How Sanrio makes anti-capitalism lovable and profitable

My new favorite cartoon character is a white-necked red panda with anger issues.

Her name is Aggretsuko, and she’s a young Japanese “office worker” who jumps, tail wagging, into her first job, only to suffer countless slights from her colleagues. In each micro-episode online – all of which are a minute long, perfect for snacking on Instagram – his colleagues in the accounting department of a Tokyo trading company drop work on his desk at closing time, swallow noodles through- over his shoulder and inappropriately brag about their amorous exploits. .

As indignities mount, Aggretsuko (pronounced ah-GRET-su-KO) smiles courteously and taps studiously. But in her head, she goes into rage mode, where she drinks beers and performs death metal karaoke as flames sparkle around her face. Her inner monologue spills out into a throaty cry: “DON’T BELITTLE MEEEEEEEEEEEE!” “And” BUZZ OOOOOOOOOOFF! After following her troubles for a few weeks, I downloaded Aggretsuko’s wallpaper to my phone so that I could see her every time I check my emails. She is perched on a wheelchair, her paws hovering above the keyboard, a flirtatious smile on her face. The caption reads: “I HATE THIS. “

Aggretsuko’s experience certainly resonates with many young women who have encountered the sexist, or simply dehumanizing, demands of corporate culture as they embark on a career. His struggle is to project an image of sociability, complacency, and quiet competence onto his barely concealed seething indignation. In a cynical coda with each video, death metal stops, our heroine slams her heels and purrs: “Tomorrow is a new day!”

As a concept, Aggretsuko isn’t exactly revolutionary – she’s fundamentally a feminist Dilbert. More interesting is where she came from: she’s the latest character in Sanrio, the Japanese consumer goods empire that sticks adorable images on lunch boxes and stationery sold around the world.

For decades, Sanrio’s central export has been Hello Kitty, an emblem of infant feminine charm that wears an oversized bow on her head and doesn’t even have a mouth. She embodies the Japanese concept of kawaii, a kindness attributed to the little ones, the vulnerable and the helpless. She is an Aggretsuko who never gets lost and never unleashes her anger.

But recently, the company has released new characters, whose personalities are more in tune with the ambivalent humor of memes or the anti-hero characters of high-profile television. And while Hello Kitty represents the pinnacle of consumer culture, these characters have an anti-capitalist luster.

Sanrio’s characters are steeped in very basic “background stories” of the company – Hello Kitty, who 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 selling branded products that the characters” really come to life, “Dave Marchi, Sanrio vice president of brand management and marketing, told me. “We create characters and put them on products or experiences or jets. Anything you can imagine.

Hello Kitty’s slogan is “You can never have too many friends” and its goal is the total saturation of the world market. In her book “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific”, anthropologist Christine R. Yano describes Sanrio as “a world in which a consumer can interact with a business and its products.”

The Sanrio characters are model consumers themselves. Pompompurin, a little golden retriever boy in a beret, enjoys his shoe collection, and Bearobics, three fit teddy bears, “are fashion conscious” and “are constantly discussing the latest sportswear after workout” , marketing copy of Sanrio reads. But Aggretsuko maintains a more ambivalent relationship with its own consumption habits. When she drinks, she has a hangover: in a micro-episode, we find her lying in her bed in her underwear, next to an overturned trash can and a bag of half-eaten crisps. In her stories, she is the commodity, and the joy of the consumer has given way to the anxieties of the consumer.

This theme literally plays with Gudetama, a character from Sanrio who became the company’s internet star after its introduction in the United States in 2015. Gudetama (pronounced GOO-deh-TAH-mah) is a yellow of ambiguous egg with an ass. crack and a baby voice. It is usually found languidly lazing on a plate, projecting a sort of existential angst in the face of impending disaster. In a short cartoon, Gudetama moans “No, I don’t want to go”, as he is pulled by a pair of chopsticks. An online retailer of Gudetama candy presents the character as a “reluctant” participant in his own branding.

Sanrio characters are created by a team of in-house designers, and the company would make them available to me based on my first name only, via email. “I was eating a raw egg over rice at home one morning and thought the egg was kinda cute, but totally unmotivated and indifferent to me,” wrote Amy, the creator of Gudetama. “The eggs are phenomenal,” she added, but they are “relegated to this fate of being eaten and seemed to me to despair of it”.

The character was introduced in Japan in 2013, when Sanrio released a list of new food characters and asked consumers to vote for a winner. Gudetama came in second behind Kirimichan, a smiling fish fillet that longs to be eaten. “Hello. I’m Kirimi-chan, your staunch meal partner,” she says in Sanrio’s marketing materials. “Make sure you grill me!” But Gudetama’s discomfort has since overshadowed Gudetama’s eager complicity by far. Kirimi-chan, especially on social media, where the lazy egg became the subject of a popular Twitter account and a natural star of reaction GIFs.

Gudetama and Aggretsuko represent an “evolution” in Sanrio’s character creation, Mr. Marchi said, an evolution that takes place online as well as in stores. Aggretsuko joined Twitter last month, and Sanrio recently made a deal with Snapchat to showcase their characters on the app. On the Internet, where characters become avatars for our personalities and moods, passively pleasing trinkets don’t have the same punch.

While Hello Kitty represents a cheerful submission to globalization, Sanrio’s new characters respond to the market with overwhelming resignation or seething rage. Aggretsuko “is a symbol and expression of the pent-up stress and irritation that plagues the world today,” its designer, Yeti, wrote in an email. And Gudetama, Amy wrote, parallels “the people of modern society who despair in times of economic hardship.” Another new character, not yet officially deployed in the United States, is a cartoon tooth group called Hagurumanstyle (pronounced ha-GOO-roo-man-STYLE) that helps with “mental care” – a game about “care. dental ”- and takes action when people clench their teeth in frustration. Hagurumanstyle products are just beginning to infiltrate the US market.

Sanrio may finally be exploring the fallout from global capitalism, but it still deals with class anxieties through products. Capitalism has a remarkable ability to absorb its own criticism, and it is noteworthy that Sanrio turned to tactics as Hello Kitty’s branding power began to wane. (In 2010, Sanrio executives told The Times they were desperate for further success after Hello Kitty was eclipsed as Japan’s most popular character by a jelly-filled pastry shop named Anpanman.) Now, his adorably anxious cartoon cogs in the machine are being used to sell cuter stuff to desperate human beings. In pop-up cafes around the world, fans can literally consume Gudetama printed eggs, and on frustrated office women can purchase Aggretsuko office products to spruce up their cubicles.

In April, Sanrio posted on its Facebook page, “Don’t get upset about your taxes, unleash the red panda in you with Aggretsuko’s new articles on Tomorrow is another day!

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Estelle D. Eden

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