July 04--Yumina Myers' culture-shock moment came on the first day of high school in Vermont when, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans branded with Mickey Mouse's goofy face, someone stopped the recent Japanese immigrant in the hallway.
"They looked at me and said, 'Uh, the middle school is across the street," recalls Myers, the Young at Museum's outreach coordinator, with a laugh. "To be fair, I looked very, very Japanese. Pigtails and red bows and everything. Characters are very important to me."
If Myers was misunderstood as a teenager, it's only because animated and live-action characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon are cultural powerhouses in Japan, she says. The proof is in the Young at Art Museum's new exhibit, "Japan: Kingdom of Characters," a traveling show co-presented by the Consulate General of Japan in Miami and the Japan Foundation, which explores the dominance that Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion and other heavily merchandised characters hold in Japanese society. In colorful photographs that appear on wall panels in the museum's rear-facing gallery, a middle-aged man sips from a Pokemon teacup; a businessman reads a manga, the Japanese equivalent of a comic book, on a commuter train; and the cute, expressionless face of the popular white bobtail cat Hello Kitty is slapped across a grandmother's bedroom slippers.
"The characters are everywhere in our lives," Myers says. "In Japan, they're extremely important, and they give us a mindset of calmness, freedom and tranquility. They're the best stress relievers: happy, powerful and magical characters that give us peace in our daily, stressful lives."
Nearby posterboards trace the influence of Japanese characters through the decades, starting with the debut of Osamu Tezuka's animated TV series "Astro Boy" in 1963. The heroism of the part-robot, part-human child resonated with Japanese viewers, as did Ultraman, a live-action robot introduced in 1966 who defended Earth from an onslaught of aliens and phantoms. The Sanrio Corporation-created Hello Kitty, which debuted in 1974, became an instant cultural marketing phenomenon in Japan, a cute avatar whose unisex brand is now worth $5 billion.
One example of Hello Kitty's merchandising dominance appears in one corner of the gallery: a re-creation of a Japanese teenager's bedroom, in which bedsheets, posters, bedside lamps, pencils and erasers bear the character's whiskered face. In an adjoining room, visitors can design their own interactive, Hello Kitty-inspired room with a series of iPads and "kawaii" (a Japanese aesthetic meaning "cute") props.
A series of life-size characters and mascots are scattered around the gallery, including Rei Ayanami, a character from the 1990s anime "Neon Genesis Evangelion"; Namisuke, a fairylike mascot for Tokyo's Suginami Ward who enjoys clean air and apples; and Sento-kun, the mascot of Nara City, which resembles a boy with deer antlers and is regarded as the city's "heavenly protector," Myers says.
"We never felt like we were being overcommercialized in Japan when I was growing up," Myers says. "You go to a Japanese bookstore, and more than half the books are mangas. I learned about Thomas Edison's inventions from a manga. My theory is that we're inclined toward a visual culture, with symbols representing feeling rather than plain text."
Japan: Kingdom of Characters
When: Saturday, July 5, through Sept. 7 (opening reception: 1 p.m. Saturday)
Where: Young at Art Museum, 751 SW 121st Ave., Davie
Contact: 954-424-0085 or YoungAtArtMuseum.org
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