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FEATURE
What's up pussy cat?

Hello Kitty
Hello Kitty, the immortal queen of kawaii, is twenty-five this year. The auspicious day is not actually until November 1 but, in true blood-from-a-stone Sanrio style, the celebrations at their Puroland theme park have already begun. Charles Spreckley pays homage to the world's most profitable pussy.



THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG

There is a shop on London's Oxford Street, shopping Mecca for the mediocre, called Top Man. It used to be a bit down market but recently was born again as a huge style emporium and voted best trendy shop, or something, by FHM magazine. Dragged there by friends on my last trip home I have to admit to being pretty impressed with the transformation. Until, that was, I ventured down to the basement floor. Directly in front of the bottom of the escalator, in a prime position obviously designed to give this product range extra kudos, was a whole section of pink and red, soft and cuddly products sticking out amongst the Milan chic like a cat with no mouth. As I reached the bottom of the escalator, scenes of Shibuya, giggling schoolgirls and glowing orange skin flashed before my eyes. Could it really be? It was. Hello Kitty had come to London.

Shocked as I was that this epitome of all things infantile could possibly have invaded no-nonsense England, albeit swinging London, Kitty's presence really should have come as no surprise. You see, Kitty is from London. Oh yes. Kitty lives in London with her parents, George and Mary White. She likes collecting hair ribbons and baking cakes. (How quaint. You see - she's really as English as a soccer fan with a broken beer bottle.) Although she's pushing twenty-five, Kitty is in the third grade. Always has been and always will be. She is primarily held back by her, let's face it, pitiful class oral participation marks, due to the fact that she has no mouth. She weighs the same as three apples. In the old days it was three Granny Smiths, but after all those cookie endorsements it's now three cooking apples.

Kitty's other main hobby is making friends. Kitty first started making friends in 1975, when she appeared on a small plastic coin purse produced by Sanrio Corporation. The purse was an instant hit and propelled Kitty-chan onto numerous other products, from T-shirts to tennis rackets, coffee beans to cameras, batteries to bandaids. To every Japanese girl growing up in the 1970s, Kitty was her bestest friend. To Sanrio, she was their most profitable creation, helping pull the company from the edge of bankruptcy to become a multi-billion yen super-corporation of cute.



THE COMEBACK CAT


Although Kitty lost her spot at the pinnacle of the make-believe mountain to Doraemon et al. during the eighties and early nineties, like all bestest friends she never completely went away. When the Kitty-boom generation from the seventies reached child-bearing age in the mid-1990s, Hello Kitty staged a comeback the likes of which would have made John Travolta weep.

It started in 1996 on the back of the keitai phenomenon when Yamaguchi Yuko, top cat at Sanrio's design department, launched a range of pink satin keitai cases aimed at high school girls. At that time pink was the nail polish and lipstick color amongst hip highschoolers, and the Kitty-chan model soon became the only keitai cover to be seen with anywhere within a kilometer of the 109 Building. An undoubtedly tickled-pink Sanrio sold 600,000 of the things in a year, meaning approximately one in four of the three million high school girls in Japan owns a pink satin Hello Kitty keitai cover.

Unlike the first boom twenty years earlier, this was a calculated move by Sanrio to infiltrate the herd instincts of fashion-fickle teenagers. "We do a huge amount of research amongst the high school girls in Shibuya and Harajuku," says Sanrio's Nakajima Seiji. "It is incredibly important for selling our products because these girls will leap on any trend, if you get the marketing right. But if you get it wrong, they'll leap off just as fast."

Once her products had appeared in schoolgirls' style bibles like Cawaii!, it became official - feline fashion was back in style. So powerful is the boom-craze mentality amongst teens in Japan that once five percent of the teen-girl market endorses a product, another 60% will almost certainly follow suit in under a month. If a product really hits the kawaii spot it can reach almost 100% market saturation within a week. Hello Kitty hair clips, Hello Kitty pencil cases and Hello Kitty bag accessories all received the blessing of the masses and became, at one time or other, the accessory of choice for a whole generation. When J-Pop star Kahara Tomomi came out as a Kittyholic, sales at Sanrio stores almost doubled within days. "Since then we have been actively searching for every niche Kitty has yet to fill," admits Sanrio's Takahashi Ko.



TOP CAT


But unlike mini-Tetris or Tamagochi, the Hello Kitty boom has proved to have incredible staying power, even second time around. Partly this is due to Sanrio's relentless marketing of anything it can think of on which there are enough square inches to print a little pink expressionless cat. Need some ear plugs? Kitty's got some for you.

The main difference now is that this time Kitty-chan has two generations of feline-friendly females in her claws - the high school girls and their mothers, pussy-power veterans from the '70s experiencing an attack of natsukashii nostalgia. "These people don't consider Hello Kitty to be childish," says Nakajima. "She is part of their memories. Men feel the same, but with Ultraman not Kitty-chan. It's more 'eretro' than childish."

This may be so, but the merging of adult and children's cultures is a phenomenon visible all around us every day and is starkly more apparent in Japan than abroad. Note the ubiquity of cartoon characters guiding us in our daily life, telling us what to do with our gomi, warning us to be careful of those nasty closing train doors and lovingly adorning our bank books and cash cards. Where the impression that having a picture of Pekkle the Duck on your cash card somehow induces you to have confidence in your bank manager comes from is beyond me. Think of the popularity of immature women amongst Japanese men, or dour-faced salarymen unashamedly reading teen comics on their way to work. The consequence of this cross-generation culture phenomenon is that fads which come and go in other countries, if indeed they come at all, can have astonishing staying power in Japan if they possess the right je ne sais quoi. Doraemon's got it. Astroboy's got it. Anpanman... hmm, dubious. Sailor Moon will never have it. But there's only one Hello Kitty.

Sanrio has another theory to explain Hello Kitty's popularity: the fact that she has no mouth. "This is probably the biggest reason Hello Kitty has become so popular," says Nakajima. "Without the mouth it is easier to imagine Kitty-chan shares whatever feeling you have at that moment. If Kitty-chan was smiling all the time, and you'd just broken up with your boyfriend or something and were very sad, the last thing you'd want to look at was a grinning Hello Kitty. Without a mouth you can imagine she is sad with you." Anyone who thinks such a deformity might be a hindrance to success need only look at Kitty. It certainly hasn't stopped her getting a boyfriend, the strong but gentle Tippy the Bear.

Or perhaps people love her for her manifold talent. She started off in the classic Hello Kitty sitting-on-the-floor pose, a position which remained unchanged until the 1980s, when Yamaguchi created the "standing Kitty" and "Kitty playing the piano." In her twenty-five years of unreal life, Kitty has had her own TV animation series, made records, worked for UNICEF as a junior ambassador, starred in comic books, endorsed pretty much any product you'd care to think of and toured the world, making friends everywhere. Kitty ain't no lazy kitchen cat, that's for sure.

But ask her legions of fans for an answer to the what's that cat got that I don't puzzle and you'll get the same, simple insightful reply. "Because she's kawaii." Ingenious.



PUSSY GALORE


As teenagers and their mothers shop for the latest Kitty-chan hair curlers or the limited edition Kitty and Mimi matching novelty chopstick rests, it is Sanrio which has reaped the rewards. The Hello Kitty revival was almost single-handedly responsible for the thirteen-fold hike in Sanrio's profits in fiscal 1997 to JY15.56 billion on 40% increased sales of JY112 billion. There are some 15,000 Hello Kitty products on the market, with 500 new items released each month by Sanrio. Daihatsu even produces a special Kitty-chan car - it may not be quick, but it sure is kawaii. And there's the Hello Kitty motorcycle, for the nineties bosozoku with feelings.

But it's not just Japan that's Kitty-cat crazy. It seems nothing short of world domination will stop this feline. Forty Sanrio stores have opened in the US, and there are subsidiaries selling merchandise in Brazil, Germany, France, Italy and, it seems, Britain too. Mariah Carey is a fan; so are Courtney Love and US punk queen Exene Cervenka. A hint of irony there may be, but irony alone couldn't support forty stores between California and Cape Cod. Kawaii becoming cool stateside?

Kitty's main markets outside Japan are in Asia, where she has become somewhat of a tiger, spearheading the Japanese cultural invasion of the region with everything from Puffy to Pokemon, despite the disapproval of the older generation which still regards all things Japanese with a touch of wartime distaste. Taiwan and Hong Kong have both fallen for Kitty in a big way, and Sanrio stores have opened in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand too. "Everything is very cute and stylish, that's why we like it," 18-year-old Hong Kong school girl Amanda Yee told Time magazine recently. "Whenever I'm sad, like whenever I do badly on a test, I buy some Hello Kitty things to feel better."

The counterfeiters of Hong Kong's street markets in Mong Kok and Temple Street have taken note. These days, if they're not pushing pirates of hit Japanese TV shows, their stalls will be chock full of Hello Kitty fakes. Last Christmas, Hong Kong police swooped on one supplier of Kitty counterfeits. It wasn't difficult to spot the fakes due to a spelling mistake. They'd missed out the "o," so their T-shirts read "Hell Kitty." Some spelling mistake - or maybe they were just being optimistic?

Hello Kitty's 25th Birthday is being celebrated at Sanrio's Puroland theme park in Tama City. Special events include: Kitty-chan dressed as an angel in "Hello Kitty's Angel Fiesta," until July 13; "The Legend of Sirus," an acrobatic performance show, until November; "A Summer Festival of Hello Kitty," July 20 until August 31.

Sanrio Puroland, Tama Center stn., Odakyu line (five min. walk).
Open: 10am-5pm weekdays, 10am-8pm weekends and holidays.
Admission: Access only JY3000 adults, JY2700 students age 12-17, JY2000 age 4-11, free for age three and under. Passport (includes rides) JY4400, JY4000 and JY3300 respectively.
Tel: 042-339-1111 (Puroland is closed two days per month, so call before going).

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