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What Exactly is this Japanese Trend Known as "Kawaii" All About?

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Giant eyes, rounded shapes, and simplistic features are hallmarks of one of the cutest forms of art. It's known as "kawaii", coming from the Japanese word for cute, and has been adopted into a subculture that can be found worldwide.

Scalable graphics lend themselves perfectly to the style being graphic and bold. Think of Hello Kitty, San-X, and other companies that create those adorable little memo pads or a billion other products to fill up your house. But what makes a piece of art kawaii? And how does the culture of kawaii play into the pieces of art you might create to fit within the genre?


What is Kawaii?

As I said previously, kawaii comes from Japan. The concept began as a rebellion against traditional Japanese culture in the 1970's. Girls wrote, doodled, and adopted cuter styles of dress in order to set themselves apart from the roles their society was pressuring them to take. As is pretty common of cultural rebellion, it bled into the art world: visual arts, performing arts, and music were being created in this genre. It's safe to say the most ubiquitous form of kawaii is visual art and fashion (really, they go hand in hand).

In addition to cuteness invading media and being used as a form of expression, it also carries a certain stigma of being feminine. This slant on kawaii started with women imitating a style called "burriko", meaning "woman who acts like a child". You'll see it in kawaii styles of dress and subcultures of kawaii like Lolita (think frilly dresses, bows, and stockings), fairy-kei (pastels, colorful hair, wings), decoden (countless accessories, bedazzled everything), etc. Think of the cuteness you'd associate with a preschooler, apply it to an adult female, and you've got an understanding of burriko.  Now, to be fair, kawaii isn't limited by gender. It's a product of culture to refer to such imagery as stereotypically feminine.


What Makes a Piece Kawaii

So what does this have to do with Hello Kitty and cupcakes with faces? Both are simple, childlike ideas rendered into consumable media. When it comes to drawing something that will be labeled as kawaii, you want to keep the features sparse. If it's a face, use as few lines as possible to get the job done. Often noses are left out.

In the case of Hello Kitty, her mouth is absent and she rarely shows a lick of expression. Not all kawaii has to be dead-eyes and static poses, however. A wide variety of simple expressions are often seen in kawaii characters, but their features are still very, very simple.

  1. An oval drawn for one eye.
  2. Three lines converging together makes a cute winking eye.
  3. Add a smile (kawaii things are often happy things).
  4. Add some rosy cheeks and sparkles to the eye.
how to kawaii
This is how you kawaii.

What's With the Anthropomorphic Designs?

The theme of artwork weighs into the genre as well. Most often, kawaii work is family-friendly. If not, it's done in a tongue-in-cheek fashion rather than actually adult-centric. Children, animals, food, and objects tend to be the subject of kawaii art. Things like milk cartons with faces or a coffee mug winking at you cheekily fit the bill perfectly.

While I'm not entirely sure who began the trend of personifying every object you can think of, it makes sense from a merchandising standpoint: if each item has a face on it, your ability to create a cohesive set and multiple product lines is much easier than creating one complex character. With the theme of school supplies, you've easily got 10-20 items to slap onto products that will line the shelves for a "Back to School" sale. It's no coincidence that such simple characters are parlayed into consumable media ad nausea.

So many little foods with the cutest of faces. ©2008 M. Winkler
So many little foods with the cutest of faces. ©2008 M. Winkler

Is This Cute or Just Plain Creepy?

The amount of detail and the subject matter your piece of artwork has will impact the viewer's understanding of whether or not they're seeing something cute or just staring at something creepy. Not that creepy is a bad thing by any means. Plenty of kawaii work (and good work in general) bleeds those lines fantastically. The tipping point is your intention. As an artist, when working in a specific genre, the success of your piece will depend quite a bit on whether you intended it to come off as something from Tokidoki or the next Ruby Gloom.

As I said before, details will bog down the amount of kawaii your creation embodies. Let's say you've created giant eyes. Pretty kawaii, don't you think? Now add as much detail as you would in a realistic portrait piece. It's likely that you've got something akin to the sad, soulless-looking children of Margaret Keane. It's not that it's bad art by any means; it's just not kawaii.

Example of Creepy Kawaii © 2007 M. Winkler
Example of Creepy Kawaii © 2007 M. Winkler

I mentioned Ruby Gloom. It's an animated show featuring an adorable cast of creepy characters. What makes the series creepy isn't really the design, but the subject matter at hand. With the same style of drawings and a change in color and content the same designs wouldn't have such a macabre feel. That said, the design is awfully wonderful and straddles the line between cute and creepy quite well.

Same character, made cuter. Friends added. © 2008 M. Winkler
Same character, made cuter. Friends added. © 2008 M. Winkler

Sometimes Details Work

Not all things kawaii has to be super simple. Most is, in the genre, and that'll keep artists away from creating creepy characters and designs when they don't want that look. But knowing when to stop with details in a character and default to something more cartoon than overly rendered can allow you to add complexity to your kawaii designs without overwhelming them. It takes an understanding of what simple kawaii artwork is in order to create more complex pieces. For instance, a more complex eye on a figure, similar to something shiny and sparkly in an anime style, will work if the nose has been taken away or the mouth is small or simple. By the same token, the figure's body is simplified and often smaller than the head. It's similar to chibi characters, but an emphasis is on the cuteness rather than the characterization. For the genre, such artwork is often the exception versus the rule.

Detailed kawaii zodiac pieces. M. Winkler
Detailed kawaii zodiac pieces. M. Winkler

Conclusion

Kawaii is an explosion of cuteness. Often it's minimal in terms of its composition. What makes a toaster utterly adorable tends to be two eyes and a smiling mouth. While its origins are nested deep within a Japanese subculture that's bled out to the rest of the world in sunshine and sparkles, kawaii has become a web of design, fashion, and lifestyle ideas tailored to various cultures of their own.

In recent years it's been a trend in tween and teen fashion in Western culture, showing up in malls across the globe and causing large companies to tailor their design to fit the fad. Whether kawaii burns out and is replaced by another design idea in the future is uncertain. It is certainly cute, however, and often that's all that matters in the culture of kawaii. For more on what makes characters cute, check out The Elements of Cute Character Design, an article by Sascha Preuss from our Character Illustration Session.

An explosion of kawaii.An explosion of kawaii.

An explosion of kawaii. An explosion of kawaii.
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