Nobody Does Obsession Like the Japanese
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Last week, I found myself at a 35th anniversary celebration for Hello Kitty. No kidding, Hello Kitty: that unspeakably cute Japanese cartoon figure with the round eyes, button nose, red bow, and three whiskers each side. In Japan, Hello Kitty is a national obsession, and more than 25,000 different products feature that face: purses, clocks, radios, towels, toasters, tea sets, you name it. I hear it's socially acceptable for a Tokyo executive to have a Hello Kitty startup screen on his cell phone. The licensing company makes billions.
Saturday night, Angelenos were lined up in the hundreds along a chilly Washington Boulevard for a "Hello Kitty" art-and-merchandise exhibit at the Royal/T, the über-hip café/gallery. There were bell ropes, bouncers, the works. Okay, at least a third of the visitors were young Asian women dragging along their Anglo boyfriends...but you saw plenty of other kinds of Angelenos, and you could hear us all thinking, "Huh. Would this obsession work for me?"
You see, obsession is decidedly in fashion at the moment. And every day, people in L.A. wake up wondering what obsession they should cultivate next: Rock climbing? Hang gliding? Fixed-gear bikes? Scorcese movies? Divey bars? Tiny cars? Vampires, werewolves, Wookies?
The hip are no longer acting cool. In fact, here on the coast, cool is rapidly becoming uncool, along with cigarettes, leather jackets, nonchalance, and studied indifference. Nobody who's anybody is nonchalant anymore, even if they wear sunglasses. Tastemakers know that open enthusiasm, along with the colors orange and pink, are back. The best people are the most loudly obsessed. They don't order whiskey, they order flavored vodkas by name. They explain how they're really, really into certain foods, certain dogs, Sixties nostalgia, or childhood toys...so why not why things cute and Japanese?
After all, nobody does obsession better than the Japanese. Always have and always will. Didn't they practically invent obsession: tea, kimonos, swords, sushi, graphic novels, sexual ambiguity? Over there, maybe it's always been, "I obsess, therefore I am."
The Royal/T caters to the more disturbing Japanese obsessions. The waitresses dress as French maids from Victorian soft porn, with little white caps: a fad from the Akihabara district of Tokyo, where nerdy young men haunt the "Maid Cafes" looking for respect. At the Royal/T you also run into what are known as "Lolitas," women who try to look like porcelain dolls from the Edwardian era — huge frilly dresses and curly wigs. Sometimes, they have "Goth Lolita" parties where all the dolls wear black.
Tonight, though, everyone's pretty excited about Hello Kitty. Contemporary artists have done weird things with the cat, you know, tried to introduce that dark ironic element — but her preternatural innocence continues to shine through. And the artists themselves, some dressed in bright sparkly colors, have dropped any pretense of cool.
Me, I think: If you're looking for a solid, lifelong obsession, what better than a cartoon character? Unlike real-life celebrities, they don't age, make annoying marriages, or grab mics away from other celebs at award ceremonies. Unlike a food obsession, cartoons won't make you fat. Unlike hang gliding, they won't wreck your knees.
I try to explain this to some of the partiers, including a Lolita with rhinestones pasted on her face, but she merely says, "Who doesn't like Hello Kitty?" Someone else mentions that Mariah Carey has a bathtub filled with Hello Kitty dolls, and one cartoonist shows me his own characters. He has them stored on his iPhone and flips through them fast, explaining their personalities like a loving father: each a strange mixture of innocence and perversion, little devils with pitchforks and big-eyed girls holding weird dolls, each smiling with the eager wish that it might become the next obsession of the Urban Man.
Me, I smile and nod, pull my hat low and leather jacket tight, and head back out into the cold L.A. night to look for a drink.
I'm thinking "Scotch."
Copyright © 2009. Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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