Feline groovy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 October, 2004, 12:00am

IT HAS NO fingers, toes or mouth. Its face is expressionless, betraying no emotions of its own. When thoughts do occur, they're usually no more profound than what to have for breakfast. In fact, it doesn't do much of anything, and yet millions of women of all ages - and even the odd fella - are rendered helpless by it.

It, or rather, she, can be anything to anyone; and this alone seems to be the reason why Hello Kitty will celebrate '30 years of cute' on November 1. Supplying half of Japanese toymaker Sanrio's US$1billion annual turnover, Kitty has achieved iconic status on a global scale: pretty good for something that basically amounts to two dots, a bunch of black lines and a ribbon. Even Mr Pringles has more whiskers than she does.

There are other famous doodles with greater presence, of course - but the likes of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Garfield all have comic strips and movies building their personalities.

Kitty, on the other hand, has always exuded a Zen-like mystery, therefore remaining an open book. Or rather, an open notepad. Or a pencil case. Or a toaster, credit cards, underpants, bras, T-shirts, sweatshirts, socks, shoes, hairpins, brushes, combs, sanitary towels, jewellery, computers, automobiles and on certain, ahem, 'unofficial' websites, sex toys. Last year, Tokyo even unleashed a special Hello Kitty taxi complete with Hello Kitty seats, blankets and umbrellas to pacify kids on traumatic trips to the dentist. Or something.

'It's hard for us to say what makes her so popular,' says Sanrio Hong Kong's deputy general manager in marketing, Hiroaki Nishino. 'The one unique feature of Hello Kitty is that she doesn't have a mouth. Because of that, when you are happy she can be seen to look happy. When you are depressed she looks depressed, too. She reflects how you feel.'

Whereas Disney creates in-your-face characters that sing and dance themselves into our collective consciousness, Kitty is a cute mute who exists to absorb your emotions like a sponge. Thirty years, 22,000 different products on shelves and all we know is what we were told on day one: she was born in London on November 1, 1974, weighs the same as three apples and, despite the lack of digits and mouth, likes playing the the piano and baking cakes.

'She was an icon that we created purely with the intention of applying to the merchandise,' says Nishino. 'And so this is what makes Hello Kitty different. It just happens that because she has no mouth, people find her to be sympathetic.'

Fittingly, for a character that's been coining it since day one, it all began with a small vinyl purse. Kitty's image appeared with the word 'Hello!' in red letters.

Hello indeed - Sanrio's ploy was that by adorning the purse with a character it would have a better chance of selling to the audience it was first designed for: children. The purse was priced at 240 yen (less than US$1 at the time). Sales quickly took off and other products were added, including futons, stationery and dolls. By the time Sanrio started licensing Hello Kitty's image in 1976, profits had more than quadrupled hitting US$44.9 million.

Thirty years on and, far from being merely a logo, Kitty is a cultural behemoth. The products themselves may have diversified, but generations of women worldwide are still getting whipped up in the Kitty craze as Sanrio introduces and removes something close to 600 products a month to keep the line fresh.

'There are many cute things around the world, but Hello Kitty was in my schoolbag,' says Dr Yoshiko Nakano, assistant professor at Hong Kong University's Department of Japanese studies. 'When it started out 30 years ago, yes, it was purely about cute. I was one of the first Hello Kitty users in 1974 when I was an eight year old at school - but it's not just about cuteness these days. Now it has become something about sentimentality. In Japan collecting Hello Kitty is now a multi generational family activity. It has become OK for parents and their teenagers to collect Hello Kitty together. My 66-year-old mother has one on her mobile phone and so do I.'

The buzz is maintained almost entirely without advertising, movies, television shows or comics. And when McDonald's introduced a Kitty-themed Happy Meal in 1999, the ensuing stampede in Hong Kong and Singapore proved there was a toy capable of eclipsing the uber-brand that is Ronald McDonald.

Sanrio's founding father, Shintaro Tsuji, started adding fruits and characters onto the sandals he was trying to sell in the 1960s. Proving an instant hit, he soon hired a team of in-house designers to add icons to his other products.

In 1974, one of Sanrio's designers, Yuko Shimizu, designed Hello Kitty. Although the official influence is credited to the cats in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the more cynical might question whether Kitty is a bit of a copy cat. The resemblance she bears to Dutch illustrator Dick Bruna's Miffy - also cute, white with minimalist black outlines and clutching a yellow teddy as a side kick - is uncanny. The rabbit, incidentally, celebrates its 50th birthday next year, making her 19 years older than Kitty.

Yet the fact remains that grown women still embrace her. Sanrio's conscious reluctance to develop her as a character (apart from the addition of boyfriend man-kitty Dear Daniel) means Kitty represents the same values now as she did in the 1970s. The only thing that came close to sullying her reputation was the so-called 'Hello Kitty murder' of 1999, when a woman was abducted, tortured and killed and her head placed inside a Hello Kitty mermaid doll.

'In Hong Kong the significance of Kitty is a little bit different from Japan,' says Nakano. 'It became widely available here in the mid 1980s, during a time when Japanese pop culture became hugely popular. Some girls say that when they were younger they couldn't afford to buy Hello Kitty, it was known as 'fancy goods'. Some people say they now buy as much as they can - it's a symbol of wealth for some and a reminder of how far they have come in Hong Kong. It's still very much a young woman thing.'

Others hold darker theories. 'Kitty came of age as a generation of young girls went ga-ga over anything cute or kawaii,' writes Ken Belson, co-author of Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon.

Feminists have had a field day over Kitty's meekness. Others perceive a flipside to the culture of kawaii. 'You could say Kitty is anti-feminist,' says Nakano. 'But you could also just look at it in terms of what we call self-orientalism. I have one on my mobile phone, but it's partially a joke. A Japanese woman carrying round a Hello Kitty phone? It's a parody of how western people have a certain image of people in Japan or China. Am I a die-hard Hello Kitty fan? Absolutely not.'

Rampant piracy costs Sanrio an estimated US$910 million annually, with the problem particularly serious on the mainland, monitored by an in-house team of lawyers. Recent years have also seen Winnie the Pooh become more popular than Kitty in Japan (two years ago she was ranked fifth behind the likes of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and the Gandam Series), and yet she looks set to survive. The character remains a staple in schools and offices, hugely so in Hong Kong and the mainland, Singapore and Taiwan.

'She's my best friend. She's so cute and I like to hug her,' says seven-year-old Bobo Chan from Tseung Kwan O - just one of thousands of school girls who share such sentiments. In the US, meanwhile, her reputation grows, with the likes of actress Cameron Diaz and figure-skater Michelle Kwan sporting Kitty jewellery. Oprah Winfrey even went as far as declaring the Kitty sandwich toaster 'the cutest sandwich toaster I have ever seen'.

The cat with no mouth truly need not worry: everyone else does the talking for her. And when Sanrio unveils its much-vaunted US$3,650, 52 centimetre-high Hello Kitty Robot on November 1, she will apparently be able to talk back for the first time in her life, having been kitted out with a camera, speakers and sensors, an ability to recognise up to 10 different people and provide crucial interjections such as 'Have you eaten yet?'

Kitty may be getting older - but in her world, schoolgirls need never grow up.