Kawaii is the Japanese word for “cute” and “lovable”. But it’s not just cute like puppies or kittens, but instead about manga, anime or amigurumi (miniature crochet) puppies and kittens and other baby animals, as simplified and abstracted images. All the motifs and character icons are youthful even childlike, and above all colorful with gelato colors and bright pastels, as well as some judicious black and white.
One end of the style is the opposite of Minimalism, with layering creating a sense of abundance, excess and high contrast. This can end up with the same relentless visual volume as the t-shirt stores at Comic-Con. Kawaii devotees favor plastic jewelry, colorful miniatures of large objects – like miniature polymer clay donuts – and plenty of glitter and sparkle. They cosplay as anime characters, or mash ups of certain anime-like archetypes and game characters.
If this is your thing, you like ruffles, pleats and soft, fuzzy textures like plush or faux-fur, kitten ear headbands and character hand bags in nursery rhyme images, like ducklings or piglets. The au courant imagery is mashing up unicorns with other elements, like a unicorn cupcake. There is no item that cannot be made into a kitty-cat.
Yet some of the images themselves can be very simplified and elegant. Characters are pared down to bright colors in distinct areas bounded by a fine black line, and mostly curved shapes – as distinct from rectilinear geometry and ombre. It is possible to dress Kawaii with a mere two contrasting colors, if the shapes are right, or compose a monochrome outfit with lace and chiffon that hints at vintage fashions.
Here’s an article with some of the history of the rise of Kawaii. And here’s another that offers a critique of some aspects of the Kawaii culture from a feminist point-of-view. For many people, especially in the West, the enjoyment of the aesthetic is purely visceral and about the fun, rather than an entire lifestyle, and perhaps need not pick up all the cultural baggage.
How to bring a little Kawaii into your life
- Choose a color, like pastel pink, and mix different sizes of gingham and plaids, for garments, or soft furnishings – some draperies or a mix of pillows.
- Hearts are a popular image to use in fabric prints or wall art.
- Choose a character and collect or make items with that image. Aside from the ubiquitous Hello Kitty and her friends, you might consider the images from Studio Ghibli films, or such characters as Sailor Moon, and the numerous Pokémon.
- Consider textiles – the designs tend to be colorful and graphic, with characters even more stylized than usual. Tip: Look for sheets, including kids’ ones with characters, to use as drapery or throw pillows, or even as framed panels on a wall. Try covering a number of canvas panels with fabrics, scaling your canvas to the size of the images, to make a series of wall art pieces.