Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn
Previously on “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker”
Alexius confessed his derision for cuteness, the result of intensive study of too much postmodern art. Unable to appreciate the most precious cat video without the claws of guilt raking at his heart, he vented his well-mannered contempt for all thing round-eyed and sparkly on this very weblog, aided by his trusty editor. Is there hope for our persnickety panthera tigris? Will he ever escape the clutches of the land of hungry ghosts? Will he find a piece of art that gives the lie to his hatred of cuteness? Find out on this episode of “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker: Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn!”
Production values got a serious notch-upping for this special Saturday edition. Most of what I said in the first post in this series will survive the acid test I’m giving in this post. Or so I believe. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my aversion to the infantilization of humans when being represented in art. That said, I have discovered an artifact in this nether region, this hell of hunger. This artifact is quite possibly the cutest show I have ever endured beyond its first episode. Its cuteness is neither stealthy nor perverse. It comes not armed with the daggers of self-referential subversion or under the auspices of high art. Behold.
A morsel of zoological slice-of-life courtesy of manga artist Aloha Higa and animation studio Pierrot Studios, しろくまカフェ、hereafter referred to as Polar Bear Café, contains only brief glimpses of tigers as far as I can tell. Despite this lack of representation by nature’s noblest animal, the show managed to tickle several of my fancies. I’ll never claim that this show rearranged my conception of human-animal relations or upset my preconceived notions about Japanese animation. That said, it has prodded a deep vein of appreciation just enough to irritate me. Why is something so pleasurable so irritating, I ask myself? The reason is that it’s so cute.
And I like that it’s cute. Why? Why why why?
After recollecting myself, I have come to the following conclusion: I need to amend previous statements re: cuteness to include more nuance, especially when dealing with Japanese animated television programs featuring startling naturalistic animals interacting with humans and having quaint little adventures centred around a café run by a polar bear who loves puns and what am I even now saying? Have I lost all sense? Is there no balm in Gilead? Why do the wicked and the purveyors of cuteness prosper while the austere suffer, O Lord?
Let’s break this all down.
Polar Bear Café, as previously mentioned, is a quiet, modest show mainly revolving around the interactions between the three animals you see above. The tall white one is named Polar Bear, the short beaked one is named Penguin, and the rather rotund fellow on Polar Bear’s right hand side is Panda. There are a few main reasons why I have a high level of affection for this show, starting with–
1. The Vibe
Once-a-time, there were good comic strips. Comic strips that were printed on pulp paper harvested from trees, created as an enticement for people to buy newspapers and to keep reading them after being bored with reading editorials about sidewalk repair petitions and axe murderer epidemics (depending on the neighbourhood) but before indulging in the sweetly morbid pleasures of the obituaries. Oftentimes, the obituaries were funnier than the comics. Sometimes, once in a few decades, however, a comic strip could be consistently funny.
Now, newspaper comic strips tend to work best with simple concepts that can generate a variety of broadly relatable situations and humour. We thank God for the exceptions, of course, but even some of the best strips work with positively skeletal conceptual overhead. Calvin and Hobbes is about a six-year-old and his [imaginary?] tiger friend. Peanuts is about neighbourhood kids with big heads and diagnosable neuroses. When Foxtrot was good, though I am beginning to suspect it never actually was, it was about a family consisting of broad stereotypes who happened to be funny and occasionally well-written. Polar Bear Café has the same whimsical, domesticated vibe that you find in Calvin and Hobbes, though without quite the same spark of imagination or observational acuity. Nothing overly extraordinary happens except as it relates to the bizarre juxtaposition of these quite naturalistic animals and their mild-mannered and (mostly) civilized ways.
For instance, though Panda loves, like a real giant panda, to chomp down on mounds of fresh bamboo and romps around naked as the day he was born, he also orders iced coffees without any apparent digestive consequences. He accidentally scratches people with his real, sharp claws, but can use a smartphone and rather vainly likes to collect kitschy panda knickknacks like his ubiquitous satchel. This is a world where animals in the zoo are more like paid entertainers than prisoners or reproductive organs of last reserve for their species. Panda gets a part-time job working for the zoo, and considers it labour despite the fact that he sleeps through many of his shifts. A shoebill can be the editor and chief of a culinary magazine, a human woman named Sasako can be an employee in a nine-foot-tall bear’s organic, all-natural café.
The tone of the show is gentle without being inert. There is no “social commentary” or anything that could be considered an explicitly political point of view, but it has a sharp wit and strong characters out of whom some great humour emerges. Polar Bear’s compulsive embellishment of stories, incomparable pun-based repartee, and boundless generosity can only be endearing. Even the straight-man of this story, Penguin, is plagued by Little Red-Haired Girl syndrome, dreaming of romancing a female penguin who works in a local bakery but lacking the courage (so far) to do so. The show keeps its stories short, is utterly without aspirations to greatness, and never gets close to insulting the intelligence. The vibe is quaint and small, but it’s charming at the same time.
2. Naturalistic Cuteness
Ah, but what of the crux of the matter? What about the show’s brush with cuteness? Admittedly, if it were only a brush I would not have been so irritated. Instead, I find myself inundated by cuteness. In addition to the vibe of the show being winning rather than cloying, the design of the show contributes to my enjoyment of even its cuteness. Each animal has been inserted into the show with its physical attributes pretty well intact. Bears have claws and teeth. Llamas are llamas. Penguins have flippers (leading to some frustration in using the latest smartphone). None of the animals are turned into amorphous fluff-balls, and none is treated as cute unless, well, look at him:
That is a panda demonstrating to his mother how penguins can use smartphones with their beaks. Even I, the most curmudgeonly tiger to walk the realms of the blessed and the damned, cannot deny that this is cute. This is (I hiss) precious. While panda fans might object and say that the show is draining the dignity from China’s favourite layabout, allow me to present the following assessment: pandas have no dignity. They are sex-averse, clumsy excuses for bears who munch on grass and often roll over their own offspring, who are comically tiny and helpless. Sorry, but while I understand why they are cute they are only cute insofar as they are ridiculous. And this is the key: the cuteness is, despite the surface implausibility of the above image and the premise of the show, natural. The cuteness is not turning what should be at least marginally impressive beasts or people into cooing, dunderheaded eye-candy for squealing boys, girls, and sad adults the world over.
Cuteness, too, has a place in this world. It can be empathetic or insightful, reflective of truth and not merely empty distortion. It’s not just a weak spot that humans’ pet cats abuse to turns themselves into pampered royalty. It is that, but it can be more. When contextualized correctly and accompanied by a measured, intelligent approach to situational humour or (maybe) even drama, cuteness can invite us to nobler emotions than squee. Sometimes, we need that affirmation of cuteness in our critical vocabulary, because that is the only honest response. What is more horrifying is: that’s a good thing. Now let me sleep on that.
Not all eyes that glitter are creepy
Not all cuteness is unsettling
Recite this like a mantra, fellow ghosts. It’s going to be a long winter ahead.