The Face Behind Kitty

Hello Kitty creator
Yuko Yamaguchi

The woman pictured above is Yuko Yamaguchi, who has served as Hello Kitty’s chief designer since 1980. When I stumbled upon this photo, I felt like I was looking upon the face of god. Having beheld Hello Kitty’s stone-faced-idol gaze for nearly 30 years, grown up under it, I was almost surprised to learn that there was a person behind it.

I was also struck by Yamaguchi’s resemblance to Hello Kitty: the same face shape, the same nose. And, at least in this picture, she wears the same blank expression (the Kitty on left is atypical). Yamaguchi, however, does have the advantage of a mouth.

I’ve long felt alienated by Kitty, primarily because she had no mouth and therefore couldn’t smile or frown. I wondered if she was ever really having fun. Hey, Hello Kitty, you’re riding on a unicorn, shouldn’t you be smiling because this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened? But I couldn’t tell what she was thinking or feeling and therefore couldn’t share in her emotions.

Moreover, not having a mouth, she couldn’t communicate; she just blankly stared at you. It felt like a one-way street; look at and admire Kitty in her cleanly drawn, perfect world. And she didn’t seem to care; she never went on quest for a mouth, she just flew airplanes and played with rabbits. And stared. The implicit message – be perfect, be like Kitty – felt oppressive.

Seeing that Yamaguchi actually resembled Kitty made the character’s creation seem like a colossally narcissistic act, like it was some awful projection of herself as a perfect, yet distant being. As if Yamaguchi allowed people to worship her likeness without realizing its terribly earthly, human origin. And you certainly couldn’t communicate or question the mouthless one.

However, upon further research, I learned that Yamaguchi is actually the third designer. Ikuko Shimizu created Hello Kitty in 1974. (Shimizu also resembles Kitty, though less so.) Unlike other cartoons, Kitty was created solely for the purpose of selling merchandise. After Shimizu left Sanrio in 1976, the brand floundered. “The president said that Hello Kitty came to an existence as a symbol of friendship and therefore he could not allow her demise,” Yamaguchi said in a 2008 interview with Time. “I won the company’s competition and became the third designer in January 1980.”

And why didn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth? In 2004, Yamaguchi told the Japan Times that “girls or women try to project themselves into the character and consider Kitty their alter ego. “They yearn to be Kitty. I guess they can put themselves into the character all the more because the cat has no facial expressions, with its mouth not drawn,” she said.

This was not my experience. Yet Kitty rakes in over $1 billion annually worldwide for Sanrio.

Maybe her mouthlessness could be explained within a cultural context. Anime characters typically have small, though visible, mouths and large, expressive eyes. A review, albeit cursory, of anime and manga through the 20th century did not turn up any “mouthless” examples or trends. I also researched Japanese communication styles; I was not aware that non-verbal communication was valued quite so highly. The outer self can be seen as sending false signals and silence is seen as a sign of trustworthiness. Perhaps this partly explains Kitty’s popularity in Japan, though not necessarily her international appeal.

I still think the photo is creepy.

2 thoughts on “The Face Behind Kitty

  1. I’m sitting here in Sint-Truiden, laughing whilst various Flemings scream at each other from different rooms. What I mean to say is, Hello Kitty is appealing because of her perfectly round head. The lack of mouth is quite scary, though, agreed.

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