While hard-working Japanese salarymen kept their heads down, gazing at their shoes while the cold winds of despair caused by the never-ending recession blew around them, young women and kids again proved to be the market leaders last year. The high-rating TV animation series Pocket Monsters helped many corporations to increase their annual profits with the production of tie-in products: Nintendo sold 5.13 million copies of their Poke-Mon Game Boy cartridge; the 9 day special Poke-Mon Stamp Collecting Rally organised by Japan Railways attracted 100,000 entries; while other toy, snack and food-makers rushed into the character-goods markets, selling millions of products with attached Poke-Mon characters. It is, for sure, a short-lived boom - certainly not, as some publications have called it, the 'saviour of the shattered Japanese economy' - but the phenomenon itself was interesting, especially seen together with a related hit business of last year, the rise of Hello Kitty character-goods.
Kitty, a cartoon cat originally launched in 1974 for the pre-pubescent girls' market, underwent a revival amongst the core consumer/trend-setter section of late-teens to early 30-something women. Now that the sweet little pussycat with a red ribbon tied to one ear is everywhere - on organic eggs, snowboards, TV monitors and room air-purifiers - it is not so surprising that Japan's second largest bank decided to adopt the Hello Kitty Family as their corporate characters and that a construction company distributed Football Kitty goods to visitors to their show homes. (Don't ask who would buy a house solely on the strength of owning a cartoon kitten.)
A love of cute characters is nothing new in itself, but its encompassing of such a wide audience is still something of a mystery. No one would now accuse you of being an infantilised, neurotic otaku for sleeping with a fluffy thing with a tail, even if you proudly displayed it on top of your office computer monitor. Thus, perhaps it's not so extraordinary that a new range of 'Picture Books for Adults' by the sister-duo Aranzi Aronzo, character designers, cartoon writers and mascot makers, has achieved increasing popularity through word-of-mouth since its publication last autumn. One title from this series, Doko-e iku, Kappa-kun? (1997), successfully shows the maturity of this kid-to-adult character product market.
The book follows three days in the everyday life of Mr Kappa (a mythical water imp that lives in rivers), and differs from similar comics in that the entire book is photographed on location with real, felt-made characters. We see Kappa-kun at home all day, sleeping till noon, washing his face, eating rice, reading a newspaper, then smoking. Basically, he does nothing, just idles away his whole day smoking on the Tatami mat. Next day, Kappa-kun goes out with his friend, Uo-kun (Mr. Fish), to the city, and the first thing they do is have a break at a cafe. No physical energy. Then they go to a game centre, a Karaoke Box, a late-night bar. Having failed at girl-hunting on the busy, neon-lit streets, all of a sudden he starts to feel like going to look at the sea. The last day features this trip: catching the first train at dawn, Kappa watches the sea and plays the harmonica. His face closes up to match the climax of this little drama in his humdrum days. His wish fulfilled, Mr Kappa goes back home. The end.
This is an 'ordinary' photo book for 'ordinary' young Japanese adults. Kappa-kun lives out his peaceful days, half-satisfied, half holding on to some unfulfilled sense of loss and uncertainty, saying to himself, 'I don't like working really. Ah, I'm bored...'. Living alone in his flat, he enjoys the bliss of a plain life, soaking in the gentle indifference of the exterior world passing over him and occasionally splashing around him like the dim, clear rays of the afternoon sun. He doesn't ponder deep thoughts, doesn't think about what he wants. It is only in his dreams that he reveals, to his sleeping self, his hidden feelings of loneliness, his wish for escape and his psychological exhaustion. But it's just a dream: even when he mumbles, 'I feel like I'm about to cry', after watching the sea, the next instant he is cool again - 'Done. Now I'm off'. However high his emotions might rise, the tension lasts no more than an instant: he is far too sophisticated to indulge in any wet, phoney sensationalism.
This three-minute-instant-pot-noodle sentimentality is perhaps the most you can bear without falling into an abysmal black hole of embarrassment, and the hardly-changing, subdued expressions of the characters means they can become your chill-out companions without making you sick. It is cute, a little heart-rending and funny to see Mr Kappa behaving in such an un-dramatically human way, and this allows the book to expertly control the subtle balance between ordinary and extraordinary states of mind.