An ambitious penguin and a lazy egg are bringing joy to stressed adults.
In 2019, K-pop megastars BTS became the first group since The Beatles to achieve three number one albums in less than a year. As they broke records and racked up awards, the seven-member band seemed unstoppable. Until they were brought back down to Earth by a shock upset.
In South Korea’s Persons of the Year competition, BTS lost out to an unlikely newcomer. The underdog in question was in fact more of an underbird – a penguin named Pengsoo.
Created by educational broadcaster EBS, Pengsoo has a gruff voice and a hunger for fame. According to their backstory, the 10-year-old, 6-foot-10 emperor penguin grew up in Antarctica but was shunned by the other penguins due to their size.
After swimming all the way to South Korea to begin a new life, Pengsoo joined EBS as a trainee.
The penguin’s quest to become a universal superstar is documented in weekly episodes on the YouTube channel Giant Peng TV, which has more than 1.87 million subscribers.
The character has generated millions of dollars in revenue for EBS and other licensees, and Pengsoo’s expressionless eyes, pink cheeks and trademark yellow headphones can be found on everything from cakes to toilet seats.
Proud to be peng-self
Although Giant Peng TV was originally aimed at children, Pengsoo’s fan base, known as the Peng Club, is mostly adults in their twenties and thirties.
Dr Eunseon Kim is the Deputy Director of the ANU Korea Institute and a self-confessed Pengsoo enthusiast. She even has custom Pengsoo emojis on one of her messaging apps.
“I’ve never followed a character before,” Kim says, “but I got hooked after watching a couple of videos.”
While part of Pengsoo’s appeal is their talent —the penguin raps, yodels and dances with the nimbleness of a K-pop star — Kim says the character has become popular because they’re not afraid to be who they are. Pengsoo is boastful, greedy and petty, and doesn’t care who knows it.
“Young adults in Korea find it intimidating to express themselves. You’re expected to listen to others,” she says.
“Pengsoo is only 10 years old and has no trouble expressing themselves and I think people live vicariously through that. Many fans say they can cry and laugh with Pengsoo, meaning they find consolation as well as joy.”
Korean society is rigidly hierarchical and younger people are expected to be deferential to their elders, which can mean keeping quiet about their own opinions and emotions. But Pengsoo is famous for cider comments, a colloquial term for straight talking, especially when speaking to people of a more senior rank.
“There’s so much social pressure on people to behave in a particular way in South Korea,” Professor Roald Maliangkay, an East Asia pop culture expert at the ANU School of Culture, History and Language (CHL), says.
“I think there was space for a character that expresses frustration and doesn’t follow expectations. People were ready for a refreshing sort of anti-hero.”
Life is stressful. Cuteness makes people feel happy, safe and relaxed.”—Emi Yoshida
Another character celebrated for speaking its mind is Gudetama, a cartoon created by Japanese company Sanrio. Typically depicted as an egg yolk with a distinct butt crack, Gudetama’s name translates as ‘lazy egg.’
The apathetic egg was created by Sanrio designer AMY in response to a call out from the company for food-based characters.
Although the contest was won by a perky salmon fillet named Kirimi-chan, it did not take long for Gudetama to eclipse Kirimi’s popularity. Gudetama branding has appeared on planes and trains, and themed cafes have popped up in Taipei, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
The lazy egg, who likes to use a strip of bacon as a blanket, has been the star of an animated series since 2014 and will soon star in its own Netflix show, Gudetama: An Eggcellent Adventure.
Lazy is the new busy
Gudetama’s melancholy and lack of motivation have struck a chord with burnt-out millennials around the world, but in its native Japan its declarations of lethargy have a particular significance, Japanese language tutor Emi Yoshida says.
“In Japanese society, you have to be careful with what you say and don’t say because it’s your duty to keep harmony with others.”
A scene from Gudetama: An Eggcellent Adventure. Photo: Netflix
“Sometimes we get really stressed by the fact that we can’t speak our minds and communicate our true feelings. Gudetama says what it thinks and that strength of feeling really resonates with people.”
Unsurprisingly, Gudetama’s half-hearted declarations are popular on social media. Its not-so-motivational pearls of wisdom include “Lazy is the new busy” and “You are what you meh-nifest”.
On Twitter, the little egg critiques the conformity of Japan’s collectivistic culture and complains how difficult it is to be respected as an individual. For many, there’s something cathartic about having these often-suppressed thoughts articulated by such a cute character.
“Fans are often saying that they are healed and comforted by Gudetama,” Yoshida says.
The chronology of cuteness
The appreciation of cuteness, or kawaii, is an intrinsic part of contemporary Japanese culture. Yoshida believes Japan may have been the first country in the world where it became socially acceptable for adults to openly find enjoyment in cute things.
She says the roots of kawaii can be traced back to the early 1900s, when artists Yumeji Takehisa and Katsuji Matsumoto found popularity for their illustrations of girls and young women with baby-faced features.
“The type of character creation that engenders this need to look after the character in question is very much Japanese; they have cracked the algorithm of cuteness and it’s partly why Japanese animation has been so culturally influential,” Maliangkay says.
Yoshida also believes Japanese spiritual beliefs contribute to the country’s love of cuteness. The personalisation of inanimate objects, animals – and eggs – comes from the Shinto tradition that gods or spirits can be found everywhere and so must be treated with compassion.
When it comes to Gudetama, Maliangkay and Yoshida agree the character falls under the sub-category of kimo-kawaii. Yoshida describes it as being cute but also “yucky”, but Maliangkay is more diplomatic.
“Kimo-kawaii is something a bit more unique that may put people off,” he says. “But that’s part of the attraction.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s —the heyday of Hello Kitty, Pokémon and tamagotchis — that kawaii culture took off.
“It was a time of great change in Japan,” Yoshida says.
“The bursting of the economic bubble happened at the same that women were making inroads in society, and so companies began to use cute characters in their products to enhance their image among women as they were highly motivated to buy things.”
Professor Roald Maliangkay with his collection of designer toys. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU
“Women were feeling stressed and sought these characters to heal and comfort them.”
Until this period, Yoshida says, there was an unspoken understanding that it was taboo for adults to love childish things; similar to Western society where it can still be seen as embarrassing to find enjoyment in cute things, unless they are babies or pets.
But Kim thinks this attitude might be shifting.
“Society in general is more lenient if you have the power to own goods,” she says. “Buying collectibles is now seen as a genuine hobby.”
Maliangkay is a collector himself and has a display of designer toys in his office. He is a particular fan of Doraemon, a time-travelling robotic cat with no ears, and students and colleagues often comment on his collection.
“People don’t expect an academic to have cute characters,” he admits. “But why shouldn’t we find things cute?”
Yoshida agrees. “Life is stressful. Cuteness makes people feel happy, safe and relaxed.”
Top image: Gudetama cafe at Suntec City Mall, Singapore. Photo: Hazel P. Somera/Shutterstock.com
Additional image: Tracey Nearmy/ANU
You may also like
Netflix has heralded Squid Game as its most popular series yet, however, two ANU experts question if will it provide an enduring interest in Korean popular culture.