Kawaii in Aesthetics

I've developed a growing interest in kawaii as a visual language instead of just "thing I like to buy". Kawaii, of course, means cute, or pretty. It evolved from the older words かはゆし (kawayushi) and かほはゆし (kaohayushi), which were used to express an unbearable feelings of pity. Over time, the meaning shifted to describe things which were helpless, yet adorable. Children, small animals, and later, girls, were considered to fit the description of helpless, naive, and innocent. When these "girlish" traits became admirable, or rather, marketable, in Japan in the 70s and 80s, thus was born the positive kawaii that we're familiar with today.

It is quite often considered a subculture, even though kawaii has deep roots in consumerism and materialism, but it's hard to separate it from the context and history of Japanese design. Because of this, Western audiences are drawn to kawaii as an exotic visual genre. But in order to make kawaii even more palatable, it gets diluted in Western cultural values and its relations to helpless, pitiful feelings aren't really present. Western kawaii is made to be particularly stylish, sometimes beautiful. I often find it to be too aware of itself, too socially acceptable. Sometimes it'll even lean sexy if it's aimed at teenagers and women. If it's for kids, it will just be in the usual for-kids style. Basically, the same as everything else marketed to girls and women, just with bigger eyes and brighter colors. But as questionable as Gwen Stefani's weeaboo phase was, I think her Harajuku Girls line is the only mainstream attempt at true imitation I think I've seen.

Though, it's a little silly to pretend there's a deep philosphical truth behind kawaii when it only exists because there's a huge demographic of people that have a preference towards ribbons and a disposable income, or that the bad and mediocre stuff naturally wouldn't get circulated in the West because it's bad and mediocre. There also exists a tendency to subdivide and dichotimize kawaii. For example, yume-kawaii (pretty like a dream) and yami-kawaii (sickly cute, cute in darkness) are seen as visual opposites even though they're nearly identical except the former is pink and the latter is black. This is practically the same as "whatever-core" and "XYZ aesthetic" communities which pop up like weeds, strangling any sort originality that might otherwise exist in its place because why bother when you just wear regular preppy clothing in black and call it dark acedemia. I think subculture is just making up new names for things that already exist half the time.

But I suppose I'm also someone who is drawn strongly to the way things look because it gives me a certain feeling, and sometimes it's nice to have a label for those feelings. For as long as I can remember, I've liked cute things, but I'm still very selective and picky. It can't just be cute, I want it to be a little "off," and a little tacky and ugly. I find blob fish cute, but baby Yoda horrifying, and I don't have a name for it to help identify why this might be the case.

Novala Takemoto (of Kamikaze Girls fame), describes the relationship between kawaii and lolita like so: "Were someone to try to make the beautiful Mona Lisa even more beautiful by adding a crown to her head, but by doing so, actually make her less beautiful, and by doing so, get in trouble with the Louvre Museum for graffiti...this is the kawaii of lolita. While if someone were to customize the Mona Lisa in a girly manner but only to such an extent as to not be in trouble with the Louvre staff, this would be mainstream kawaii." I think this is why Katy Perry looked so weird in Jewelry Jelly.

While I can't exactly vouch for the legitimacy or journalistic integrity of Tokyo Girl's Update, I can only assume that their series on the origins of kawaii is likely way more accurate than whatever conclusions I can come to as someone who is not Japanese, and has never even stepped foot in Japan.

War=Good is peak artsy

I experienced the work of Takashi Murakami in person for the first time in person when I visited Forth Worth's Museum of Contemporary Art in the summer of 2018. Heavily based in kawaii, Murakami's work is both adorable and terrifying. I don't think there was a single work on display that I didn't find impactful. So naturally I bought the exhibition catalog. I had seen Murakami's work before, and I was familiar with some of the more obvious influences. But the catalog introduced me to the philosophy beneath the surface, which I found very interesting.

Takashi Murakami coined the term "superflat" in 2001 and basically founded it as a postmodern art movement. The concept of "superflat" relates Murakami's vision of a world which has been "flattened absolutely" by an atomic bomb until all things, form only a single plane. This superflat world is superficial and without depth. This is the world of anime, of otaku, and of "morality pacified by contentment."

However, Murakami was not the first to envision a superflat world. Alexandre Kojeve, a Russian-French philosopher, also noted a specifically Japanese version of materialism after his visit to the country in 1959. Japanese materialism, in opposition to American materialism, is "areligious, amoral, apolitical, and purely formal." Kojeve, like Murakami, marked World War II as the end of history, and the end of history marks man's return to animality. Of this, Kojeve wrote, "[man's] arts, his loves, and his play must all become purely natural again." As man returns to animal, "happiness" is replaced with "contentment." Otaku, then, are animal. They are the permanent children that never gain humanity and signal the end of man. Manga, after all, only achieved popularity in Japan following World War II.

While this envisions a return to a sort of past rather than a complete destruction of it, I can't help but see this as something similar to the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century, which was full of psychotic assholes because apparently that's a requirement to make it into Art History textooks. I think the only way you can glorifly flatness as a clean state for starting over or a means of existing aimlessly, is if you're used to having your needs met so consistently that you take the functions of society for granted. I think equality can only exist if people cooperate with society to build on it instead of constantly seeking to destroy it. If universal contentedness is ever achieved, it won't be superficial or accidental or the result of violence; it will have been collectively worked for and earned.