The Rise of Japan's Creepy-Cute Craze

"Gross" characters are proliferating in a country known for kawaii, and now even local governments' mascots are trying to out-weird one another.

Japan, the country responsible for Hello Kitty and World Cup Pikachu, loves mascots. One of the most popular fuzzy-suited characters over the past year and a half has been Funassyi, a giant pear creature hailing from just outside of Tokyo. Ubiquitous on billboards and TV commercials, he recently threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day for Japanese professional baseball club Chiba Lotte Marines.

Yet Funassyi is not traditionally kawaii, Japanese for “cute.” Most body-suited mascots are slow and silent; Funassyi darts all over the place and isn’t afraid to scream, let alone talk. While Hello Kitty mostly stands around, Funassyi is prone to random fits of headbanging, shaking, and running from explosions in a field.

Funyassi, the creepy cute pear person on Make A Gif

Long considered the global capital of cute, Japan is currently experiencing a boom in less-than-cuddly characters, highlighted by the nationwide popularity of Funassyi. Called kimo-kawaii, translated as “gross cute,” the phenomenon has influenced Japanese television, music, and even local government in the last few years. Born in the 1990s and related to similar American trends, this subversion of the traditionally cutesy is part cultural backlash to Japan’s decades-long adorability binge, and part smart marketing tactic.

The term kawaii in its modern form emerged in the 1970s, according to a paper written by professor Sharon Kinsella of the University of Manchester. She says that it sprung out from a trend in “cute handwriting,” but that soon child-like cuteness became the dominant pop culture and fashion aesthetic of the period. It was during this decade that Sanrio came to prominence, introducing the mega-popular Hello Kitty in 1974 and soon becoming a billion-dollars-a-year company. Kawaii culture only grew bigger as time went on, showing up in household appliances, food, and sex toys.

The traditional characteristics of kawaii, according to Kinsella, are “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced.” In the ‘90s, though, younger Japanese people, bored of those traits, coined “kimo-kawaii.” The early Internet meme of the “dancing baby” originated in America but came across in Japan as prime kimo-kawaii, becoming popular enough to appear in a Toyota ad. Another example was the comic-turned-cartoon Coji Coji. The title character seemed cuddly enough, but was surrounded by far stranger-looking types, and the show generally took kawaii to a more surreal place.

A similar trend happened in America during the decade, with the rise of raunchy animated series like Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butt-head, and The Simpsons. Yet those shows, filled with adult references and jokes, aimed to prove cartoons weren’t just for kids. Kimo-kawaii, meanwhile, offered an alternative to the traditionally child-like definition of “cute.”

It wasn’t until the 2000s, though, that kimo-kawaii really became a cultural force. Characters like Pikachu, “relaxation bear” Rilakkuma, and Hello Kitty remained extremely popular, but more alternatives emerged. One was Gloomy Bear, a pink critter that a graphic designer going by the name Mori Chack created as an explicit response to kawaii, saying, “Say there’s an illustration of a bear holding hands, dancing happily with a human. Is this not the epitome of cruelty?” Tall and violent, Gloomy usually has blood splattered on his face and claws from repeatedly attacking his human companion, Pitty. His official website allows users to bludgeon the kid in three different ways.  

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Patrick St. Michel is a journalist living in Tokyo. He writes for The Japan Times and founded the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies. He has also contributed to Esquire.com, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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