Earlier this year, I announced a Call for Contributors inviting “essay submissions responding to any other article-length scholarship on anime/manga or related topics published in English in the last five years”. These kinds of short essays would, I believe, add an important new dimension to the developing field of anime and manga studies by encouraging and facilitating conversation within and about it.

Now, I am pleased to present the first response to the Call:

Dora Vrhoci – on Kawaii Aesthetics from Japan to Europe: Theory of the Japanese “Cute” and Transcultural Adoption of Its Styles in Italian and French Comics Production and Commodified Culture Goods, Arts 7(3), article 24

Ms. Vrhoci is a student of European politics and culture at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Her main areas of interest include the politics of social movements, popular culture, and Euro-Japanese interactions. She recently co-authored a forthcoming chapter on town twinning between Eastern and Western European cities in E. Braat, & P. Corduwener (Eds.), 1989 and the West: Western Europe since the End of the Cold War, London: Routledge.

Marco Pellitteri’s article explores how Japanese kawaii culture and aesthetics are appropriated in Europe. The article centers on the question of how and whether ‘kawaii’ has found its place in contemporary Europe, with a particular focus on Italy and France. Pellitteri acquires a transcultural perspective and observes ‘the kawaii phenomenon’ as a “culture of cuteness” which (1), although originating in Japan, has become fused with European aesthetics in certain areas of youth subcultures and pop-culture products. As an example of such fusion between Japanese and European cultures, Pellitteri uses the so-called “Euromanga”—comics made by European creators, but influenced by aesthetic and/or narrative elements of  Japanese manga.

Pellitteri begins his article with a theoretical account of the ‘kawaii phenomenon’. Taking up the bulk of the text, the theoretical discussion includes an overview of the semantic and/or linguistic origins of ‘kawaii’ and highlights ‘kawaii’s’ association with an “emotional attachment to creatures”, a “girl/girlish culture” (vs. a more ‘manlier’ aesthetics), and, among other things, a nostalgic sentiment about one’s childhood. Аs another important aspect of ‘kawaii culture’, Pellitteri mentions its pattern-crossing ability, that is, the ability to move across media, industries and “juvenile tendencies” (5). The theoretical discussion closes with a note that ‘kawaii aesthetics’ are interpreted and appropriated differently in Japanese and Western contexts (i.e., West-Europe and America); while ‘kawaii’ is an integral part of contemporary Japanese culture and aesthetic, in Europe, it does not, according to Pellitteri, appear to be a dominant aesthetic trend among Japanese-inspired youth subcultures.

In the remaining sections, Pellitteri turns his focus to Italy and France. After a short historical overview of manga and anime developments in the two countries—from the early-1980s anime boom, during which a number of productions entered the West-European market, including action and sci-fi anime, to a shift in the 1990s and later decades towards productions with a more ‘kawaii touch’ based on romance and female heroines, such as the majokko (teenage witches)—the author suggests that the shift “from cool to kawaii” has resulted in a generation of viewers influenced by ‘kawaii trends’ (11) and the production of works by European creators that largely derive its aesthetic inspiration from ‘kawaii’. As an example, Pellitteri points to the success of French and Italian productions like W.I.T.C.H., Winx Club and Sky Doll in the early 2000s, all of which use manga-like design traits. ‘Kawaii’, in that sense, apart from being associated with niche European subcultures, is also, in Italy and France, used as an aesthetic element appealing to audiences that grew during the “from cool to kawaii” shift, but also younger generations of primarily female viewers.

In any case, while Pellitteri does provide interesting insights on how the ‘kawaii phenomenon’ influenced successful Italian and French productions, it remains only a glimpse into the dynamic of transcultural appropriation of Japanese kawaii aesthetics in Europe. In other words, the article’s focus on Italy and France should not really be taken as a basis for making general claims on a European level. For example, whereas the German and Dutch market follow a fairly similar dynamic as the Italian and the French (Germany’s RTL II mostly aired ‘kawaii-inspired’ anime during the 1990s, while the Dutch market saw almost no anime airing during the ‘90s because of their violent content), a different picture arguably emerges in Eastern European countries. In Croatia, for example, the shift from “cool to kawaii” is not as ‘blunt’ as in Italy or France; the first anime productions included the somewhat ‘atypical’ Maya the Honey Bee and the Italian-Japanese animation Kalimero during the 1980s, while Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, Kimba the White Lion and Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics hit and dominated the screen during the 1990s. (After 2001, ‘mainstream’ productions like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! enter the game.) A similar case can be made for Russia. Some of the first anime productions that hit the Soviet screens during the late 1970s and 1980s were The Flying Ghost Ship, Puss in Boots and The Little Norse Prince, with Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion and, later on, Sailor Moon, entering the market (and ‘co-existing’) in the 1990s. In short, the stark shift “from cool to kawaii” which Pellitterri describes as the main factor that influenced contemporary Italian and French productions and audiences, is arguably less salient in Eastern European countries. In turn, this allows for asking to what extent kawaii influences Japanese-inspired youth subcultures in other regions of Europe, and their juxtaposition with the Italian and French scene would make an interest case-study.

Another point worth mentioning is that, by focusing only on ‘kawaii’, as one element of Japanese contemporary culture, the article somewhat neglects a large amount of Euromanga editions that do not rely so much on ‘kawaii’ as their main aesthetic trend, yet could tell a lot about Euro-Japanese aesthetic interactions. Even in France, for example, Soleil’s editions offer an interesting repertoire outside of the ‘kawaii bubble’; their “classical collection” features manga editions of European literary classics, such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), and even Karl Marx’s Capital (1867) (See: https://www.soleilprod.com/manga/liste-des-collections-manga/classiques-2.html.). Because of the way they combine Japanese manga aesthetics with classical narratives from European culture, these volumes offer pretty interesting material on Euro-Japanese interaction outside of the ‘kawaii bubble’.

To wrap up, while Pellitteri’s article does look into the dynamic of how kawaii aesthetics are appropriated in France and Italy, it would profit from a larger scope of case-studies and should not really be taken as a measure for a ‘Europe-wide’ assessment of how ‘kawaii’ influences contemporary European youth subcultures and pop-culture. If we zoom-out of Italy and France, the dynamic of kawaii and its appropriation has a different rhythm in other parts of Europe. But even within Italy and France, the appropriation of kawaii aesthetics is not the only way of tracing how European and Japanese cultures interact in the fields of anime and manga, and neglecting sources outside of ‘the kawaii bubble’ leaves out a huge array of materials which could give a different picture about European appropriation of Japanese pop-culture. After all, and like I said before, with the abundance of Euromanga productions across Europe, there is really no reason to limit the discussion of transcultural appropriation of ‘kawaii aesthetics’ to Italy and France only.

All in all, after recently working on projects that focus on Euro-Japanese cultural interactions, I appreciate that Pellitteri raises the question of how ‘kawaii’ is appropriated in Europe (even if the article, really, covers only a ‘chunk’ of Europe). After all, little academic attention has been given to anime and manga’s influence on European subcultures, with most literature focusing on its influence in America or positioning it in the context of globalization. Still, I am not completely impressed with Pellitteri’s analysis of the case studies and think that the theoretical discussion on ‘kawaii’ could have been reduced for the sake of adding more examples of how European productions use ‘kawaii’. In a similar vein, the section attempting to demonstrate kawaii’s influence on European audiences through children’s drawing and doodles could have been enriched with supporting illustrations. Since the section is based on Pellitteri’s observations from workshops conducted with Italian children and teenagers from 2000 to 2016 (13), including a few illustrations ‘here and there’ would have given it more empirical weight.

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If you are interested in contributing a similar response essay, please contact me at mik@animemangastudies.com. Recent journal articles and book chapters on anime/manga are listed in the Annual Bibliography of Anime and Manga Studies. Many of the individual articles are available online in open access, but if would like to work on a response to one that is not, and you do not have access to it through your college/university or through a public library, let me know, and I will work to provide you a copy.

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