Gudetama is a sad egg yolk crippled by existential despair, and since the illustrated character debuted a year ago, it’s taken Japan by storm.
Companies are forever finding ways to harness emotions like lust, love, anger to make us spend. But is melancholy marketable? Judging from Gudetama’s widespread popularly (which has even reached the US: Hot Topic sells tees featuring the despondent yolk) it seems that the answer is yes.
This lethargic egg is a product of Sanrio, the Tokyo-based corporation behind Hello Kitty which creates characters in order to license out their images. Hello Kitty is valued at a staggering $7 billion—she appears on lunch boxes, bags, stationery, and glittery iPhone cases around the world—and now Gudetama is following suit.
There’s not only pyjama sets of gooey Gudetama, but also yellow and white skateboards, yolk-colored tents, woolly hats in the shape of shells, and Gudetama themed cafes spread across Tokyo.
In its animations and comics, the depressed egg shivers with sadness. It wraps itself in a strip of bacon like it’s the duvet of a bed it can’t escape. Rather than engage in its surroundings, Gudetama hides its head in a fragile eggshell and mutters: “Cold world. What can we do it about it?”
So why did a billion dollar corporation decide to market an anthropomorphic embodiment of severe depression? And what does Gudetama reveal about the generation that champions it? Today we catch up with Amy, the head designer of Gudetama, to find out more about the character’s origins, its design, and the general process of creating and marketing at Sanrio.
How did you get the idea for Gudetama?
I was trying to come up with something for a Sanrio in-house competition, where we had to design food characters. I was eating a raw egg on rice at home one morning and thought to myself that the egg was kind of cute, but entirely unmotivated and indifferent as well.
Eggs are phenomenal! The taste, lustre, nutritional value, and countless ways they can be prepared make eggs great, but for me, eggs that are relegated to the fate of being eaten also seemed despairing… They seem entirely absent from any effort or energy, almost as if they were sick of the competitive world around them.
The personality I was imagining seemed to me to parallel people in modern society who despair amid economic hard times and who are talented but don’t feel like throwing themselves into anything.
That’s interesting that you designed Gudetama with a particularly timely set of emotions in mind—it’s why the character is so popular. Sanrio describes Gudetama as depicted in various states of depression and general apathy. What research have you done to inform the mental health issues that feature in Gudetama animations?
I try to reflect images of the people of modern society that I see in the news. I also draw on the so-called “Yutori” generation of people that have graduated from a good university but in economically challenging times, so feel hopeless and just cannot be bothered to make an effort.
And why did you design the character in the way that you did?
Well, Sanrio has other characters that are not cute or friendly looking. Kuromi and Badtz-Maru for example are two mischievous characters with large followings. This made me think that not all characters have to be happy and cute. That’s how I first approached the design. Then also Gudetama is an unfertilized egg and devoid of gender.
Tell me about all of the designers behind Gudetama. How large is the team?
There are many, many people working on Gudetama. I am the head designer behind it but many people are involved, with me at the center.
Apart from our headquarters in Tokyo, we also have overseas subsidiaries. We plan products internally with Sanrio characters and sell our products in one of two ways: one being sold by us, the other via licensing agreements with other companies, or licensees. Both of these channels have several people working on Gudetama.
The people working on Gudetama run the gamut: there’s product planners, product designers, product planners for licensees, individuals in charge of design, external animators and script writers, people in charge of shows at Sanrio-run theme parks, the people who formulate Gudetama café menus and more.
It’s interesting that the characters at Sanrio get licensed out to other companies—do you therefore try to design them so that others can easily follow guidelines?
Most Gudetama designs we draw in-house, so there is not really much of an intention or awareness of crafting something that is easy for other people to draw. That’s really true for most Sanrio characters, which we tend to design so that they can be easily recognized as Sanrio characters. In doing so we trim away superfluous elements and end up with simple designs.
And can you tell me about the process behind making the Gudetama animations, is that in-house?
The in-house design team writes four-frame comics and use these as a jumping off point for consulting with animators in the anime meeting, where we collaborate with animators and production companies.
It is a collaborative process. Mostly we want it to be something easily relatable, and also place importance on Gudetama’s jiggly bottom!
Who is the human figure that features in the animations and on products? Why is he accompanying Gudetama the whole time?
I’m not sure how best to phrase this… but I would say that the person is a presence that does for Gudetama what Gudetama doesn’t have the energy to do or simply can’t do.
It’s a character that appeared in a four-frame comic I wrote without much thought. In it, the young man encountered Gudetama and became nearly neurotic to the point where he had dreams in which he saw himself as Gudetama, and in his mind this took on a life of its own.
Today this has moved beyond his mind to the real world and he has become a character with a very versatile presence who has fun promoting, dancing and doing other things in place of Gudetama. I made him on a whim, without thinking!
What’s your favorite thing about working on Gudetama?
Creating new designs is extremely fun. I get really obsessed with making the lines for its bottom.
And the most challenging?
One challenge is when Gudetama has to do weird things at events, like crashing parades at Sanrio Puroland, etc. Also, in our anime meetings, it’s tricky to come up with proposals that are socially acceptable for broadcast.
When you first thought of Gudetama that morning while eating breakfast, did you expect for it would become so popular?
At the outset, I never dreamed that Gudetama would become so loved and pervasive. When it debuted, I wondered if it might end up a flash in the pan.
Eggs have expiration dates, but Gudetama’s shelf life seems to be holding up quite well.