Aesthetic Exploration: ‘Kawaii’/’Cute’

“Kawaii” or “cute” is an aesthetic that has become widespread throughout Japan, and it started gaining traction as early as the 1950s. Rune Naito is credited with being one of the earliest pioneers of this aesthetic, with the creation of his “Rune Girl” characters, defined by their large heads and baby-faced features. By 1971, he created the “Rune Panda,” depicted below, which became one of the most ubiquitous characters.

Image taken from: https://www.etsy.com/listing/672041856/free-shipping-cute-rare-rune-naito

After seeing the massive popularity of Rune Naito’s work, Yuko Shimizu with company Sanrio created the second highest grossing franchise of all-time – Hello Kitty.

 

Image taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hello_Kitty

And the highest grossing franchise of all-time also is a major player and influencer of the “Kawaii” aesthetic – Pokemon. Below is a depiction of the most recognizable character, Pikachu, as created by Atsuko Nishida and Ken Sugimori in 1996 with company Game Freak.

Image taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pikachu#Concept_and_design

The two highest grossing franchises of all-time ($90 billion and $80 billiion, respectively) are defined by and simultaneously helped create the aesthetic of “Kawaii.” With such a massive generation of revenue, it’s easy to see why the “Kawaii” aesthetic is worthwhile, but it’s very difficult to say exactly why it gained so much traction. I think much of it stems from the human nature to find babies to be cute, meaning things with proportionally big eyes and innocent looking features will be found appealing across nearly every culture and age range.

“Kawaii” has grown to be a major underpin of marketing and branding throughout Japan – just look at this picture of a Japanese snack aisle:

Image taken from: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/saga-jp-july-12-2019-various-1509847850

Well over half of these products has a “Kawaii” mascot on its front. The bright colors and undeniably cute characters is a sure-fire way to catch the eye of any customer.

Outside of branding, marketing, and franchises, idols such as Seiko Matsuda (a very popular pop artist) served to further spread the idea of “Kawaii.” Her popularity started in the 80s, and she continues to be in the public eye of Japan, even earning the title of “Eternal Idol.”

Image taken from: https://tokyogirlsupdate.com/kawaii-theory-2-0-vol8-201610109912.html/seiko-matsuda-kawaii-2-vol8-01

Kawaii thoroughly permeates the Japanese market, ranging from music and pop stars to branding and video games. Seiko’s fashion above contains elements still very popular within Japanese culture now, such as large bowties and frills on clothing.

Such huge franchises as Hello Kitty and Pokemon obviously grew their sphere of influence to outside of their origin country, Japan, and the aesthetic of “Kawaii” grew with them. Looking to South Korea, a massively successful franchise called LINE FRIENDS fits the Kawaii aesthetic to a T:

Image taken from: https://www.japanla.com/products/line-friends-blind-box

The LINE FRIENDS were created by Kang Byeong Mok, and is a franchise managed by Naver Corporation. Another example of “Kawaii” spreading beyond Japanese borders is Funko’s POP! Figurines:

Image taken from: https://www.amazon.com/Funko-POP-Game-Thrones-Targaryen/dp/B009B0YWDG

Funko is an American toy company, and the vinyl figures of pop culture characters like Daenarys helped them generate more than $500 million in revenue in the year 2017.

I personally find the aesthetic of “Kawaii” to be one of my favorites, and a good example of Expressionism. The irresistible urge to say “aww” or to crack a smile when you look at something truly “Kawaii” will anchor it as one of the top aesthetics for many, many years to come. I love that just looking at something with this aesthetic can uplift your mood, and it is something I am very excited to explore with my upcoming projects for this semester.

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • […] Aesthetic Exploration: “Kawaii” or “Cute” […]

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  • […] rings, with each of the rings holding different elements, again playing up the Kawaii aesthetic. (Kawaii exploration and definition here). The outer and middle rings will have holders for mylar buttons, the outer ring having buttons of […]

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  • […] the “Kawaii” aesthetic I’ve chosen throughout the semester, please see my earlier blog post here. In this post, I’d like to explore what I consider to be the roots of this aesthetic as it […]

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  • […] the Kawaii aesthetic once again, as I think especially in this context, it will work really well. Here is a link again to my original blog post for an in-depth review of the Kawaii aesthetic. The key […]

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  • […] my main project, I would really like to pursue the Kawaii aesthetic once again. I think this aesthetic really meshes well with the idea I have for the project, since […]

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  • Thomas Buckholtz
    Thomas Buckholtz
    January 27, 2020 6:27 pm

    Hey Kensue!
    I would say it hasn’t had quite the same amount of impact to American products/franchises, but the Japanese products like Pokemon, anime, and hello Kitty have certainly found success here.

    Doing a Google search, I’m actually very surprised to see how comparatively lacking we are in the cute aesthetic. Cereal mascots like the Trix bunny might loosely fit, or the Keebler gnomes/elves. It’s also hard to distinguish between what is American, and what may have been influenced by Japan. Build a bear and ty beanies are a couple more examples I can think of, but it’s certainly harder to find here! And they definitely are more limited in their age demographic, whereas in Japan it is more impactful to all ages.

    Reply
  • Thomas Buckholtz
    Kensue Kiatoukaysy
    January 27, 2020 11:36 am

    HI Thomas, I like the aesthetic of “Kawaii” as it shows exactly how Japanese Anime shows they characters as “Cute” Or “Kawaii”. The innocent features and big eyes distinguishing Kawaii characters as an aesthetic is something I never really thought about as to how I would perceive something as aesthetically pleasing. I thought you did a fantastic job explaining the origins in Japan and how it’s worked its way into the modern world through Funko pops.

    Something I have a question on is how the United States has adapted Japan’s “Kawaii” Aesthetic into their culture? Have we’ve ever seen anything popular like this in the U.S?

    Reply
  • Hi, Thomas,
    I like the topic of your choice! Who doesn’t like cute stuff? Apart from mimicking human natures of “proportionally big eyes and innocent looking features”, do you think there are other traits that made up the kawaii elements? For example, for figures like Alita from Alita: Battle Angel, despite having big eyes and innocent traits, do you think she looks kawaii? Why and why not? (In my opinion, for kawaii things, aside from being cute like human babies, they almost look like a product that’s a isolation from reality, its features remind people of cuteness and vulnerability while its also preserving the dreamy part that’s non-existent in real life.) One suggestion that I have for you is to improve the layout of the images just so it’ll actually show in the page instead of being the urls. You can do so by uploading the images to media. Anyway, good job of your work of aesthetics exploration.

    Xiang

    Reply
    • Thomas Buckholtz
      Thomas Buckholtz
      January 27, 2020 6:40 pm

      Hi Xiang,

      A couple other aspects of the kawaii aesthetic would include bright, happy color pallets, as well as other things that you may think of as prissy, such as frills on clothing and large bows.
      I think the trouble with classifying Alita as Kawaii is that she suffers from the uncanny valley effect. I would put her right at the very bottom of the trough of that graph. But I do agree with your point of it preserving the dream-like fantasy aspects to life, that helps give this aesthetic a lot of its draw. Thanks for the reply!

      Reply

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