Not just cute and not a cat: Hello Kitty's first museum retrospective

A Hello Kitty exhibition will be at downtown L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum starting Saturday

A 12-foot-tall fiberglass statue of Hello Kitty dressed as Cleopatra, "Kittypatra," lies helplessly on her back, waiting to be raised onto her hieroglyphic-covered throne inside a gallery at Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum (JANM). White-gloved installers with jewel-cutter precision arrange stacks of glass-encased collectibles: a Hello Kitty Vans sneaker, Hello Kitty dolls in KISS Army makeup, Hello Kitty looking hopeful in her L.A. Dodgers cap before the team's playoff elimination.

Still under wraps is Lady Gaga's strapless Hello Kitty gown, made entirely of plush dolls depicting Japan's most bankable merchandising icon.

The small, downtown museum best known for ethnographic and historical displays is usually a place for quiet reflection. But as host of the first museum retrospective devoted to Hello Kitty, JANM is girding for some serious crowds when the exhibition opens on Saturday.

"We bought an entirely new admissions software," says Greg Kimura, the museum's president and CEO. "We've doubled our staff. We have a new security regime." There will be timed-entrance admission tickets, many of which have already sold out.

"I've given the staff the 'finest hour' speech," Kimura adds with a chuckle, referring to Winston Churchill's seminal World War II discourse.

For those not immersed in the world of "Kittychan," as she is known in Japan, be forewarned, this is the season of Hello Kitty. In addition to the Japanese American National Museum show "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty" on view through April, the first-ever Hello Kitty Con, a four-day convention of Kitty happenings, will be held at the end of the month at JANM and the Geffen, the Museum of Contemporary Art's Little Tokyo branch.

"The interest has been quite incredible," says Christine Yano, a University of Hawaii anthropologist, author of "Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific" and curator of the JANM exhibition. Surely an understatement in a world awash in Hello Kitty stationery sets, backpacks, telephones and Kitty-obsessed pop stars, including Avril Lavigne, who croons a song called "Hello Kitty."

"When I was growing up, things that were culturally Japanese were not cool," Kimura says. "But now you can't throw a rock without hitting a sushi restaurant. I want to address that."

Yano believes the secret behind Hello Kitty's unflagging success has everything to do with the minimal way in which she is rendered. Unlike, say, Mickey Mouse, who is always smiling, Kitty is drawn without a mouth and therefore has no set mood.

"Hello Kitty works and is successful partly because of the blankness of her design," Yano says. "People see the possibility of a range of expressions. You can give her a guitar, you can put her on stage, you can portray her as is. That blankness gives her an appeal to so many types of people."

Which gets to the point about a controversy that erupted earlier this summer over people's strongly held views about what exactly Hello Kitty is. In August, Yano revealed in an interview with this reporter that Hello Kitty is not a cat.

"That's one correction Sanrio made for my script for the show," she said at the time. "Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it's called Charmmy Kitty."

This statement unleashed global pandemonium. People took to Twitter to report that their childhoods had been a lie. Singer Josh Groban tweeted, "Stop this nonsense." One irritated Times reader sent an image of Hello Kitty displaying a rude hand gesture.

A Sanrio representative present at JANM's installation confirmed, "We don't describe her as a cat. That's long-running." But a reporter for the website Kotaku did get Sanrio to say that Hello Kitty wasn't entirely devoid of cat-like qualities, since she represents the "anthropomorphization" of a cat.

All of this is addressed by a wall text at the JANM exhibit that reads: "While Hello Kitty is not considered a cat in the traditional sense, she is many things — a little girl, an icon, a superstar, and ultimately, a friend."

Whatever she is, it is important to note that her fans are devoted … and rabid. For many, the devotion continues well past childhood. Among the wilder items on display in the JANM retrospective are products geared to adults: toasters, motor oil, feminine napkins and — the pièce de résistance — a Hello Kitty granite garden sculpture that is regularly employed as a tomb topper in Japan.

The story of how Hello Kitty came to be this significant is a curious one. Rather than emerging from some artistically minded enterprise, like a cartoon or a children's book, she is the brainchild of Shintaro Tsuji, founder of the Sanrio company, and she was specifically designed to move product.

In the early 1970s, Tsuji's company was focused on creating small items that could be given as presents — "small gifts, big smile!" is one of Sanrio's slogans — and had been licensing characters for items such as greeting cards. But Tsuji decided it would be more cost effective to have the company create its own characters so that Sanrio wouldn't have to pay royalties.

Sanrio research determined that a dog would make the most promising animal character, but Tsuji didn't want to compete with Snoopy. Second on Sanrio's list of the most popular animals: a white cat.

And that is the highly unromantic tale of how Hello Kitty was born. But in success, timing is everything, and Tsuji happened to strike at just the right moment.

"In the 1970s, the culture of cute and female consumer culture was beginning to take off in Japan," says Yano. "So Tsuji's development of Hello Kitty was exactly in line with the development of commodities for girl culture."

Kitty was conceived in 1974, but the enterprise got going in 1975 with the release of a small plastic coin purse — slightly bigger than an Oreo cookie — which shows a small feline figure decked out in a red bow and a blue jumper. That first Hello Kitty item is now exceedingly rare.

"There's just one original coin purse," says David Marchi, senior director of brand management and marketing at the Sanrio offices in Torrance. "Sanrio keeps the one and only in a vault in their offices in Tokyo. It hasn't been to the U.S. before."

A replica of the purse, which has garnered its own special vitrine at the Japanese American National Museum show, can be seen by visitors in the first gallery. The real purse will go on view at Hello Kitty Con. And you can bet that it will be treated with a vigilance generally reserved for the Hope Diamond. States Marchi: "There will be security."

From that little purse has followed a universe of merchandise. By 1976 Hello Kitty made it to the U.S. And by the time the 1980s rolled around, it was impossible to escape her image.

"When Hello Kitty arrived in the U.S., it was a commodity mainly in Asian enclaves: Chinatowns, Japantowns, etc.," Yano says. "In talking to Japanese Americans who grew up in the 1970s, they say, 'That figure means so much to us because she was ours.' It's something they saw as an identity marker."

Since it was incorporated in 1985, JANM has focused on historical displays, often covering the internment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during World War II. In fact, its permanent collection galleries feature a barrack that once stood at an internment camp in Wyoming.

But in recent years, the museum has begun exploring Japanese and Japanese American popular culture, mounting exhibits devoted to contemporary tattooing and baseball, as well as the regular pop art biennials done in collaboration with the Westside Asian pop shop Giant Robot.

Kimura, who has been the museum's director for three years, says it is part of his mission to draw in new audiences.

"The Nisei generation [the children of Japanese immigrants born in the U.S.], sometimes they worry we are getting away from the core story of the museum, about internment," he says. "But we also have the responsibility to bring in younger Japanese American visitors, as well as people from outside the Japanese American community. Once they come here, then they learn about our core history."

The Hello Kitty exhibit, he says, has been specifically designed so that it deposits visitors into the permanent collection galleries at the end of the show.

That may be the case. But it's safe to say that many folks will show up simply to ogle the Hello Kitty dress worn by Lady Gaga that will go on display on the second floor. That's OK, too.

"The operative word here is 'fun,'" says Yano. "Hello Kitty is all about having fun."

Twitter: @cmonstah

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'Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty'

Where: Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles

When: Oct. 11 through April 26. Closed Mondays.

Info: (213) 625-0414. http://www.janm.org

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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