Tuesday, September 4, 2007

REVIEW: Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, by Ken Belson and Brian Bremner

Published: 2004

As anyone knows, who knows me well, I am a 34 year old Hello Kitty superfan. There are probably bigger Hello Kitty fans than I out there but I can say unapologetically, I LOVE HELLO KITTY. I have Hello Kitty plushes, accessories, jewelry, kitchen appliances, stationery, special Hello Kitty dolls from Hawaii and New York, and even a trinket or two picked up for me in Japan. When I got married I bought Hello Kitty wedding dolls on eBay showing Kitty and her boyfriend, Dear Daniel, in wedding costumes.
It all started when I was a little girl in the 3rd grade and bought a Hello Kitty calculator from a schoolfriend (which I still have to this day- the calculator, that is). "I can count," she proclaims ever so cutely on the front. Yes, she can, and so can the executives at Sanrio who have been counting more yen than anyone might have thought possible with the cute Kitty-chan ever since.

And no one can deny the marketability of Kitty even today. She's marketed to girls and women alike and appears on everything from cheap pencils to diamond jewelry and accessories ranging into the thousands of dollars. Just recently I saw on the Sanrio.com website that you can take your cell phone to a special Hello Kitty store in California and have it custom-encrusted with Swarovski crystals. She's not just for little girls any more, and she hasn't been for a while. So naturally I couldn't resist a book purporting to be a (semi) serious analysis of that most adorable of business creations.

The book has a meaty premise- to explain the appeal of Kitty and document her rise to world domination- um, I mean document the success of an enduring corporate icon and put Kitty in the context of Japanese history and culture.

The book succeeds as an amusement but I have to say overall I was disappointed. It starts off with a breezy description of Japanese demographic trends and the culture of cute; how the character goods business and the constant stream of advertising to which Japanese people are subjected grew from a language that is primarily visual in nature and how the brilliant founder of Sanrio, Shintaro Tsuji, capitalized on all this and more to create the marketing and branding success that is Hello Kitty.

The authors, journalists with the New York Times and Business Week respectively, then delve into the business of Kitty, starting with Tsuji's life story and from there the history of Sanrio as a company and the character goods business in general. The authors repeatedly describe Kitty's success as a byproduct of women marrying late and having more disposable income to spend on themselves. In fact there were many times I felt that the same information was being repackaged and repeated over and over. Even the large type in the hardcover edition gave me the impression that someone was trying to make the book longer than it really was.

Overall though I thought the tone was a little too light and conversational; I would have appreciated a little more in the way of insight into Kitty's success and specifically what went into her design and some better discussion of her broad and lasting appeal. What really bothered me though was the way much of the book just read like a valentine to Shintaro Tsuji. The chapter focused on his story is called "The God of Kawaii"; he has "plenty of qualities worth marveling at" and is "masterful"; he has the "drive and desire to work at a relentless pace" and so on. This mash-note tone continues throughout the book and quickly wore thin, especially when coupled with the apparent lack of serious journalism or analysis. At one point the authors say that
Kitty is "a statement for those who want to snub their nose at the establishment". Um, no, she's a corporate icon designed to sell cheap accessories to girls and young women. She's cute and I love her too but come on. Meanwhile critics of Kitty and Sanrio are largely dismissed as fogeys and sourpusses who just don't appreciate cuteness.

So it's a breezy read with some interesting information and anecdotes about Sanrio and Hello Kitty but I would have enjoyed the book more if it were a heftier and more balanced piece of cultural criticism instead of a one-sided bit of sycophantic fluff.

See also: Hello Kitty on Wikipedia

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