Kumamon's Burden: Going International (AND WE KNOW THE SECRET)
Chubby Bear FAAAAAME!
Well, it appears the archipelago just isn’t big enough to contain all the cute.
Last week, shuffled off were the isolationist shackles keeping sales of official Kumamon products and associated licensing on Japanese soil. At the behest of creators and handlers in the Kumamoto Prefectural Government, on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu, the caricatured bear who’s crushed all domestic mascot competition has been cleared for global expansion.
What's a Kumamon?
Now, if you aren't hip, Kumamon is a mascot/character originally used to promote a new stretch of Japan's high-speed Shinkansen bullet trains. But his fame has grown far, far beyond Japan, and now, for East Asia, the United States, and the EU, the official likeness of the sticky-cute bumbling black bear has been cleared for commercial licensing and use.
Of course, it's not that people outside of Japan don't already know and appreciate Kumamon: Japan's whole mascot economy phenomenon has been widely covered and rightly puzzled at in international news - often with Kumamoto Prefecture's most famous fake citizen held up as the exemplar. Or, just Google: China Kumamon (中国くまモン). Clearly they know how to pilfer a good design when they see it, and what they may lack in intellectual capital they totally make up for with skillz at Image►Adjustments►Invert.
Fun & Pointless Fact: Kuma means bear, and -mon is to Kuma as it also is to Poke, but that doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s too long to explain, so just know that the name ‘Kumamon’ is an epic symbologistic mashup of wordplay, hieroglyphics, and homonymery, and anyone who claims to know what the name actually means, doesn’t.
Editor’s Note: the author lived in Kumamoto for like, a long time. Maybe too long.
Puts a Smile on Your Face and/or Haunts Your Nightmares
As far as statistical significance goes, there are effectively zero Japanese people who dislike Kumamon. Since his 2010 debut, the character’s hapless, thousand-yard stare of oblivious surprise has spread from billboards to magazines to food and everything in between and adjacent. You can even wipe your butt with Kumamon (and the fact that no one here thinks that is disrespectful is further evidence that the Japanese have a much more enlightened view on pooping that most of Western Civilization).
Foreigners looking in from the outside, including those of us expatriated here but still only marginally more inside, can certainly appreciate that Kumamon is a cute character, logo, mascot, whatever, etc., but it's still pretty difficult to get a handle on the shear force of culture behind his popularity. One thing, however, is clear to everyone: the Bank of Japan estimates that, over the past two years, Kumamon’s economic impact for Kumamoto Prefecture is a positive ~¥123 billion (~$1.2 billion). Inexplicable Japan-centric cutesy culture it may be, but the appeal is real, and Kumamon’s going international because people see Dollar signs, yo...errrr, Yen signs.
The Design Secret to Kumamon’s Success
Well, for starters, the rest of Japan’s mascot characters are objectively terrible. Google it. It's sad.
But, even if the others weren't so bad, Kumamon would still roll pretty hard, and it’s entirely about ellipses. That’s it. Not clever marketing. Not the colorway. Not right time/right place. Nope, what matters is that Kumamon is comprised of all circles and ovals, and the human eye absolutely loves that sorta stuff.
In the original Kumamon figure, there are only three short lines that cannot be represented with ellipses: the bottom of the belly/butt/whatever, and the bottoms of each foot. Every other line can be reproduced with smoothly intersecting elliptical forms.
Here we see a plain image of chubbeh surprise:
Next, we see Kumamon all da Vincied up:
And last, just the lines - remember, only the bottoms of the feet and flat butt are not represented here.
This might help, too:
Chilling, ain’t it? Now you know how the Japanese cutesy character sausage is made.
If for some reason you don't believe us about the ellipses, well... you should.
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Images: Confidential Sources We Can’t Talk About