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How Gudetama, a lazy egg yolk with a butt, became an unstoppable cultural phenomenon

Ah, Gudetama! Ah, humanity!

It’s hard to tell at a glance, but Gudetama is an egg yolk with a butt crack. It’s a fictional character of sorts, one with limbs but no fingers or toes. It has a mouth but no obvious teeth. It has thighs but no visible joints, a head but no neck. Its eyes look like sesame seeds. It has no gender.

To the naked eye, it could easily be mistaken for a golden bean, a kernel of corn, or an unappealing drop of honey. But Gudetama isn’t any of those — because that would make too much sense for a success story that, on its surface, shouldn’t make any sense at all.

Gudetama is a relatively recent addition to the Sanrio universe — which, until recent memory, revolved around the tiny-eyed, red-hair-bow-wearing being known as Hello Kitty. It’s also the company’s most popular character in recent memory, even though its blob-like appearance is the antithesis of Sanrio’s historical emphasis on cuteness.

Where Hello Kitty and her compatriots like Keroppi (a frog that looks more like the owner of an old-fashioned ice cream shop than an amphibian) are known for bringing adorable charm to items like lunchboxes, luggage, T-shirts, and toothbrushes and evoking warmth from the coldest of hearts, Gudetama, hatched in 2013, was born into a world it would prefer to avoid.

Gudetama looks like a character someone gave up on, and yet people cannot get enough of it. But Gudetama’s looks are just a fraction of its appeal. Its main attraction is its apathetic personality.

Gudetama can talk (in short sentences), move (more like wiggle), emote (only pain), and breathe (particularly when it sleeps). Though it can do these things and has the potential for more, it would rather not. Each new day is one more chance for Gudetama to experience life on the lowest setting, and its ultimate pleasure is in doing nothing.

Gudetama is Melville’s Bartleby in unfertilized yolk form.

It may seem weird that an idle egg could inspire such widespread affection. But the response stems from a combination of the character’s relatability, its need to be cared for, and the way it challenges us to rethink what we find cute. Gudetama and its popularity are part of a more expansive cultural movement — a reaction to life that’s been punctuated by uncertainty, turbulence, and outrage.

Gudetama’s origin story is about coming in second, and thriving anyway

Since its creation, Gudetama has been a loser.

In 2013, Sanrio held a competition in Japan to come up with a food-based character. Contests like these serve two purposes: to help the company’s designers find a creative spark, and to serve as a trial balloon for potential new characters before Sanrio sinks money into their corresponding merchandise. Fans voted, and Gudetama actually placed second, losing out to a cheerful salmon filet named Kirimichan.

“We actually started to release products based on the salmon filet and its friends,” Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s vice president of marketing and brand management, told me. “Gudetama the lazy egg actually came in second, but we [still] released products based on Gudetama, and they really, really took off. It has really, really expanded and blown up over the last year.”

Kirimichan.
Sanrio

Marchi is being humble.

A glance at the sad pocket of the Sanrio website where Kirimichan and its perpetual smile lives in loneliness shows that there are only two Kirimichan items for sale. Gudetama has 115, including a skateboard, a desk fan, and a talking tissue box cover, in addition to more typical apparel and plushes. Hello Kitty, Sanrio’s flagship character, has 226.

Gudetama-themed merchandise is sold at other stores too, including teenage angst supplier Hot Topic. And as the Wall Street Journal reported in January, “Since the egg’s introduction two years ago, Sanrio has shipped 1,700 variations of Gudetama-themed items in Japan, ranging from socks to soy sauce to suitcases.”

Though Sanrio hasn’t revealed its exact sales figures, Marchi also notes customers who are interested in Gudetama are “definitely skewing a little bit of an older demographic, but I know 7-year-olds who have a Gudetama plush because they think it's a cute, funny blob of an egg.”

Gudetama’s slow-boil win and older fan base make sense when you think about the character. In a contest based strictly on cuteness, Kirimichan wins (just as it did in Sanrio’s 2013 character contest) because that’s all Kirimichan is — a cute, smiling salmon filet and self-proclaimed “star in the sliced food world.”

But Gudetama is much, much more.

The true appeal of Gudetama is its personality

What sets Gudetama apart from the rest of Sanrio’s roster is the personal connection many of its fans feel to the character. You wouldn’t necessarily pick up on this or understand it if someone were just to show you a picture of the egg. The connection comes from videos of Gudetama in which it, well, does nothing. Sanrio created a video series — which you can find on YouTube — of brief vignettes that chronicle Gudetama’s low-effort life. The videos reveal Gudetama’s lack of zeal in ways that images can’t fully grasp.

“I think particularly with Gudetama and the attitude that we see from it, it's a little bit different,” Marchi said. “It's a little bit lazy, it's a little bit melancholy, it's a little Who cares? and has an almost tired, sleepy, lazy, whatever attitude, which can be shared with many people, whether you're a 14-year-old or a 34-year-old or a 50-year-old.”

The name “Gudetama” combines the Japanese phrase “gude gude,” which means lazy, with “tama,” a shortened form of “tamago,” the Japanese word for egg. “Lazy” undersells Gudetama a bit, in the way “rain” undersells “deluge.”

Gudetama is perpetually weary. It’s (Gudetama is not fertilized and has no gender, according to Sanrio) too tired to sneeze, too tired to be consumed, too tired to be fried, and, a lot of times, too tired to literally come out of its shell. It uses strips of bacon as blankets and steaks as pillows. It always talks about going home, but never really elaborates on where that would be.

Life for Gudetama, which mainly consists of lying on a plate, is largely unbearable.

Any effort at all is synonymous with pain. The only thing worse than effort is the effort required to complain about said effort. Gudetama is the Tony Robbins of doing nothing. You can be idle at everything, if you just set your mind to it.

In its unwillingness to do anything, Gudetama has cobbled together a personality from its debilitating inactivity. This unmotivated attitude has earned it a variety of titles, ranging from the “Hello Kitty for millennials” to the much more general “hero,” and humankind has created homages to the character in the form of a café and a themed flight from Tokyo to Taipei.

Gudetama shows how complex Japan’s “kawaii” culture has become, and how basic American cuteness is

To understand Gudetama is to understand that the American concept of cuteness is flat. In America, what you see is essentially what you get.

“Character culture in America and Western culture is still very black and white,” Aya Kakeda, a cartooning expert and faculty member at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, told me. “A villain is a villain, and a hero is a hero. Cute characters are a symbol of sweetness or goodness. You can see it in their appearance. The same with ‘bad’ characters.”

A classic example: most vintage Disney movies. It’s easy to spot the villains because they’re usually ugly (Snow White’s Evil Queen), purposely gross (The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch), and/or draped in shadows and dark colors (The Lion King’s Scar). The “bad guys” in Disney movies, but also in other popular properties Looney Tunes (see: Wile. E. Coyote) and Rainbow Brite (see: Murky Dismal) are meant to be identified as evil, are evil all the time, and are never cute.

Kakeda says this is slowly changing (she cites South Park as an American example of a property that mixes cuteness and gruesomeness), but in Japan there’s more of a gray area, and it’s been building for years. When discussing cuteness in Japan, the catchall phrase is “kawaii,” a term that emerged in the 1970s, according to Sharon Kinsella of the University of Manchester. The basic tenet of kawaii is that it’s a childlike sense of cute.

“Kawaii isn’t just any kind of cute,” Alissa Freedman, a professor of Japanese literature and film at the University of Oregon, told me. “It’s a very vulnerable kind of cute. It’s like, you’re so cute people want to take care of you. It inspires us to care for them.”

Recently, according to Kakeda, the concept of kawaii has become more fragmented, resulting in different subgroups of kawaii.

“For example there is kimo-kawaii [which is sometimes also called gro-kawaii] — kimo means grotesque,” Kakeda told me. “There is something scary and grotesque about [a kimo-kawaii character], but it also carries the same cuteness.”

The American example she cites is Spongebob Squarepants, with his bulging eyes and trypophobia-inducing skin. Kakeda also cites Japanese characters called “Kobito Zukan,” which are like tiny dwarves or gnomes — some, like Gudetama, also have strange butts. This one, as the official Kobitos website tells me, likes to suck the sugar out of peaches:

Kobitos

The kimo-kawaii concept doesn’t just revolve around appearance, Kakeda notes. One of Japan’s more popular kimo-kawaii characters is “Gloomy Bear.” Created by artist Mori Chack, Gloomy Bear looks like it could be friends with Hello Kitty and the rest of the Sanrio universe. But one look at its bloody claws reveals that the character is capable of bloody violence, which it usually directs at a boy named Pitty, its owner:

Gloomy Bear’s juxtaposition of bloodiness and cuteness is what Kakeda is getting at when she describes what’s missing from American character culture, where cute creatures typically aren’t capable of being anything but good and ugly always connotes evilness. It also shows how broad, and alternately how narrow, kawaii can be.

Gudetama exhibits elements of kimo-kawaii. It’s not traditionally cute, and skews more toward Spongebob than Hello Kitty in its appearance. Its attitude isn’t very childlike or happy. Additionally, Gudetama exhibits traits of another subset of kawaii, “yuru-kawaii.”

“Yuru means loose, relaxed, and calm,” Kakeda told me. “This category grew popular because of the stressful life in modern society. People are always searching for something to make them calm and relaxed. In the US, perhaps people search for spa or meditation classes. In Japan, there are Yuru characters who make you calm and relaxed just by looking at them.”

The epitome of yuru-kawaii is a bear known as Rilakkuma, a creation from Sanrio’s rival, the Japanese stationery company San-X. Rilakkuma’s name means “bear in a relaxed mood,” and the character leads a stress-free life. Pictures do not lie:

It took approximately 14 seconds of staring at this cute motherfucker for me to fall in love. My heartbeat slowed. My breathing got deeper. I forgot about the laundry I have to do and the dishes in my sink. I let go of my work-related anxiety. I just imagined myself as the tiny yellow bird, wearing a tiny outfit, hanging out with my two bear pals and just enjoying a cozy life. Staring at this bear made me feel better.

When Kakeda explains the difference between Rilakkuma and Gudetama, she uses the word “negative” to differentiate the two. It’s an apt distinction. Rilakkuma is about the positivity of relaxation. Gudetama isn’t so much about relaxation as about the unbearableness of the world around it. Gudetama, in its golden nakedness, questions the meaning of life.

If idleness is true bliss, Gudetama asks, then isn’t anything more than that painful?

Gudetama is so goddamn popular because of the turmoil that exists all around us

Artistic cuteness, as myriad Japanese artists and academics have theorized, doesn’t just happen in a bubble. Cuteness is a reaction. In Japan, the kawaii culture and concept is often linked to the country’s post-WWII years. The idea is that because of its trauma and defeat, the country leaned into its vulnerability — with vulnerability becoming a crucial element in the basic definition of kawaii.

Sanrio’s Marchi notes that though Gudetama has been popular in Japan since it was first introduced, it’s really begun to find its American audience over the past year or so. That lines up with a period that many Americans believe was one of the worst in recent memory.

In the past 18 months, Americans have witnessed the deaths of pop culture icons, political upheaval, and seismic shifts in the country’s foreign policy. A never-ending news cycle has been punctuated by repeated stories of police brutality, divisive political rhetoric that devolved into bigotry, hate crimes and a focus on white supremacist groups, and mass shootings like the one that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Politically, Americans are more divided than ever, and we’re also more connected than ever, making it nearly impossible to escape the relentlessness of 2016.

And culture has responded to the tumultuous, uncertain state of the world by shining a spotlight on the idea of “self-care.” There’s been a rise in people’s fascination with hygge, the Danish concept of impossible coziness — a kind of intangible umami for the soul derived from fires, blankets, and hot cocoa. In Japan, there’s a burgeoning new concept of Otonamaki, in which grown adults wrap themselves in a tight cloth pouch (they resemble human dumplings) for 20 minutes at a time to relieve stress.

And think about how many cute videos, pictures, and GIFs have been touted as “self-care” of late — as in “21 Heartwarming Dogs That Are Guaranteed To Make Your Day Better,” or “We All Need This Cute Animal 'Tweet-Off' Right Now.” In that context, Gudetama’s popularity makes a lot of sense.

When we share cute pictures of a puppy or kitten with our friends or post them on social media, we’re not only sending out an image of an adorable animal that needs to be cared for; we’re sending the message that we, too, are cute and want to be loved. When we share someone else’s cute animal video, we’re implicitly saying that this video, photo, meme, or GIF made us feel good or better, and suggesting that other people might need it too.

Similarly, feeling an emotional response to Gudetama videos and then sharing them with your friends is a way to say you’re over it, or that you literally just can’t with this world anymore. When every headline you read seems crazier than the last, wanting to escape into Gudetama’s world of breakfast and baseline existence doesn’t seem that weird.

As Freedman puts it, “Curl under your bacon blanket and don’t come out.”

It’s telling that Sanrio’s latest character is more like Gudetama than Hello Kitty

“I definitely see some associations that if someone was pretty much over everything that was going on in 2016, Gudetama would be a fairly relatable character in that aspect,” Sanrio’s Marchi told me. “On the same side, I've also seen in a lot of people if they were not necessarily having a great 2016, they could turn to a character such as Gudetama or even Hello Kitty for that instance and find at least some sort of emotional connection.”

But there’s a gulf of difference between Gudetama and Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty is both more traditionally cute than Gudetama and somewhat emotionless — she doesn’t even have a mouth to smile or frown with. That makes her more of a blank canvas; she can be whatever we want her to be. But many people feel a connection with Gudetama because of its specific personality.

And Sanrio has started to capitalize on this response.

Last year, the company introduced Aggretsuko — the word “aggressive” combined with the proper name Retsuko — to its English-speaking audience. Aggretsuko is a red panda with an office job, complete with annoying co-workers. To blow off steam, she spends her nights drinking and singing death metal at karaoke bars (as seen in the video above).

Aggretsuko is fascinating in that she, according to Freedman, is a gentle parody of the Japanese working woman archetype called the “OL,” or office lady, which popped up in the ’80s. OLs were women employees in “pink collar” or service jobs who were assumed to have a polite, demure personality. Aggretsuko tears down that stereotype, showing us she’s more than just “polite.” Indeed, she’s completely honest about how the arduous the task of putting up with her annoying co-workers can be.

And while Aggretsuko is playing off a docile, nostalgic Japanese figure that many Americans probably aren’t familiar with, her frustration and the crevasse between one’s work self and one’s true self is universal.

Though her personality is nothing like that of Gudetama, Aggretsuko is part of its odd and important legacy. The lazy egg with a butt has changed Sanrio’s concept of cute, as well as people’s response to it.

Cute is more than just a look. It has the power to change us, be the salve to our greatest frustrations and fears, and perhaps show us something in ourselves that we didn’t know we needed — especially if your true self is an egg with a butt and a distaste for life.