The other day I made a trip back to my old university to see Kawaii!!!? an unusual exhibition currently on display in the James Hockey Gallery.
The main entrance to UCA, Farnham, Surrey
So what is Kawaii? It is the Japanese word for Cute. But this is a very special kind of cute; something small, shiny and bright. It’s most obvious manifestation is in the well known and popular ‘Hello Kitty’. It is also found in Manga (Japanese comics), Anime (Japanese animation) and the sub-culture of CosPlay (a type of theatrical role play where people dress as characters from Anime and Manga. As with all of these things, Kawaii has a deeper and darker side….
Bear welcomes the visitor to Kawaii
In Japan, Kawaii is a constant reference in the conversations of young girls who dress in bright coloured baby-doll like clothing reinterpreting the ideal of Lolita – genres include Sweet, Princess and Gothic and the streets of the Harajuku area in Tokyo are filled with girls and young women in these costumes. This is taken to different levels with the introduction of other ‘fashion cults’ such as Decora Girls, Schoolgirl, Maids which lead on to more fetishised clothing as seen in Keisuke Kanda and the androgenous music inspired Visual Kei. All of these fashion styles can be found in the pages of Manga such as Vampire Knight, Maid Sama, Naruto, Code Geass and Blackbird as well as in the Anime of the same – ordinary people living the fantasy extraordinary lives of their comic book heroes, females with their overlarge doe eyes and male characters with the ‘LadyBoy’ look, youthful yet chiselled. In her catalogue essay, exhibition curator Lesley Millar says of Kawaii “As a construct Kawaii embodies contradiction: it is ‘official’ (cute and sanitised) and ‘underground’ (pornographic, iconoclastic and anti-bourgeois). It is a means of sexualising the pre-pubescent/adolescent girl fuelling and fuelled by male erotic fantasy.” One of the artists in the exhibition Minako Nishiyama has taken this to another level by recreating a Tere-Kura ( telephone dating clubs popular in 80’s Japan where men could phone in, book a room and receive a ‘sex call’ from an unknown young girl). A series of posters with the face of girl comic book character and a telephone number were placed all over Tokyo and men could ring in to a phone in a gallery where visitors were encouraged to answer it. Out of hours, a recorded message in the style of Rika-Chan (a popular Japanese Barbie type doll) would be played. Cute the image may be, but its underlying message is very far from it.
Probably more recognisable is the Red Riding Hood costume by Chie Kinoshita. Although Western in style, it is made using traditional Japanese hand dyeing and kimono making techniques. It tells the story of Red Riding Hood in a different way where the wolf represents men, and being eaten has a sexual meaning. The artist explains in an interview in the exhibition catalogue “did she (Red Riding Hood) deliberately set out wearing a garment she knew would attract attention to herself and pretend not to care? It is a different kind of Kawaii-ness, a sweetness that belies a hidden poison.”
Red Riding Hood Costume
Japanese clothing and fashion is famous for it’s folding and pleating which is an art form in itself. Two incredible examples of this can be seen in the work of Chie Sakai who uses the folded fabrics as a metaphor for female sexuality.
Ring a Ring o’ Roses
Shin Enomoto’s peculiar Nobigurami characters look cute in a sort of weird, deformed way. The artist says their name comes from a combination of his nickname ‘Nobi’ and the Japanese word for stuffed toy “nuigurami”. He says they are like his alter ego, living things, strange and weird. They don’t like Anime and Manga and probably prefer dinosaurs to monsters. They remind me of some of the odd sock puppet-style toys that are so popular with young children now.
Kawaii is a phenomenon that has swept across the world with international conventions such as London Comic-Con which takes place twice yearly celebrating all that is Kawaii by the thousands of people of all ages who attend dressed as their favourite characters. Kawaii is populist and consumerist, yet it also fulfills people’s inner desires. At face value Kawaii appears at face value to be fun, shallow and probably something for children; scratch away at the surface and a deeper, darker meaning exists… the journalist Mikako Sawada says of Kawaii “kawaii in the 21st century is moving at a pace which cannot be kept up with by critics and authority, it is a culture which is ushering in long term values and will remain with us.” The question is are these values ones which are desirable in our modern, equal world?
This piece by Gendai Bijutsu Nitouhei sums up the true meaning of Kawaii, cute but perhaps not quite so cuddly.
Please Hug Me
This fascinating exhibition is at UCA Farnham, Surrey until 12 December when it then moves to Rugby Museum and Art Gallery from February to April 2016. Entry is free.