For decades, Sanrio’s central export has been Hello Kitty, an emblem of infantile feminine charm who wears an oversize bow on her head and doesn’t even have a mouth. She embodies the Japanese concept of kawaii, a cuteness ascribed to the small, vulnerable and helpless. She’s an Aggretsuko who never gets wasted or unleashes her wrath.
But recently, the company has been floating new characters, whose personalities are more in sync with the ambivalent humor of memes or the antihero characters of prestige television. And while Hello Kitty represents the height of consumer culture, these characters have an anti-capitalist sheen.
Sanrio characters are imbued with very basic “back stories” by the company — Hello Kitty, which debuted in 1974, is said to be a third-grade girl from the London suburbs who is “as tall as five apples and as heavy as three” — but it’s through the sale of branded stuff that the characters really “come to life,” Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s vice president for brand management and marketing, told me. “We create characters and put them on products or experiences or jet planes. Anything you can imagine.”
Hello Kitty’s catchphrase is “You can never have too many friends,” and her goal is total saturation of the global marketplace. In her book, “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific,” the anthropologist Christine R. Yano describes Sanrio as “a world in which a consumer might live in interaction with a corporation and its products.”
Sanrio characters are themselves model consumers. Pompompurin, a little boy golden retriever in a beret, prizes his shoe collection, and Bearobics, three fit teddy bears, “are sensitive to the world of fashion” and “are constantly chatting about the latest sportswear post-workout,” Sanrio marketing copy reads. But Aggretsuko has a more ambivalent relationship with her own consumption habits. When she binge-drinks, she gets hung over: In one micro-episode, we find her lying in bed in her underwear, next to an overturned trash bin and a half-eaten bag of chips. In her narratives, she is the commodity, and the joy of the consumer has given way to the anxieties of the consumed.
That theme plays out quite literally with Gudetama, a Sanrio character who became the company’s breakout internet star after its introduction to the United States in 2015. Gudetama (pronounced GOO-deh-TAH-mah) is a gender-ambiguous egg yolk with a butt crack and a baby voice. It’s usually found lazing languidly on a plate, projecting a kind of existential angst in the face of impending doom. In one short cartoon, Gudetama whines “Noo, I don’t wanna go,” as it’s pulled at by a pair of chopsticks. An online retailer of Gudetama candies markets the character as an “unwilling” participant in its own branding.
Sanrio characters are created by a team of in-house designers, and the company would make them available to me only on a first-name basis, over email. “I was eating a raw egg on rice at home one morning and thought to myself that the egg was kind of cute, but entirely unmotivated and indifferent to me,” Amy, Gudetama’s designer, wrote. “Eggs are phenomenal,” she added, but they’re “relegated to this fate of being eaten and seemed to me to despair in this.”
The character was introduced in Japan in 2013, when Sanrio issued a slate of new food characters and asked consumers to vote for a winner. Gudetama came in second place to Kirimichan, a grinning fish filet who longs to be eaten. “Hello. I’m Kirimi-chan, your faithful mealtime partner,” she says in Sanrio marketing materials. “Be sure to grill me up nicely!” But Gudetama’s malaise has since far eclipsed Kirimi-chan’s eager complicity, particularly on social media, where the lazy egg has emerged as the subject of a popular Twitter account and a natural star of reaction GIFs.
Gudetama and Aggretsuko represent an “evolution” of Sanrio’s character creation, Mr. Marchi said, one that unspools online as well as in stores. Aggretsuko joined Twitter last month, and Sanrio recently struck a deal with Snapchat to showcase its characters on the app. On the internet, where characters become avatars for our personalities and moods, passively pleasing trinkets don’t pack the same punch.
If Hello Kitty represents happy-go-lucky submission to globalization, Sanrio’s newer characters respond to the market with soul-crushing resignation or seething rage. Aggretsuko “is a symbol and expression of the pent-up stress and irritation that is rife in the world today,” her designer, Yeti, wrote in an email. And Gudetama, Amy wrote, parallels “the people in modern society who despair amid economic hard times.” Another new character, not yet officially rolled out in the United States, is a group of cartoon teeth called Hagurumanstyle (pronounced ha-GOO-roo-man-STYLE) that helps with “mental care” — a play on “dental care” — and jumps into action when people clench their teeth in frustration. Hagurumanstyle products are just starting to infiltrate the American market.
Sanrio may finally be exploring the fallout of global capitalism, but it is still processing class anxieties through products. Capitalism has a remarkable ability to absorb its own critiques, and it’s notable that Sanrio has turned to the tactic as Hello Kitty’s branding power has begun to wane. (In 2010 Sanrio executives told The Times that they were desperately seeking a new hit after Hello Kitty was eclipsed as Japan’s most popular character by a jelly-filled pastry named Anpanman). Now its adorably anxious cartoon cogs in the machine are being used to sell more cute stuff to despairing human beings. At pop-up cafes around the world, fans can literally consume Gudetama-printed eggs, and on Sanrio.com, frustrated office ladies can buy Aggretsuko office products to spruce up their cubicles.
In April, Sanrio posted on its Facebook page: “Don’t rage about your taxes, unleash your inner red panda with new items from Aggretsuko at Sanrio.com.” Tomorrow is a new day!