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  • Paula Tiberius

Hello Kitty @ JANM

One evening in 1975 when I was five years old, my grandfather came home from Tokyo with a Hello Kitty change purse for me. He ran a toy company in Toronto, and was always off to Japan or Hong Kong to discover the hip new thing in the world of toys. He told me that the little white kitten emblazoned on this simple one-click plastic change purse was going to be huge. Boy was he right.

It’s been forty years since the birth of Hello Kitty, and the folks at the Japanese American National Museum are helping her celebrate. Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty is the first large-scale museum retrospective in the U.S. all about the ubiquitous Japanese character, and it did not disappoint. In fact, Violet wants to go again – which we can, since it runs through April 26th.

The ‘papa’ of the Sanrio empire,

Shintaro Tsuji, grew up in the Depression era of the 1930s and experienced rare moments of happiness in the form of birthday parties at his Christian kindergarten. The “informal celebrations and small gifts” stuck with him and informed the overall philosophy of his business – to be a “purveyor of happiness.”

Obviously, Hello Kitty became Sanrio’s poster child.

The exhibit curators describe Hello Kitty as a “global icon” who “demonstrates ‘soft power’ by saying more with less,” simple in her design, and straightforward with her message of happiness. it’s true that she doesn’t talk much, which I suppose is not surprising since she doesn’t have a mouth. But who needs to talk when you’ve got all that merch!

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The little change purse is in the foreground to the left of center on a little stand. I stared at it for a long time with that memory of ‘grandpa’ flooding back to me. Violet didn’t think the change purse was very interesting.

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Violet owns at least five of these.

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Only for the die-hard fans I’m guessing.

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One of Hello Kitty’s many ‘friends’ is Fender guitars.

The co-branding room was my favorite.  The sign explained that since Hello Kitty is such a sociable girl, she has legions of corporate friends like Swarovski, Fender guitars, Paul Frank, KISS….. “The question arises, what is the take-away for each brand? How is Hello Kitty’s image subtly shaped by each of these new friends? And, in turn, how are these other friends’ images shaped by Hello Kitty? in short, what kinds of friends are these?”

Excellent questions! But don’t hold  your breath, because they’re not going to be answered here.

Which was mind-blowingly appropriate. It reminded me of Andy Warhol and his fascination with celebrity and corporate brand imagery. It’s interesting because everyone is looking at it. It doesn’t matter why they’re looking at it, and if you try to find the meaning,  it doesn’t mean anything anymore. So it must be brilliant! I also thought of Marshall McLuhan: The (kitty-branded) medium IS the message.

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Traditional Hello Kitty.

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Godzilla Kitty!

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Liberty Kitty.

In the art section, Hello Kitty was positioned as a blank canvas for artists to interpret in their own style. She is the ultimate good friend, the strong silent type who doesn’t condemn you or even commit to any particular language. A universally accepted icon upon which artists can impose their own emotions, values and messages.

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Notice that little Hello Kitty is holding dynamite sticks.

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The couture section was quite extraordinary. Here are just a few…

There was also an anti-Hello Kitty shout-out, to people who think she’s too damn cute, and perhaps a crappy feminist icon with her lack of voice or even mouth. Interestingly, one of my most cynical feminist friends, Tracey, is not in the anti-Hello Kitty camp. When I told her I was writing this blog she said, “Be kind.” She adores Hello Kitty, as do her two sons who like to watch Hello Kitty in Stump Village, possibly the cutest animation ever filmed.

Hello Kitty has stirred up controversy with some of her corporate pals, by the way. She’s not always the goody-goody you think she is. There was Hello Kitty wine, beer, tarot cards, and even Hello Kitty vibrators!

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Billed as Hello Kitty ‘massagers’ but we all know THAT euphemism!

In the end, we learn that Hello Kitty’s brand of happiness is quite simple: “See her, hold her, buy her, share her.” Yep, that pretty much sums it up. But even in this most shallow summary, there is still something deep here. There’s no denying that Hello Kitty has bridged nations and captured the hearts of little girls for decades.

When all is said and done, there IS something nice about bringing a small gift to a birthday party and seeing your friend smile.

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