kitty’s own philosophy for life isn’t about to win any forward-thinking prizes, either. “Think happy thoughts,” she has suggested, “and boys will buy you diamonds.”

In 2014, Sanrio did stray briefly from type when it released pictures of its prize brand on board Japan’s Hodoyoshi-3 satellite. But this wasn’t an attempt by ­Japan’s collaborating education and science ministry to get young girls interested in space and science. Instead, a researcher at the University of Tokyo’s Nano-­Satellite Center told ­Reuters, this was about ­generating more interest in space among private companies. With Hello Kitty, he added: “We can move their hearts.”

There have been attempts to recruit Kitty to the post-feminist cause. According to one consumer-­trends forecaster interviewed for an academic treatise on the phenomenon, Hello Kitty’s popularity among adult women is “like saying women are complicated, that we can’t be contained. We can wear mono­chromatic Armani suits and whip out Hello Kitty notepads at a moment’s notice … it’s a small but very public act of rebellion.”

Indeed, as Professor Christine Yano, professor of anthropology at the ­University of Hawaii, revealed in her 2013 book Pink ­Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, by the 2000s, Hello Kitty’s core customers were adult women between the ages of 18 to 40, buying ­Kitty-branded products including vacuum cleaners, scooters and jewellery.

It was also Yano who triggered the “Is Hello Kitty a cat?” controversy that swept the internet in 2014. She told the Los Angeles Times that she had been working on a retrospective of Hello Kitty art for the Japanese American National Museum in LA when a man from Sanrio had taken a peek at her notes for the show and had a quiet word in her ear.

“I was corrected, very firmly,” Yano said. “Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat.”

The “secret” has actually always been out there thanks to a leaked copy of a Sanrio manual for those wishing to exploit its character commercially. “Hello Kitty is not a cat,” it states strictly. “She is a girl. Please do not make/use ­animal references.” Confusingly, Hello Kitty has a pet cat, ­Charmmy Kitty. Without doubt, Hello Kitty is a complex mass of contradictions or, at least, an example of poor continuity during four decades of product development.

The perhaps inevitable news is that, even as she treads the boards in the UAE, Hello Kitty is heading for the big screen. On Tuesday, The Verge website reported that the as-yet-unnamed movie was due for release in 2019. While no plot details have yet emerged, The Verge was probably on solid ground when it speculated that “presumably there will be friendship, mild adventure and giggles, at the very least”.

Judging by the huge viewing figures Hello Kitty racks up on YouTube, the film will do very well. To date, the timeless classic Hello Kitty Alice in Wonderland has generated no fewer than 61 million views since it was posted in 2013.

And in case you were wondering how the absence of a mouth might affect Hello Kitty’s ability to handle dialogue, you can relax. On film, she miraculously grows one, enabling her to hold forth in a treacly accent that owes little to her supposed upbringing in London – and everything to a desperate need to be loved in shops from Tokyo to New York.

The secret of Kitty’s success? The last word goes to Shintaro Tsuji, Sanrio’s founder, when he was interviewed by The Japan Times in 2008: “I have absolutely no clue.”

weekend@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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