Material Multiplicities and Sanrio Danshi:
The Evolution of Sanrio’s Media Mix
Volume 20, Issue 1 (Article 3 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2020.
Since the early 1970s, Sanrio has come to emblematise the cute character merchandising industry, with characters such as the iconic Hello Kitty being sold through seemingly endless streams of clothing, stickers, video games, and backpacks. However, in 2015, Sanrio introduced a new character brand: the five handsome men of Sanrio danshi (Sanrio boys), who are both fictional, iconic characters that appear in Sanrio media and merchandise, yet also positioned as Tokyo-dwelling fans of Sanrio’s character merchandise themselves. In addition to appearing in traditional forms of media marketing, such as manga and anime, the fictional boys of Sanrio danshi uniquely “post” together from a Twitter account run by Sanrio, where illustrated images are shared as though they are photographs taken by the boys themselves in their “real lives.” Through analysis of its varying texts, this paper argues that the Sanrio danshi media mix, and its blending of fiction and reality through the use of new media and multiple points of entry, presents a fascinating example of contemporary character marketing in Japan. This paper thus considers Sanrio danshi as a character assemblage, and how the Sanrio danshi media mix signifies Sanrio’s crossing and expansion outside traditionally-assumed territories of consumption, production, and participation.
Keywords: character, merchandising, Sanrio, fan culture, media mix
On April 11th, 2018, the Sanrio danshi (Sanrio Boys) Twitter account posted a tweet with a picture of a handsome young man. He is smiling, softly lit, and plaintively gazing at the camera with a blanket featuring the yellow dog Sanrio character, Pompompurin, draped over his wet hair. Attached to the image are the words ‘I got a new towel!’, signed by the young man in the picture, Hasegawa Kōta (see Figure 1) (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2018a). Taken at a surface level, this, and many similar tweets posted by the account since its inception, may seem like a relatively innocuous advertisement from the Sanrio brand for their products. However, these tweets become more intriguing when one considers that Kōta, like all of the titular members of Sanrio danshi, is a fictional character and intellectual property of the Sanrio company. Kōta, a Sanrio character himself, acts as a model for advertising other Sanrio characters’ products, and, through other forms of merchandising, is himself marketed on and as character merchandise. What emerges here is not a simple advertising system for Sanrio, but a complex network of media franchising practices, material products, and a nebulous divide between the real-world existence of Sanrio and the fictional existence of Sanrio danshi’s characters. Beyond the Twitter account, the Sanrio danshi characters appear in manga, anime, video games, and more; their likenesses are splashed across countless forms of merchandise. Thus, these fictional men are both characters with their own narratives and spokespeople for other Sanrio character brands across parallel texts.
Figure 1. Hasegawa Kōta and his new Pompompurin towel.
Image sourced from https://twitter.com/Sdan_sanrio/status/984030822851399684.
This multiplicity of materiality highlights the dichotomy in Japanese media culture between what manga scholar Itō Gō (2005: 94-95) describes as the division between the kyarakutā (character) and the kyara (iconic figure). These two connected concepts perform different functions in the dispersal of narrative and image. The kyarakutā provides an individual, physical incarnation, embedded in a specific narrative context; the Kōta of the Sanrio danshi manga, for example, is in many ways distinct from the Kōta depicted in the Sanrio danshi mobile game. The kyara, by contrast, provides both a conceptual base reference point and gives a sense of life to individual character incarnations. The kyara pre-exists any individual incarnation, and is instead the force which links the varying incarnations of character across media platforms. Kōta may exist in multiple different texts, each with their own narrative context, but they all refer back to the iconic Kōta kyara and, in turn, inform how those iconic elements are interpreted in other texts. The material existences of Kōta may shift and alter in form, but they remain Kōta—and, through his iconic attachment to Sanrio’s golden retriever character Pompompurin, Kōta remains inexorably connected to the Sanrio brand.
Sanrio danshi, with its characters that are used to promote other Sanrio merchandise while also being marketable entities themselves, provides a fascinating example of contemporary kyara marketing in Japan. Indeed, the distribution of Sanrio danshi demonstrates a visible movement by Sanrio away from its traditional kawaii (cute) character marketing to a multi-faceted structure that encompasses kyara and targets female fans through depictions of the handsome Sanrio danshi characters in romantic and lightly-eroticised contexts. It is this network of media relationality—between the overarching Sanrio brand, its kawaii characters, and the Sanrio danshi—that provides a complex site for examining how character marketing and associated material cultures are crossing into new territories in the twenty-first century. Drawing on the history of Sanrio, and close analysis of the Sanrio danshi media mix from its debut to 2019, we illustrate how Sanrio danshi reflects contemporary developments in both Sanrio’s character production and marketing strategies.
2. Sanrio's Media Mix
Sanrio began as the Yamanashi Silk Company in 1960. By the early 1970s, it had shifted to kawaii kyara merchandise after the founder, Tsuji Shintarō, observed that flip flops embellished with a small flower sold better than plain ones (Belson and Bremner, 2004: 39). Sanrio began by licensing existing characters from other companies, such as Snoopy from Peanuts, but soon hired its own designers to create unique characters and avoid expensive licensing fees. In 1973, Sanrio introduced a white ‘unnamed, sitting cat,’ (Yano, 2013: 269), along with two more characters that would later be included as favourites of the male Sanrio danshi characters, Little Twin Stars and My Melody. The following year, the white cat (1) was officially named Hello Kitty, and in 1976, Sanrio opened its first international store in the United States (Yano, 2013: 269). Thus, Sanrio has been a global brand since the 1970s, with Hello Kitty at its forefront. As Christine Yano (2013: 10) notes, Hello Kitty precedes Japan’s ‘‘gross national cool’ millennial moment’ and maintains widespread recognition throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia
Today, Sanrio has over 400 characters, and is primarily known for anthropomorphic kawaii kyara such as Hello Kitty and the rabbit My Melody. The company’s motto is ‘small gift, big smile,’ highlighting ‘the central place of gifts in establishing and maintaining social ties,’ a fundamental aspect to Sanrio’s marketing strategies (Yano, 2013: 47). Yano (2013: 47) observes that, due to the importance of gift giving in Japanese culture, the relationship between consumer and the Sanrio company is not purely economical, but rather ‘part of an ongoing social relationship that accrues with each sale,’ thus ‘facilitating relationships between people, as well as between customers and the products they purchase.’ These products, emblazoned with the faces of Sanrio’s kyara, are frequently described as kawaii, a term that, while translated as ‘cute,’ encompasses a range of contradictory elements ranging from ‘physically deformed elements’ such as Hello Kitty’s short limbs and oversized head, or ‘socially deformed elements,’ (2013: 58) such as Sanrio’s recent character Aggretsuko, a kawaii red panda office worker who turns into an angry, raging heavy metal singer when she goes to karaoke after work. Kawaii is at once both cute and cool, a constantly-evolving, complex term that nevertheless remains central to Sanrio’s marketing strategy.
While the majority of Sanrio’s media brand until the early 2010s consisted of dysmorphic kawaii kyara, the 2013 mobile app Show By Rock!! may be read as the company’s first step toward an anime-style media mix previously unexplored by the kawaii kyara company. Marc Steinburg (2012: 148) notes that the three intersecting features of the anime media mix are ‘the deployment of a text across numerous media, among which anime plays a key role in popularising the franchise, the dependence on other incarnations to sell works within the same franchise, and the use of the character as a means of connecting those media incarnations.’ While Sanrio has produced animated films and anime featuring its characters, Show By Rock!! was the company’s first animated production to be syndicated on late-night television, which is aimed at an older audience of anime viewers, suggesting a shift towards a type of anime media mix.
Show By Rock!! did not begin as an anime, however, but rather as an app developed and published by Geechs for iOS and later released for Android devices in 2014. The game features anthropomorphic animal idols in a rhythm game that shares many features with other popular idol rhythm apps such as Love Live! School Idol Project. Much like Hello Kitty, the anthropomorphic character designs consist of stunted limbs and large, expressionless faces, aesthetically placing them alongside Sanrio’s other kyara. What sets Show By Rock!! apart from Sanrio’s previous kawaii kyara, however, is that the same characters also have anime-style human forms that appear alongside their kawaii versions in the game. In the 2015 anime adaptation, the characters are depicted in their human forms for the majority of the show, only transforming into their deformed kawaii kyara forms during musical performances. The anime-style human versions are just as, if not more, popular than the original kawaii kyara, but Sanrio only includes the kyara in their yearly character ranking poll (2). While the kawaii kyara and anime versions of Show By Rock!! characters are both featured on merchandise produced by Sanrio, they still remain different representations of the same kyara. The exclusion of the anime versions from official character rankings despite their popularity indicates that Sanrio treats the kawaii kyara as the primary kyara, while the anime versions are secondary.
3. The Emergence of Sanrio Danshi.
Sanrio danshi is notedly distinct from Sanrio’s kyara marketing from the 1970s to the early 2010s, as well as Show By Rock!!, due to the fact that the handsome male characters are linked to, but not synonymous with, anthropomorphic Sanrio kyara. In order to understand how Sanrio danshi differs from Sanrio’s previous kawaii kyara and anime media mix strategies, it is necessary to examine the emergence of the Sanrio danshi media mix. Sanrio danshi was initially conceived as a Twitter account, @Sdan_sanrio, in late 2015. Since then, updates about the characters, merchandise, and related media have been published nearly every day. As of March 2019, the account has over 207 thousand followers. The @Sdan_sanrio account’s first tweet, posted on November 20, 2015 at 11:30 AM, included an illustration of five male characters in high school uniforms with accompanying text that read: ‘It’s nice to meet you all! We’re starting a joint Sanrio danshi account!’ (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2015b). Later that same day, the account posted the first character introduction for Hasegawa Kōta, which consisted of an illustration of the character in his school uniform and text that reads, ‘Once again… It’s nice to meet you. I’m Hasegawa Kōta! Um, I like Pompompurin. But my favourite food is yakisoba!’ (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2015a) (3).
Over the following four days, the Twitter account posted introductory tweets for rest of the Sanrio danshi cast, each including the character’s name and their favourite Sanrio character. Notably, both the initial announcement tweet and character introduction tweets only include illustrations of the Sanrio danshi themselves—they are not yet depicted visually with their favourite Sanrio characters. By introducing the boys alone, the account establishes them as their own individual characters, separate from the kawaii Sanrio kyara.
Immediately after the final character introduction tweet for Hasegawa Kōta was published, the account began to intersperse image tweets with tweets consisting only of text from the perspective of the five characters. Each tweet is signed with a character’s first name to produce the impression that the account is shared by the five fictional boys, who update with their daily thoughts and photographs of their daily life. These images are, of course, not actual photographs, but manga-style illustrations drawn as if they were photographs staged and taken by the imaginary characters. Illustrated-photographs posted to the account include images of new Sanrio products purchased by one of the boys, images staged as though they are photos one boy has taken of another, or selfies with the boys posing together and/or with their Sanrio merchandise. Occasionally the illustrations will be drawn over actual photographs of real locations, such as a Sanrio display at the Loft store in Shibuya (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2016c), or Yoshino Shunsuke taking a photo of Mizuno Yū walking into a Hello Kitty-themed café in Odaiba, Tokyo (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2015c). Illustrations such as these that are superimposed over photographs of actual locations in Japan further blur the account’s representation of fiction and reality.
Sanrio also maintains Twitter accounts for their popular characters, sharing promotional material such as illustrations and merchandise. Further to establish the Sanrio danshi account as run by fictionalised male Sanrio fans, @Sdan_sanrio interacts with these accounts by retweeting or quote-tweeting posts, forms of sharing content on a Twitter account that was originally posted on another. Retweeting (or RT) is a method of re-sharing the exact content of another account, while quote-tweeting allows users to add their own commentary in addition to sharing the original post. These approaches not only enable further propagation of Sanrio’s marketing, but frequently feature additional in-character commentary from the Sanrio danshi characters. For example, on November 28, 2015, @Sdan_sanrio retweeted a tweet from the official Little Twin Stars Sanrio account, which included a link to a Little Twin Stars wallpaper image. The following tweet from @Sdan_sanrio reads, ‘Ryō! The Kiki and Lala wallpaper in the tweet I RT’d is cute! Check it out! Kōta.’ (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2015d). Interactions such as these create a sense of friendship between the Sanrio danshi members, promotes Sanrio’s character accounts to @Sdan_sanrio followers, and encourages Sanrio danshi fans to download and use the wallpaper themselves, so that they might feel a deeper connection to the Little Twin Stars fan Ryō.
The popular Sanrio danshi Twitter account was followed by two manga, which began serialisation in the manga app Manga ONE in April 2016 and the shōjo manga magazine Shō-Comi in June 2016. While both manga are written and illustrated by Andō Mai, the stories in the Manga ONE and Shō-Comi versions differ slightly. While the Shō-Comi version introduces female characters that eventually become girlfriends of each of the five boys, the Manga ONE manga is a series of shorts that follow the boys’ daily lives. Both manga were later compiled together into six collected volumes. In addition to the manga, a mook (4) was published in November 2016 that compiled illustrations from the Twitter account and offered additional information on the members of Sanrio danshi such as their personal history and room layouts.
Since the initial Twitter account was opened in late 2015, there has been a rapid proliferation of Sanrio danshi media and merchandise. In an interview between manga artist Andō Mai and producer Minagawa Maho, a frequent spokesperson for Sanrio danshi, Minagawa describes that various forms of media such as the Twitter account, manga, and video games were planned for the Sanrio danshi project from the beginning (Andō, 2017: 114). However, these items are separate in that they do not have intersecting contexts; events from the manga do not necessarily cross over to the Sanrio danshi social media accounts, anime, or video game.
While the Twitter account, manga, and mook establish the characters and provide multiple points of engagement, fans were not able to interact with them directly until the Sanrio danshi: watashi, koi o, shirimashita (Sanrio boys: I learned what it means to love) smartphone romance game. The game, which allows players to create an avatar and date the Sanrio danshi character of their choosing, was released on September 13, 2016. The game added a level of interactivity that was previously not present in the Sanrio danshi media mix, and was promoted with a theme song sung by the voice actors that play the Sanrio danshi characters in the smartphone game. Following the game theme song CD, which included an audio drama track of the characters going to Sanrio’s theme park Puroland together, were further drama CDs centred around each of the five Sanrio danshi characters. While the narrative contexts of each Sanrio danshi media property may differ, the voice actors introduced in the drama CDs have remained the same throughout.
In addition to the wide variety of Sanrio danshi media, a broad range of merchandise is distributed through Sanrio’s official website and stores throughout Japan, with some products featuring the Sanrio danshi characters with their favourite Sanrio kawaii kyara, just the Sanrio danshi character, or just the Sanrio kawaii kyara with only supplemental promotional materials or and/or context linking them to the Sanrio danshi media mix. Yet arguably the biggest step forward for the proliferation of the Sanrio danshi media mix was the release of a 12-episode anime beginning in January 2018. The anime features a storyline completely separate from the previous manga, game, or drama CDs, while still maintaining the fundamental premise of five high school boys who each have a deep affinity for a particular Sanrio character. This promotes happiness through a deep association with the material goods of a specific character, and includes an additional critique of heteronormative masculinity through the male characters who repeatedly assert that it’s okay for boys to like cute things. Notably, however, despite Sanrio’s global presence since the 1970s, the Sanrio danshi anime remains the only Sanrio danshi media to be released outside of Japan, presenting very limited access to the Sanrio danshi media mix for non-Japanese speakers.
Following the anime, a live stage event was introduced to Puroland in late 2018, further blurring the lines between 2D/3D and fiction/reality. This stage show featured actors portraying each of the original Sanrio danshi characters, along with five new Sanrio danshi characters that were introduced specifically for the live performance. The introduction of these new characters is notable for multiple reasons. Since the Twitter account’s debut, two additional characters have been added in addition to the core group of five Sanrio danshi, appearing in manga, light novels, and briefly in the anime. Just like the original five, these two additional characters were introduced on Twitter using a combination of an illustration and a short text bio. While the five new characters added for the live performance were also debuted on the Sanrio danshi Twitter account, their first appearance was not in illustration form, but rather in a photograph of the actors who would be playing their roles in the stage play (Mirakuru sutēji [Sanrio danshi], 2018b). Only after this reveal were illustrated character portraits released, with text bios in the same format as previous new Sanrio danshi character introductions.
The introduction of five new Sanrio danshi as real actors first and illustrations second highlights how easily the Sanrio danshi media mix moves between different modes of consumption. Furthermore, the new Sanrio danshi stage show characters are posited as the Kansai group, grounding them in a specific region in Japan and establishing their contrasting relationship to the core group. Like the original members, the five Kansai characters each have their own favourite Sanrio character. Unlike the original cast, however, media depictions of the Kansai characters have so far remained limited to the stage production. While only so many fans could have potentially seen the stage show live at Puroland, it was also streamed on the video streaming service Nico Nico Douga, aired on satellite television, and released on DVD, enabling fans to view the production no matter where they live, even after the initial run of the show was completed.
Across all media forms, the Sanrio danshi media mix is unified by the way in which it is designed to permeate fans’ everyday lives and break down the distinction between the 2D and 3D world. From AR photo spots and apps that encourage fans to take pictures of themselves together with their favourite Sanrio danshi character, to wallets that bear no distinct Sanrio danshi branding aside from the use of primary colours and motifs that link them to specific characters, fans are able to integrate the world of Sanrio danshi into their daily lives on numerous levels. Thus, the way in which the Sanrio danshi media mix presents multiple modes of access to the closed world of boys who love, and at the same time promote, Sanrio products suggests it is worthwhile to examine the collected objects and concepts connected to the Sanrio danshi media brand as a form of assemblage.
4. Sanrio's Character Assemblage
Though these lines between the fictional existences of the Sanrio danshi characters and the real-world capitalistic practices of Sanrio may be blurred, they are nonetheless an interwoven media mix. The Sanrio danshi media franchise at a broad level contains many heterogeneous elements which evade blanket categorisation into specific, contained ideas of meaning or narrative consistency. It is therefore beneficial to negotiate the media mix as not solely being driven by the distribution and consumption of material goods, but the proliferation of immaterial fantasies, concepts, and forms of expression. These dual domains of material and immaterial commodities contribute equally to what we believe to be best considered the Sanrio danshi assemblage.
Across A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 7, 25) frame assemblages as being a collection of things gathered into a single context, which can bring about any number of effects rather than a single, dominant meaning. Absent inherent organisation, assemblages can themselves contain, be contained within, further assemblages. Rather than considering the assemblage to be arborescent (with a direct, tree-like path of connection), Deleuze and Guattari posit the assemblage as rhizomatic, without beginning or end but always between things, constantly creating new connections that defy simple delineations of real/unreal, true/untrue. As they describe, a book is not a completely stable object, for it is both part of greater assemblages (on a shelf with other books, for example), but forms an assemblage in itself (paper and ink combined into a single object). Semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows all impact the potential of an assemblage, generating ‘connections between certain multiplicities drawn from each of these orders, so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one or several authors as its subject’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 23). The assemblage is both stable in a particular context, yet susceptible to change; the purpose of an assemblage is never inherently contained within, for as perspectives and contexts change, so too do the potential effects and meanings of the assemblage.
David Heckman (2002) illustrates the potential in applying Deleuze and Guattari’s framework to Japanese popular culture by arguing that, in the case of the Pokémon media franchise, games, trading cards, and anime all produce varying effects, responses, and forms of engagement, in parallel to how the constituent elements within these texts flow and change. Although all these material objects are connected to a conceptual whole of Pokémon, there is not one singular, embedded knowledge to be accessed, but the ceaseless creation of new trajectories and subjectivities as things flow between consumer and producer, immaterial fantasy and material realisation. Just as the branch of a tree removed from one context and placed in another (as a weapon in a human hand or framework for a shelter) demonstrates the capacity for the same thing to generate myriad potentials, the characters, texts, and narratives connected to the brand are being exposed to new potential readings and producerly interpretations in simultaneity.
It is this propensity toward simultaneity which forms a sustained aspect of the officially-produced texts Sanrio danshi, for across manga, anime, and games, the main characters are consistently depicted as being one, yet also multiple. They are one in the sense that across numerous incarnations there is a consistency in their illustrative depiction and personalities, linking each together as a reflection of the same kyara entity. Contrasting against media franchises such as Star Wars, or Mobile Suit Gundam, where characters exist in fictional timelines with established events and histories, the boys of Sanrio danshi do not have a single continual existence. Instead, each narrative featuring the boy—from the personal Twitter posts to their manga appearances—are independent from a greater narrative context.
For example, the character Hasegawa Kōta will feature the same physical characteristics across all his incarnations, such as dark brown hair, golden-yellow eyes, and A-type blood. He will always be a second-year student, have a strong affinity for the Sanrio character Pompompurin, and possess an ordinary, everyman kind of personality compared to his more flamboyant peers. Yet despite this overarching consistency, each narrative featuring Kōta exists outside a greater totality. In the Shō-Comi manga, he finds himself in a romantic relationship with a female student, Kadomachi Ayumu. However, outside the Shō-Comi manga, Ayumu does not exist; their relationship, its narratives, and resulting character development for Kōta are contained entirely within the boundaries of a specific text. In other texts, the reader may witness Kōta bemoan his troubles with girls, or in the mobile phone games, become the object of the player’s own romantic pursuits. Physical and personality elements remain in sync, but attachment to specific narrative events, and the consequences those may have on the greater development of the character, are discarded outside contexts in isolation. Missing from Sanrio danshi is a singular narrative to which each articulation of character connects back, as an actor in a series of connected events. Instead, what the media franchise presents is the infinite potential of the danshi to be articulated across multiple contexts that do not necessarily inform one another, but contribute to a broader conceptual assemblage outside the limits of narrative context.
Additionally, the cast of Sanrio danshi, as noted above, is not a stable assemblage, but one that has progressively transformed, and this expansion has followed a logic of expanding potential access points for consumer response. As previously mentioned, the original cast of five characters was expanded upon in 2017 with the addition of two new characters, each adding new attributes to the mix. Furthermore, during the run of the Sanrio danshi stage play in mid to late 2018, the five Kansai-based Sanrio danshi were introduced. The ever-expanding cast of characters, together with their unique combination of affective elements of design, enable individual consumers to identify and direct their attention to their favourite boy, the character thereby becoming points of access to the wider Sanrio media ecology. Yet even as their incarnations differ across media, they remain connected to a conceptual unity of existence as a single fictional being.
This division between the individual manifestations of the characters and their greater underlying unity in depiction echoes what scholars regard as the division between characters and the overarching notion of kyara. The term kyara, itself a shortening of the Japanese pronunciation of character (kyarakutā), has been used since the 1990s in reference to figurines, toys, and games derived from characters found within anime, manga, and other narratively-driven texts. However, as noted above, Itō Gō (2005: 94-95) reverses this order, asserting that it is the kyara—the narrative-less, iconic figure—that exists prior to the character, and provides the character with both a sonzaikan (sense of existence) and seimeikan (sense of life). As Thomas Lamarre (2011: 129) expands, the kyara is thus the ontologically prior, and primary, proto-character, free of the constraints of narrative that the character is firmly embedded within. Although characters are attached to narratives and their existence outside these narratives questioned, the kyara is free to be articulated within a varied range of contexts and remains within existence outside of the constraints of narrative. The kyara is thus an assemblage, collections of easily-transferable visual and narrative codes, surfaces for the projection of fantasy and desire by producer and consumer alike. As the character is projected into a multiplicity of heterogenous territories, all of which have equal validity as a point of approach for an individual’s understanding to Sanrio danshi. The kyara, as Frenchy Lunning (2015: 78) describes, is ‘only a constellation of mere characteristics: fragments of personality traits, physical attributes, tendencies, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, and beloved quirks.’ Instead, it is through the expression of these fragments that the individual understanding develops.
This ability for the kyara of Sanrio danshi malleably to shift in order to achieve the specific goals of particular textual incarnations makes them ideal spokespeople for the Sanrio brand. In their broader analyses of Japanese character marketing, Debra J. Occhi (2010) and Marc Steinberg (2012) note several differences between using kyara and characters as models or spokespeople for marketing purposes over real humans. As Steinberg (2012: 69-70) argues, illustrated characters translate easily across multiple media platforms in a way that can be difficult to replicate with real humans, as the iconic illustrations do not require a consistent photorealism to maintain their connection across multiple incarnations. Furthermore, unlike humans, illustrated characters maintain their visual consistency over years and decades; they are, in essence, ageless and immortal—no matter how many texts he may appear across since his debut, Kōta remains an eternal second-year high school student. This connects to Occhi's (2010: 84-85) argument that kyara are well-suited for advertising purposes because they, unlike humans, can be more completely controlled by their creators. This is not to say that the kyara is wholly under the control of a single authority, but rather that, unlike a real human, an independent living entity capable of creating a scandal which can damage a brand's reputation, the kyara’s actions and events are not their own. As Occhi (2010: 85) notes, a character will not embarrass its creator, as the character is not responsible for its existence and actions. Rather, that responsibility falls onto the creator of the text featuring the character in question. Though the Sanrio danshi kyara possess human qualities communicated through images and narratives, they are not human, but instead fictional beings consisting of malleable combinations of illustrative elements which can be articulated by creators in a variety of contexts. This versatility allows the kyara to flow across multiple media formats, as well as across narrative and non-narrative articulations.
Important to the construction of these kyara, however, is their individual connection to other specific Sanrio brands. Kōta is not simply presented as being a fan of Pompompurin; he is inexorably connected to the kawaii mascot dog at the level of his own iconic kyara. The two entities, Kōta and Pompompurin, are intertwined at the level of Kōta’s base reference level as kyara, as much a part of Kōta’s iconic assemblage as his brown hair and everyman personality. The Sanrio danshi boys are the perfect spokespeople for Sanrio because they were created to be Sanrio’s biggest fans. Even when Kōta does not specifically praise Pompompurin’s character merchandise, he remains a spokesperson for the Pompompurin brand, for all his character incarnations refer back to an iconic kyara that holds a deep affiliation for another Sanrio kyara. Kōta’s appearance thereby signals multiple brand affiliations in parallel: Sanrio danshi as a distinct franchise, the individually-affiliated Sanrio character with which each Sanrio danshi boy is ingrained, and the broader Sanrio company. Indeed, this approach, whereby the brands are woven into one another, illustrates another key aspect of the Sanrio danshi brand: the simultaneous promotion of Sanrio across multiple territories of material consumption.
5. Finding Definition through Material Consumption
As noted above, a central aspect of the Sanrio danshi media mix is the breaking down of the division between the 2D world of the brand and the world the consumer inhabits. Traditional Sanrio characters are typically presented as existing within their own fantasy world, separate from the one within which we (as real people) live. Hello Kitty may be Kitty White, an English schoolgirl, but she is also five apples tall and lives in a world populated with other anthropomorphic animal-folk; there is a meaningful separation between the fantasy world she and other Sanrio characters exist within and our own.
Sanrio danshi, by contrast, presents its titular characters as fictional, but constantly interacting with real-world products, locations, and forms of consumer engagement. The Sanrio danshi Twitter account does not simply post pictures of merchandise, but images which combine product placement and a form of access to the closed world of the boys’ personal lives. Indeed, a key aspect of Sanrio danshi’s marketing structure is the access consumers are granted to this intimate, homosocial environment. The soft-lit illustrations of the boys, holding towels or new pencases (available from Sanrio stores and online, of course), are presented to audiences as semi-intimate photographs and messages from the boys themselves. A picture of Seiichiro and Ryō playing together in Yokohama’s Mitsuike Park is signed by Kōta (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2018c), creating a layered presence for the characters that extends beyond the framing of the image itself. As previously noted, illustrations of the boys are often combined with photos of real-world locations and products. This approach of layering reality with fiction blurs the line between the fictional existence of the boys and the potential for a consumer to access this existence, in a transitive sense, by purchasing the same product or making a pilgrimage to the same location.
A particularly illuminating example of these flows across fictitious narratives and real-world events can be seen in the collaborative efforts between Sanrio and TANITA Co., manufacturer of bathroom scales and other measuring equipment. Throughout November 15, 2018, the official Sanrio Danshi Twitter account posted a number of tweets signed by Kōta, describing his excitement to visit TANITA and meet Pompompurin. Later that day, the Sanrio Danshi stage production Twitter account posted an image of an actor portraying Kōta, an actor in a Pompompurin suit, and a de-identified TANITA representative, with the message ‘Taking the Health Road Challenge!’ (Mirakuru sutēji [Sanrio danshi], 2018a) (5). Later that same day, the TANITA Twitter account posted their own photo of Kōta and Pompumpurin walking on the Health Road (Kabushikigaisha TANITA, 2018). The official Sanrio Danshi twitter account, however, had posted an illustrated tweet, depicting Kōta and Pompurin in a moment similar to the photo featured by TANITA, but from a different angle (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2018b). Taken together, this interaction generates a multiplicitous existence for the Sanrio kyara, where Kōta is a fictional being who exists in illustrations, a real being who attends events in real-life locations, an actor in a stage production at Sanrio’s theme park, and a corporate spokesperson akin to the costumed Pompompurin. This blurring of lines between reality, fiction, engagement, and advertisement reflects the capacity for participation in the Sanrio Danshi brand to move between incarnations fluidly, without ever being pinned to a single, ontological truth of existence.
Other illustrations capture the voyeuristic markings of the selfie photograph, the characters depicted as holding the imaginary camera as they photograph themselves holding their newly-acquired merchandise. Aaron Hess (2015: 1632) argues that ‘selfies are best understood through their stylised language of the self, which often features a sense of representational authenticity’; by inviting the viewer to access the photographer’s world, yet this access being limited and often rehearsed, the selfie becomes an act of performed legitimacy. The adoption of the hallmark elements of the selfie in Sanrio danshi’s illustrations, such as the high angle, the visible arm holding the camera at a distance from the user, or the mirror reflecting the selfie-taker’s image holding the (imaginary) camera, integrates Sanrio danshi within a wider cultural assemblage of social networking and communication. The imagined intimacy generated by these illustration-selfies further contributes to the creation of the Sanrio danshi’s fictional existence between the 2D and 3D worlds. Selfies, as Jill Walker Rettberg (2014) argues, are associated with self-reflection, self-creation, and social media communication; they foster the understanding of the person posting it as an expressive individual, rather than a faceless, disembodied piece of information. Rather than simply promoting products, Sanrio danshi creates an imagined relationship between the characters and the consumer, one which is mediated and expressed through the familiar practices of contemporary social media.
Additionally, this intimate access to the characters highlights how, unlike the majority of Sanrio’s character marketing, Sanrio danshi cultivates a gaze on the characters that emphasises their physical attractiveness. Tweets on the official account feature Seiichiro posing shirtless for a mirror selfie, holding Cinnamoroll body soap (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2016b: see Figure 2); Kōta posts a selfie from his bathtub, surrounded by Pompompurin rubber ducks (Sanrio danshi [kōshiki], 2016a). Outside the Twitter account, the characters are rendered on dakimakura (hug pillow) cases, languidly staring up at the consumer, their clothes semi-unbuttoned (see Figure 3). The contrast between the handsome male characters and their favourite Sanrio kawaii kyara is especially suited and marketed for its potential to evoke gap moe (gyappu moe), where moe is found in the contrast between a character’s expected personality or behaviour based on their appearance or representation in other texts (Ōunsha, 2012: 154). Patrick Galbraith (2015: 155) broadly defines moe as ‘an affective response to fictional characters,’ and can characterised by feeling emotions ‘budding’ or ‘sprouting’ for a character (from the kanji for moe, meaning to bud or sprout). The gap moe aspect of the Sanrio danshi is an important aspect of their appeal, further evidenced by the first Sho-Comi manga volume which features a promotional paper slip around the cover that reads ‘These gap boys are irresistible!!’ (Andō, 2016: see Figure 4). Thus, the Sanrio danshi boys are not only advocates for the purchase of Sanrio merchandise, but themselves positioned as objects of desire for a predominately female audience.
Figure 2. Minamoto Seiichiro and his Cinnamoroll body soap.
Image sourced from https://twitter.com/Sdan_sanrio/status/800994762283106304.
Figure 3. Mizuno Yū rendered on a dakimakura cover at the Sanrio anime store in Ikebukuro.
Photograph by author, Tokyo 2018.
Figure 4. Cover of Sanrio danshi (Sanrio boys) volume 1 featuring text that reads ‘These gap danshi are irresistible!!’ (kono gyappu danshi ga tamaranai!!).
Image sourced from Andō Mai. Sanrio danshi (Sanrio boys), vol. 1. Shōgakukan. 2016.
Indeed, what Sanrio danshi advocates is more than Sanrio’s established motto of ‘small gift, big smile,’ but rather the assertion that a consumer can find happiness, definition, and empowerment through the consumption of Sanrio merchandise. Across the narrative incarnations of Sanrio danshi’s assemblage, there is a consistent reinforcement that the lives and happiness of the characters are inexorably connected to their consumption of Sanrio products. This is, as argued above, deeply embedded in the kyara, but also plays a major part in the narrative texts of the brand, such as its manga and anime. For example, in the first episode of the anime series, Kōta is depicted as an aimless young man who only finds happiness in his high school life after embracing his love for Pompompurin. This is a resurgence of the love he felt for Pompompurin as a child, but grew to reject because other male children bullied him for liking a cute Sanrio character. The other male characters have disparate narrative reasons for their particular Sanrio kyara affiliations—Shunsuke, for example, was given a Hello Kitty amulet and adopted her as a victory symbol, while Seiichiro uses Cinnamoroll as an escape mechanism from his strict upbringing. However, what remains consistent is that the characters find happiness through Sanrio’s kyara, and that their engagement falls outside the normative expectations of what Sanrio’s consumers look like.
This form of interaction between the fictional boys and their favourite Sanrio products reflects the real-world relationship between human consumers and kyara goods. In their research on Japanese play products and character goods, Anne Allison (2006) and Christine R. Yano (2013) note that central to character production and consumption is the flexibility, portability, and intimacy of the kyara. Drawing on the language of Sigmund Freud, Allison (2006: 9-10) frames Japanese character marketing and play products as possessing polymorphous perversity, as the pleasures generated are not located in singular places or contexts, but rather mix, morph, and cross multiple territories, in effect arguing that character marketing and consumption resists simple categorisation into set meanings. Examining how Hello Kitty resonates with consumers, Yano (2013: 66-69), similarly argues that kyara are valued by consumers for the relationship they personally develop with the kyara, rather than a specific relationship being demanded by the creators of the kyara and associated products.
This imagining of an individually-created relationship between the consumer and the Sanrio brand is central to Sanrio danshi, to the extent that the characters declare themselves in the manga and anime to be ‘Sanrio Boys,’ their identity wrapped entirely within the Sanrio brand. Stepping outside the narrative fiction, however, we must remember that these are fictional characters who are wholly owned, in the formal media economy, by Sanrio. These are not simply enthusiastic fans of Sanrio’s products; they are Sanrio products themselves, their very existence founded on their potential to market Sanrio goods. When the boys declare in the anime series that they will fully embrace their identity as Sanrio Boys and that they don’t need to be ashamed of what they love, this is not simply an individual’s declaration: it is Sanrio advocating the further consumption of the Sanrio brand, as espoused by a Sanrio character-product. The narrative may advocate for an escape from heteronormative consumption expectations, but it does so as a form of advertising.
But, as outlined above, the narrative incarnations of the Sanrio danshi assemblage are separate and do not contribute to a singular narrative totality. Instead, each forms its own context for consumers to access, interpret, and imagine on their own terms. This is reinforced by the non-narrative articulations of the assemblage, where there is no narrative, but simply renderings of the kyara in consumable form: languidly posing on the surface of pillow cases or transformed dysmorphically and placed inside costumes that resemble their favourite Sanrio characters (see Figure 5). Here, the boys of Sanrio danshi are not advocating for the consumption of Sanrio products, but are openly Sanrio products themselves, designed to be purchased as flexible, portable kyara in the same fashion as Hello Kitty.
Figure 5. Minamoto Seiichiro wearing an outfit shaped like his favourite Sanrio character, Cinnamoroll.
Photograph by author, Tokyo 2018.
It is through these production practices that Sanrio danshi forms a media ecology which is open to infinite points of potential access and flow. A consumer can approach Sanrio danshi from products featuring the boys alone, or encounter the boys through their interactions and crossover with other Sanrio characters. Narrative and non-narrative incarnations of the Sanrio danshi assemblage exist in parallel, in narratives where the boys can be pure in one context, sexy in another; romantically entangled on the pages of one manga or complaining about their girl troubles in another. The boys simultaneously exist in a form of narrative stasis, floating in a liminal world of pure kyara, and develop as characters in specific narrative plots and storylines. As Patrick W. Galbraith (2009) argues, by ‘playfully reading the virtual potential of characters’ consumers can hold multiple, dissonant articulations of the same kyara as existing in parallel without any perceived conflict. Embracing this as part of the production process allows Sanrio to expand Sanrio danshi beyond the territorial confines of any text in isolation, fostering a media ecology that places individual consumer engagement with the brand—and developing a personal relationship with Sanrio—at its centre.
It is important, however, to remember that this media ecology is wholly owned, in the formal media economy, by Sanrio, and its flows are largely directed toward further consumption of Sanrio products. Steinberg (2012) argues that the anime media mix does not aim to direct consumers towards a particular goal—the purchase of a specific product—but instead has no single goal or teleological end; general consumption of any of the mix’s products will grow the entire enterprise. There are products specific to the Sanrio danshi brand, of course, but the brand also cultivates its connection to other Sanrio products through both direct promotion and crossover texts which combine the boys with their other favourite Sanrio brands. Acting as a nodal point, Sanrio danshi promotes the growth of the Sanrio enterprise in multiple directions simultaneously. Through its incorporation of elements previously rarely seen in Sanrio’s media products, such as the realistic character design, or eroticism of the characters, Sanrio danshi opens new forms of consumer engagement, which will then in turn promote further engagement with Sanrio more broadly. Whether the consumer comes to Sanrio danshi through the Twitter account, anime, or crossover merchandise with other Sanrio products, centralizing this consumption at the base conceptual level is Sanrio.
Although it is relatively easy to dismiss Sanrio danshi as a naked form of meta-capitalism, with the Sanrio brand creating a wholly new franchise that exists primarily to market other existing franchises in their company, to do so would be to overlook the dramatic shifts in how Sanrio danshi evades pre-existing assumptions of how Sanrio markets its character brands. Taken as an overall assemblage, Sanrio danshi expresses the crossing and expansion of Sanrio outside traditionally-assumed territories of consumption and production. It is among the first of Sanrio’s character brands to feature characters who are rendered in a more stereotypically anime illustrative style, and the first to focus exclusively on male characters that are eroticised, however lightly, providing new forms of access to its assumed female audience. It is also unique in its crossing over between real and fictional layers of materiality. The boys are fictional beings, yet they take selfies with their newly-acquired merchandise. They are not simply Sanrio characters, but also Sanrio consumers—the perfect fictional spokesmen, owned (at least in the formal media economy) by the brand they profess to love the most.
Indeed, it is precisely the blurring of the distinction between layers of materiality which demonstrates how Sanrio danshi is markedly different from other Sanrio character brands. The texts featuring the boys are not simply presented as incarnations of iconic kyara, but embedded with a sense of life that bridges a gap between their fictional existence and real-world locations. Yet, in parallel, they are divorced from that sense of life in other texts, their images adorning merchandise in the same fashion as the other characters they are deeply connected to. That the franchise is succeeding to the extent that it has been given feature place with live shows at Sanrio’s flagship Puroland theme park—along with a new expansion of the cast to feature three Kyūshū-based boys—speaks volumes to how this concept is resonating with audiences.
It is important to note, however, that most of the produced texts for Sanrio danshi are accessible only to Japanese and Japanese-speaking consumers. Although the Sanrio danshi anime series was translated and distributed through American anime distributor Crunchyroll, the anime series, an English-language Instagram account, and a promotion on the Sanrio Website as December 2018’s ‘Sanrio Friend of the Month’ represent the sum of Sanrio danshi texts that are seemingly directed at an Anglophone audience. With access to the brand mediated through the narrative context of the anime series, it is likely that consumers outside Japan could develop an understanding of the brand that is more directly located in narrative readings, the context of the anime series applied onto the other works as providing a narrative centrality. Such potential differences in the understanding of the meanings of Sanrio danshi provide further justification for future examination into how material cultures flow and develop new understandings as their assemblages expand across global territories.
As Sanrio danshi continues to expand across media platforms, it highlights the necessity to negotiate and interpret contemporary media culture as existing in a state of assemblage. Sanrio danshi presents no set meanings across its material goods, but instead provides a variety of access points for infinite potential flows at the level of production and consumption. Through this alteration to the broadly-accepted vision of how Sanrio markets its character merchandise and associated intellectual property, Sanrio danshi demonstrates the new directions, forms of expression, and cultivated consumption that Japanese character culture is expanding into in the twenty-first century.
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[1.] The ‘white cat,’ however, is not in fact a cat, but rather an English girl who has the anthropomorphic appearance (gijinkan) of a cat. See Christine Yano (2011).
2. The Sanrio danshi characters are also not present in the yearly character rankings, which compile 100 Sanrio characters and asks fans to vote for their favourite. They do, however, appear in promotional material during the voting period wearing oendan (cheering squad) uniforms to cheer for their favourite characters in the polls.
3. This comment about his favourite food contradicts what a reader might expect due to the fact that Pompompurin’s name contains the word ‘purin,’ or pudding.
4. From the Japanese mukku, a combination of ‘magazine’ and ‘book’ that refers to a publication dedicated to a single topic and printed like a magazine.
5. The Health Road is reflexology foot path installation at TANITA headquarters.
Article copyright Simon Gough, Anne Lee.