Judge Mike Pinsky reveals Hello Kitty's darkest secret: she once killed a man with cuteness, just to watch him die.
"She always looked on the bright side of things, even if it was tough sometimes."—Narrator in "Cinderella"
This review is dedicated to the memory of Bad Badtz-Maru. I write all my viewing notes for DVD Verdict on a yellow legal pad attached to a Badtz-Maru clipboard featuring the grouchy little penguin piloting a flying saucer. Somewhere in this office I have a Pochacco clipboard as well, but mostly I use the Badtz-Maru one. But when I take my daughter into the Sanrio store in our local mall these days, I can find nothing with the feisty character on it any longer. Badtz-Maru has been retired, gone the way of Tuxedo Sam and Nyago and so many other Sanrio characters.
That is the way with Sanrio. While minor characters come and go, living our their brief commercial lives and then disappearing into memory, Sanrio's signature character, Hello Kitty, persists through more incarnations than a Hindu god. From fairy princess to ice cream parlor hostess, her irrepressible cheer has become legend. She has no mouth, yet she screams cuteness from across the Pacific. And she rules over a pantheon of equally cute creatures from Chococat to My Melody to Snoopy. Yes, Snoopy. Sanrio owns the licensing rights to the Peanuts characters in Japan, making them just another part of Hello Kitty's sugary empire.
Like any merchandising juggernaut, Sanrio reaches into many markets. There are Hello Kitty cosmetics, candies, video games, household appliances—even a Hello Kitty vibrator. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that Sanrio has hours of television programming just waiting to be thrown at American audiences.
Hello Kitty and Friends: Fairy Tale Fantasy is the first volume in one of several collections of Sanrio cartoons available from ADV. Actually, these are edited from shows that ran from 1989 to 1993 in Japan, then were translated into English in the mid-'90s for Canadian television. As a result, the technical side of this DVD collection leaves a good deal to be desired. Often, the image is no better than a VHS tape, and the soundtrack could have been recorded off AM radio. ADV includes no extras, and the disc defaults directly to the feature rather than the menu, suggesting this is a quickie production to fill out their catalog.
This volume of Hello Kitty and Friends consists of four episodes. Hello Kitty, known for her lack of a mouth in virtually all other media, suddenly sprouts one so that she can play roles from famous fairy tales. "Cinderella" leads off the set. It is a reverent adaptation, as threatening as a sponge. There is little here for even adults to mock, apart from the fact that in spite of being clearly underage (with that button nose and hydrocephalic cranium), she runs off with the prince at the end. No matter what happens, Hello Kitty never loses her smile or sunny outlook. When her stepsisters wreck her newly polished floor, she tells her bird friends that at least the stairs are still clean. At this point, I felt my pancreas fail.
A word about giving Hello Kitty a mouth: without one, we expect her not to speak. Hello Kitty is a corporate icon. She cannot assert her selfhood, making her perfectly malleable. She becomes whatever you make her. Her name itself is a gesture of welcoming, of accommodation. She does not say it—you say it to her. "Hello Kitty," you call, accepting her blankness and projecting onto it what you wish. Her graphic simplicity could not be reduced any further. She is as near to abstraction as possible. There is thus something perfectly balanced, in a Taoist sense, about Hello Kitty's image. Her very being incorporates the absence of being in a way no other cartoon image does, even those ubiquitous mouse ears of Disney (which always remind us that Mickey Mouse does have a discernable voice). In this sense, Sanrio's decision in these television episodes to make Hello Kitty into just another cartoon cat, living in a world of cartoon cats, detracts from the character. She is more like a Hello Kitty impersonator in these shows.
This is fairly evident in the second episode, "Snow White." Yes, she is white-skinned (furred?) and sweet to the point of distraction, but this Snow White is also supposed to be smart and an unheralded chess master. No, I am not kidding. Of course, all this irks the Queen, who sends her flunky to scare Snow White away. Although judging from the images on screen, irrespective of the English dialogue, I suspect that the Japanese original promised more violence. From here, Sanrio plagiarizes Disney, throwing in everything from the trees in the forest having scary faces to the glass coffin in the meadow. Note the distinguishing features of the dwarves, who are not named, but hmmm, one is grumpy, and one has his eyes closed all the time, and the leader wears little glasses…
I could certainly put a pomo spin on all this by remarking that Sanrio has taken this classic tale of beauty and the gaze (with its magic mirror, bodies on display, etcetera) and turned it into a play on simulation by taking Disney's Depression-era fantasy of wealth through moral purity and recasting its lead with a cartoon cat intended (except for that damn mouth) to serve as a benign symbol of marketing power. In other words, an imitation Hello Kitty stars in an imitation of Disney's imitation of a medieval fairy tale. But that makes the whole business sound far more interesting than it actually is. Forget I even brought it up.
Just to keep Hello Kitty from hogging the spotlight, ADV includes two episodes from the KeroKeroKeroppi (just "Keroppi" for short) television series. Pekkle the duck stars in "Sinbad." When Sinbad and his crew arrive in town to deliver the mail, they learn that Princess Sheila has been kidnapped. They race to the rescue, picking up a grifter named Hassan, meeting a friendly whale, and battling an ogre along the journey. Keroppi the frog follows up with "Robin Hood." This is the most action-packed and violent episode on the disc, obviously targeted toward little boys, as I suspect the entire Keroppi series is in general. Not that sword fights among rosy-cheeked frogs should be cause for concern by any parent.
Overall, Hello Kitty and Friends does not seem to click for any single audience. Its packaging makes it clear that ADV intends this to appeal to little girls, but such an audience may not warm up to the adventures of Pekkle and Keroppi. On the other hand, the Hello Kitty episodes (I hesitate to call them "adventures") are so mild-mannered as to be inconsequential. My toddler-aged daughter delights in any visit to the Sanrio store, squealing as she runs up and down the aisles. But she showed no interest in these cartoons at all. And since we own the Disney films these Hello Kitty tales reconstruct almost slavishly, this disc is fairly redundant.
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