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Japanamerica: Anime Mushrooms Take Manhattan

By Roland Kelts.

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Some years ago I arrived at Enzo Piano’s cavernous Kansai Airport to be greeted by a blue cartoon globe with multicolored wings and tail, smiling eyes and an unmistakable grin. Jet lagged and under-slept, I could’ve sworn I saw the little guy wink at me.
After 13 hours in the air, this was a far cry, literally, from the machine-gun toting guardsmen I’d left behind at JFK in New York. Kansai airport’s cartoon mascot left the menace of ‘anti-terrorism measures’ in the distant dust.

In Japan, I would soon learn, such characters are everywhere.

“We grow up on anime here,” explains Chikako Jinbo, an advertising developer at Japan telecom giant NTT DoCoMo.”We feel really close to [cartoon] characters. Celebrities and models have limited appeal; you might not like a particular one or another. But anime characters can have appeal for everyone.”

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They tumble out of your Japanese mailbox on fliers and adverts, gaze down upon you from railway station platforms, even grimace at you from grocery bins. Appeal they do.

Nearly three years ago, DoCoMo entered the world of cute or ‘kawaii’ character mascots. Introducing diverse discount pricing packages for family members, friends and lovers, the company sought a way to simplify its offerings for consumers with scant time or attention spans. A basic but memorable character, they figured, just might do the trick.

“Actually, we wanted to be modest about what we knew were totally original cell phone services,” says Jun Kagao, Assistant Manager of DoCoMo’s branding division.

Eh? Modesty from Japan’s biggest cell phone provider? Tell that to BT and AT&T.

Several false starts ensued. Early candidates included a cartoon bamboo shoot and, infinitely less promising, a lowly flea. (Sketches of the latter are quasi-existential: heavy black squiggles with no noticeable features on a blank white page.)
They finally struck corporate character gold in the freakiest of forms: fungi.

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DoCoMo’s mascot was born from a team of hired artists in January, 2005—in the shape of a mushroom called “Docomodake.” The character’s name is a word-play. “Dake” (or ‘take’) means mushroom, as in “shiitake mushrooms,” popular worldwide. But in Japanese, “dake” also means “only,” as in “DoCoMo only,” which sounds a tad less modest in translation.

The mushroom characters took root, so to speak. “We didn’t think it would be such a hit,” Kagao tells me. “We’ve sold over 30 million versions of the character as a cell phone strap [decorative item popular in Japan] alone.”

The mushrooms in question are squat little tubs with anime-wide eyes and splotchy-painted tops. They look harmless, but also mysterious. And here’s the hitch: Just as Hello, Kitty doesn’t have a mouth, the docomodake characters have mouths that are sewn shut.

I ask Kagao: How could you create a promotional mascot that can’t actually use your product? A mute mushroom has no use for cell phone services.

“They have an absent-minded look,” he says. “With those big eyes, you don’t know where they’re looking. And their mouths are tied at the corner, so the lack of speech expresses the humility of our pricing plan.”

Now the DoCoMo mushrooms have landed—in New York. This past week, DoCoMo has been sponsoring a special exhibition of docomodake renderings by a roster of 16 Japanese artists in a Soho gallery.

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My earlier flight to Kansai Airport has been reversed: the Japanese characters are flying the other way.

Problem is: No one in America, let alone New York, can sign up for DoCoMo’s services. The company doesn’t do business outside of Japan.

So: Why a show in New York?

“New York is the center of the art world,” says Kagao. “Everything is open there. If the show is successful, we might consider bringing it back to Tokyo. But we wanted to give young Japanese artists a global stage.”

I attended the opening reception here in Manhattan last week. Hipsters, hucksters and wannabes packed the gallery on a rainy night. The reconfigured mushrooms looked resplendent on Manhattan walls. And no one I spoke to cared about the product the mushrooms are meant to represent–or the fact that they couldn’t sign up for it.

“Being able to brag that your character appeared on the walls of tony New York galleries is like marketing gold here in Tokyo,” says Matt Alt, co-author of Hello, Please, a book about so-called ‘working’ or serviceable cartoon characters, public or private. His wife, co-author Hiroko Yoda, agrees: “[Docomodake] is a perfect example of kawaii characters taking on a life of their own, even outside of their ‘native habitat’ of Japan.”

Watching the New York art scene ooh and aah over a reconstructed corporate mascot—the equivalent of Ronald McDonald via Takashi Murakami—I can’t help reflect on the power of trans-cultural misreadings. If you know how to manage them, international distortions can be very, very profitable.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out in paperback this November.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 26th, 2007.