If there’s a rule that penetrates every aspect of life in Japan, it’s this simple credo: it has to be cute. And by cute, we mean “Hello, Kitty” cute. In fact, the origin of “kawaii” (cute) culture can be traced to Sanrio’s market saturation in the ’70s. It’s not just in the manga. “Kawaii” penetrates the fashions, the corporate pitchmen, government functions, and the sports logos.
So why are the Japanese so obsessed with the cute? An article in Wikipedia gives two viewpoints. One one hand, Tomoyuki Sugiyama says that the Japanese embrace “kawaii” due to their love of harmony. On the other hand, Professor Hiroto Murasawa says that “kawaii” breeds a mentality of non-assertion. Who’s right?
These are questions I contemplated while I was reading today’s subject: Meghan Murphy’s Kawaii Not.
Kawaii Not’s format is simple, yet novel. Panels of the strip are vertical, stacked with the first panel on the top and the final panel on the bottom, perhaps as an homage to Japanese kanji. This is a unique set up, but it does make it a bit of a pain to post the strips, either here or in, say, an online message board.
There are no characters, really, just everyday objects: cotton candy, marshmallows, yo-yos, farts, rainbows. These objects are simplified to their bare “kawaii” essence and mostly replicated over the span of four panels. Off the bat, the style looked very familiar: it looked like one of those designer shirts currently being sold at Hot Topic. I did a quick search on the web to see if Meghan Murphy was the shirt designer, but I came up with nothing. It probably not Ms. Murphy’s work, anyway: all simplified “kawaii,” including Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers line, tends to look the same.
But then again, maybe the strips of Kawaii Not would be better as a T-shirt. In most of the strips, the first three panels are silent. Sure, Meghan switches it up a bit with some set-up dialogue in the first panel, but needless to say it’s enough to give Matt Gill at The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch work for years to come. The final panel finishes with a a one-phrase punchline suitable for printing on a shirt, and it’s often punctuated by a severe case of squinty eyes.
But is the strip funny? It depends if you find visual puns funny. Despite my generally anti-pun stance, I actually did chuckle at this bit. Those moments, though, were few and far between for me. Most of the time, the strips are either slightly amusing or not that funny. Sometimes, they seme like memes for online flame wars on pleasant girlie sites.
From time to time, Meghan will get a little risque, making us smile because it something that we don’t expect kawaii characters to say or be. Clever, even if Jim Benton covered the same ground in his “It’s Happy Bunny!” works.
In the end, while I never answered the question over whether “kawaii” is either an extension of feng shui or a sign of infantilism, I did make a judgment call on Kawaii Not. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the strip. However, there’s nothing spectacular either. The strips are consistent, yet I get the feeling that I’m reading the same thing over and over again. And while the strips seem to be the perfect internet meme, the vertical format makes it a bit unwieldly. So, overall, the strip is average.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
While the strip is merely average, I have to say that I do admire Meghan Murphy’s style. Her main site, Murphypop, has several lovely stylized works of fan art, including Dr. Girlfriend, Speed Racer, Penelope Pitstop, and the Mos Eisley Cantina Band. She does so many different characters that I would love to see her tackle a more conventional ensemble webcomic, just because I do enjoy the retro ’60s style.