Have you met Gudetama? He’s a grumpy egg, cracked too early on the wrong side of the shell. Starring in short animations muttering and grumbling, complaining and sighing, he’s one of the newest characters to come out of Sanrio, the Japanese mega company that created Hello Kitty, and the latest in a long lineage of anthropomorphic cartoons to crack it big in Japan.
Gudetama is emblazoned on all the merchandise you can think of, from kitchen sponges to suitcases. His Tamagotchi-esque face has by now been burnt into the hearts and minds of children and adults alike. With catchphrases such as “Pah,” “Ugh,” “Meh,” “Never mind,” “Leave me alone,” “I can’t,” and “Seriously, I can’t,” he personifies millennials as seen through the eyes of older generations. His most famous snippet shows him pulling his blanket—which is a strip of bacon—to his chin and mumbling, “Five more minutes…”
This listless cartoon egg is one of the many Sanrio critters to have a shot at making it big in the Western world, following in the footsteps of Keroppi, Hello Kitty, and My Melody, to name a few. But Gudetama is the first one to have runaway success in a long while, and he’s gone viral in the way only a disaffected breakfast food could.
Sanrio’s explanation of Gudetama reads: “Eggs are yummy… boiled, baked or raw. There are many ways to make an egg, but eggs are so lazy (gude gude in Japanese). Look closely and you will see the eggs that you eat lack spunk.” There’s something bemusing about Gudetama’s bio. Since when have we held eggs to standards of productivity? They’ve never been known for their high KPIs—it’s like observing that houseplants aren’t good drivers.
So why did Sanrio settle on an egg, as opposed to a top hat or a power adapter? Part of the answer is revealed by cultural trends. Food is a massive part of Japanese culture, from the ritual of tea ceremonies to the art of high-end sushi. Eggs were really in fashion a year or two ago, and food patterns on clothes were blossoming in the fashion-forward Tokyo district of Harajuku—this author bought a pasta shirt and a pair of pants covered in toast. Japanese fashion has always pushed boundaries, with styles such as lolita (princess), mori (forest girl), and ganguro (extreme makeup) influencing everyday consumer choices. Food as fashion follows from the kimokawaii trend, which translates to “gross-cute,” that is currently pervasive among high-school fashionistas (see also: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and eyeballs).
But for an international audience, part of Gudetama’s appeal comes from the absurdity that he isn’t a frog, cat, or rabbit: He’s just a plain old egg. He’s also the first Sanrio mascot that is not based off an actual creature, which makes him somewhat special.
In the world of Japanese characters, however, he’s not the first to tap into a love of food. In fact, Japan has a cultural lineage of delicious mascots and media. His contemporaries today include Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma, a popular anime that is basically Harry Potter if Hogwarts was a school for competitive cooking, and Wakako Zake, a series of five-minute episodes depicting a lady who likes to go out to eat. Perhaps Gudetama’s closest rival is Bananya, a show about mysterious creatures that very strongly resemble cats in banana skins. It’s as weird and cute as you’d expect.
Gudetama’s most notable predecessor is AnPanMan, a cartoon hero whose head is made of red-bean bread (anpan in Japanese). His catch-cry is literally “Eat my face!” and his friends include Uncle Jam and Cheese. AnPanMan is so well known and popular in Japan that he serves as a frequent cultural reference.
For example, one of the most popular anime released this year was One Punch Man, a story about a pretty normal guy whose fist is just so strong that he can win any fight in just one punch, leaving him unbearably bored with the superhero profession (yet another tie in with the indifferent millennial culture). One Punch Man in Japanese is “WanPanMan,” a deliberate nod to his bread-head ancestor. But unlike his cheery-faced bread progenitor, One Punch Man’s face is drawn in a way where he lacks the extra-expressiveness of typical anime character illustration, leaving him looking unrecognizable, unemotional, and unremarkable. He and Gudetama share roughly the same amount of zest for life.
One Punch Man is to AnPanMan what Gudetama is to Hello Kitty: They’re antiheroes, serving as a self-reflexive comment on the jolly characters who have come before them and countering their gleeful positivity with slack-faced ennui. This type of apathetic character is appearing more and more frequently in Japanese media, possibly as reaction against the societal pressure—to work harder, work longer, do more—that runs deep in Japanese culture. It’s black humor steeped in specific cultural references, and the rabbit hole goes deep.
Japan’s affection for strange creatures goes back to before we first met Hello Kitty in 1974. In fact, it begins with Japan’s Shinto roots, where yōkai feature prominently in the Shinto spiritual worldview. Yōkai are spirit creatures that appear in folklore and art—tricksters that mere mortals can’t see, but wreak havoc on the world regardless. They are a cultural equivalent of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, but often come with a cautionary tale attached.
For example, kappa are weird frog- or lizard-like river children who build awareness and help to open conversations with Japanese youth around the danger of falling into rivers. These demon-like creatures personify risk in the form of a mischievous spirit, thereby cloaking safety instructions in magical beings. “When the local river floods or a child drowns, the culprit is not the weather or the water, but a creature identified as a kappa,” explains Michael Dylan Foster in The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.
Edo-era Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai, who most famously created The Great Wave off Kanagawa, painted yōkai in the ukiyo-e (floating world) style. His terrifying yōkai are a far cry from adorable Gudetama and his Sanrio family, but the aesthetic lineage is certainly there. Woodblock print-making was the main production method for ukiyo-e art, which pre-empted the “superflat” 2D characters printed on accessories and clothing that we see today.
In some ways, we can even think of Pokémon as modern-day yōkai, living in the world with us but hidden from the everyday. We can only see them with the help of Pokémon Go, where they float, ukiyo-e style, just above the surface of a street or table through an augmented reality (AR) lens. The recent explosion of Pokémon Go shows that the West’s love of Japanese critters is suddenly more mainstream than ever before.
While these cartoon creatures are reserved for children (or for child-like glee in adults) in the West, critters are par for the course in Japan and appear in the most mundane contexts. Just wander Tokyo’s streets for a day and you’ll notice your cute animal friends everywhere—not just on clothes, stationery, and trinkets, but on public transport, in toilets, and on menus and street signs. These weird and wonderful characters are created by corporations and government groups and are employed to do the job of protecting the citizens from harm and unease—like a post-capitalist version of yōkai.
And they make money, too. Sanrio makes characters for many reasons: Some of them are created in partnership with gaming platforms, such as Sega, while others are simply super cute and can be made into so many different accessories, sweets, and domestic items that they are bound to be profitable one way or another. In the wake of late capitalism, small trinkets are a big deal in Japan. Their popularity can be tied back to their use as offerings in traditional shrines, and nowadays they can quickly express what kind of person you are through a little reference in the form of a keyring, hair tie, or statuette.
“What I see in Japan…is that behind all these notions of politeness, snobbism etc, the Japanese are well aware that something which may appear superficial and unnecessary has a much deeper structural function,” says the psychoanalytical philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Even though these child-like characters may seem like an odd joke to Westerners, they have historically played a serious role in the Japanese psyche and continue to do so today. “A totally ridiculous thing at a deeper level might play a stabilizing function we are not aware of,” Zizek continues. “Everybody laughs at the English monarchy, but you’ll never know.”
Whether they’re yōkai or Sanrio mascots, Japanese characters have their own cultural agendas. Sanrio created Wish Me Mell for girls aged 15-20 who are too shy to express their feelings towards each other. This even played into her marketing: When Mell was launched, the character design was kept secret, with Sanrio saying that she “just won’t come out” of her egg-shaped house. Fans were encouraged to send her as many messages and tweets as possible to encourage her to show her face. In anticipation of a new mascot to love, girls interacted with the marketing campaign online and on various other social media platforms, coaxing them to overcome their shyness. Characters such as Mell help de-stigmatize social issues through their non-threatening appearances. Like Red Riding Hood’s lesson not to go into the woods alone, Japanese spirit creatures help make sure Japanese citizens are safe, happy, and healthy.
So what’s the deal with Gudetama? What is he trying to teach us? The message seems to be: “Don’t turn out like this guy.” In a culture that regards work ethic so highly, the apathy of youth is a ripe subject for criticism.
It has been noted that perhaps Gudetama is the antihero that millennials in both Japan and beyond need right now; an exaggerated—egg-aggerated, even—caricature of Gen-Y apathy that lets us laugh at laziness. But the question remains: Why him? Why an egg? After all, many characters that have been successful in Japan have never made it across the Pacific to American audiences—have you ever heard of Button-nose, Tuxedosam or Captain Willy? How did the artist that drew him (Nagashima Emi, who was fairly new to Sanrio at the time) hit the jackpot, going viral both in Japan and abroad?
While we may think it odd that Japan has found its contemporary savior in an egg with an attitude problem, they probably look to our culture and likewise raise an eyebrow. Where Gudetama might speak to a disaffected younger generation who just can’t even, perhaps our collective idolization of Taylor Swift and our obsession with whether she is really dating Tom Hiddleston is just as odd from a Japanese teen’s perspective.
When we think of the shared cultural phenomena that unite Japan and America, two main areas come to mind: consumerism and an obsession with youth. Between the flashing lights and over-stimulating streets of Shibuya to the saccharine infomercials and Tupperware parties of middle-class America, the drive to buy resonates cross-culturally. And when we’re not partaking in the religion of shopping, we are worshipping at the fountain of youth: From Japan’s flawless J-pop stars and immortal big-eyed anime to America’s fresh-faced Biebers and hairless, surreal porn, late capitalism reveres the young like never before.
And what better symbol is there for youth than an egg, literally unborn? Gudetama has the potential to be whatever he wants, but instead he chooses to disengage. He is the youth of today saying “Pah!” to society’s encouragement to be fitter, happier, and more productive.
So if you didn’t before, now you get the yolk.