L.A.'s Hello Kitty retrospective: cartoons with a side of concentration camp history

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The recent Hello Kitty Con–a massive gathering of the immortal Sanrio character’s biggest fans—only marked the beginnings of the pop culture icon’s celebration in Los Angeles. For another five months, until April 26, 2015, the city’s Japanese American National Museum hosts a pilgrimage-worthy exhibition: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty.

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The exhibit doesn’t do much to quell that confusion over Hello Kitty’s species that lit up the internet this past summer. See this wall text that maddeningly refers to her as a “girl,” even though officials clarified to Kotaku she was, indeed, a cat (more or less).

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What it does accomplish, though, is to deftly turn a bunch of consumer products into a kind of sociological study that traces societal shifts.

See, for example, this vignette about Sanrio’s insistence on making paper products for handwritten communication in a digital age:

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Or, for another, this room that traces celebrities’ obsession with Hello Kitty, but also our obsession with celebrities and their possessions, full stop.

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A room featuring contemporary artists' takes on Hello Kitty includes all kinds of philosophical statements for you to tease out.

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Parts of the exhibit are arranged thematically, and the whole thing moves somewhat roughly chronologically. About halfway though, for instance, we reach the part where Hello Kitty reclaimed her cultural identity—the point at which Sanrio started nodding at its Japanese roots, rather than always aiming for country-less appeal.

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It’s unsurprising, though, that an exhibit about a cartoon character that’s existed longer than most of us reading this will also get you right in the feels.

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There’s the fact that if you were ever a Sanrio fan, you’ll spend a lot of time wandering through the glass cases, looking for discontinued stuff you owned when it was new.

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And then there are the oddly poignant moments, like this vignette documenting Hello Kitty fandom through “life’s stages.” There are wedding champagne glasses, baby stuff, and then … a walker … and then … yes, a grave statuette. Dang, Sanrio. Dang, museum.

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But that’s not the real emotional coup de grace by Hello!. That comes actually right outside the exhibit’s doors.

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Once you hit the second floor of the whole thing, there are technically two ways to exit, but the most logical one following the flow of the exhibit leads you past this awesome Hello-Kitty-as-Sphinx statue.…

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…and into a section of the museum’s long-term exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community. It focuses largely on the U.S.’ long-running racism against Asians, and a detailed history of post-WWII Japanese internment camps. Come for the cartoons, stay for the stark reminder that concentration camps existed on our soil, and some of our grandparents might have lived in them.

Whoa. Nice one, Japanese American National Museum, for not-so-subtly showing us how dramatically cultural tides can change, and how it’s important not to forget our country’s darkest moments. Heavy stuff to take in while you’re wearing a free set of cardboard cat ears, but you’ve got to take the sweet with the sour.

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Hello! The Supercute World of Hello Kitty runs at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles through April 26, 2015. Visit janm.org for more details.

Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.

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