Gudetama: "Pepper" (Screenshot: YouTube)

Apart from Eeyore, Droopy, and maybe a couple of low-energy Smurfs, there aren’t too many sad, mopey characters in the pantheon of Western animation. Cartoon characters tend to be upbeat, confident, and bursting with energy. Things are a little different over in Japan, however, where the public’s heart has recently been stolen by a character called Gudetama, an indolent, anthropomorphic egg yolk who may be suffering from clinical depression. Debuting in 2015, Gudetama is the creation of Sanrio Co., Ltd., the Japanese company famous for creating Hello Kitty and other cute mascots whose images appear on toys, stationery, school supplies, and assorted bric-a-brac. But why has Japan embraced Gudetama, the little egg yolk who literally can’t even? In a report for PRI’s The World, reporter Patrick Winn tries to explain the character’s vast appeal, which even now is spreading to other countries.

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A typical Gudetama “adventure” might go something like this: The yolk is sprawled out on a plate, seemingly destined to become part of someone’s delicious breakfast, when a giant human hand reaches in and sprinkles him with pepper. Gudetama is about to sneeze but can’t maintain his enthusiasm for even this and simply gives up. Winn argues that the character is popular because it captures “that feeling where you want to retreat into your shell.” Perhaps the character is a manifestation of the alienation of modern man in these increasingly isolated times. But it should also be noted that sad cartoon characters are more commonplace in Japan. Matt Alt, an expert on Japanese pop culture, explains the situation to Winn this way:

Many Japanese mascots will express emotions that Western mascots would not. In the West, mascots are used almost exclusively to cheer people up. In Japan, they’re often used to get a point across or act as mediators in situations where you wouldn’t want to express yourself directly.

As an example of this phenomenon, Winn says that a Japanese instruction manual for a stereo might include “a picture of a cartoon stereo with water splashing on it, and this stereo is screaming out in pain.” But the negative emotions being expressed by Gudetama are universal, especially among “angsty teens.” For that reason, it’s possible that the yolk might become an international sensation.

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