Indonesian fans bent on interacting with Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Pokemon and other favorite Japanese characters have much to look forward to as the characters are currently enlivening Jakarta’s National Gallery in an exhibition titled “Japan: Kingdom of Characters.” Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the event is keen to go where no weekend morning cartoons have gone before; by shedding light on their character’s popularity with the Japanese public.
“A 2004 survey by the Bandai Character Research Institute on 1210 people in Japan noted that 69 percent of the respondents kept an action figure of their favorite characters,” says Character Research Institute president Hiroyuki Aihara.
“Over 90 percent of them said they have a favorite character. This phenomenon is particularly noted in Japan, more so than any other country in the world.”
Aihara explained that the appeal of Hello Kitty and Doraemon and other characters like Digimon as well as Candy-Candy with their over-the-top antics and superpowers is the latest manifestation of Japanese storytelling traditions.
“The closeness of Japanese people with their characters of choice has much to do with traditional Japanese aesthetics,” he said.
Japanese cartoonist Takashi Murakami pointed out that the two-dimensional features of anime characters was derived from the traditional ukiyo-e style of painting.
“These characteristics, combined with each characters’ unique traits and symbols, make them relatable to the public,” Aihara said.
Cartoonist Kaichiro Morikawa pointed out that the characters’ moe , or cuteness, along with their waba-sabi , or traditional aesthetics, gave them appeal. Their fans derived a sense of calm from the characters. Their expressionless faces, a trait known as muhyo chara , make their fans project their feelings or emotions onto their favorite characters.
Going around the gallery, its an eye-opener to realize how long some of the characters have been around. Some, like Astro Boy, Ninja Hattori or Hattori-kun and Ultraman, were made when the popularity of anime and manga rose due to the rise of television in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s. Others, like the Power Rangers and the Masked Rider, better known in Indonesia as Ksatria Baja Hitam, are the well known characters created in the 1970s. But their popularity paled after Hello Kitty, an iconic character, won a following in more than 110 countries.
“I like Hello Kitty because she’s simply cute. I particularly like her merchandise,” said 9-year-old Ariqa Rahma, who shared a love of the white mouthless feline along with her 6-year-old sister Naila.
“I also like Doraemon, particularly his antics,” said the latter of the blue robot cat whose penchant for time travel and love of dorayaki octopus balls won him millions of fans worldwide since his creation by Fujiko Fukio in the 1980s.
“Doraemon’s magic pocket is also funny, because you never know what he’ll bring out from it,” Naila added.
Seventh-grader Tama Rahal is into action characters. “I like characters like Digimon, Mobile Suit Gundam and Naruto,” he said.
But no Japanese character exhibit would be complete without Pikachu, the main character from Pokemon. The cuddly yellow creature continues to steal hearts since he was launched in 1996. Pikachu is noted to be among the first characters to rely on his fame from video games, following the decline of manga in the 1990s. The “Japan: Kingdom of Characters” exhibit runs through the weekend. So get your anime fix while it lasts.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 23, 2014