Gotta face ‘em all: Pokémon, Japanese animated characters, and the emergence of playful visual animism
As a result of technological innovations and new cultural practices, the contemporary mediasphere is increasingly populated by digital(ized) faces. The phenomenon is not limited to human faces, but includes a vast universe of fictional animated faces, variously called ‘characters’, ‘mascots’ or ‘kyara’. In Japan, while certainly not new, kyara have been spreading thanks to globalization, digitalization and media-mix strategies. Through the connection between visual design, fictional narratives and socio-cultural consumption, kyara can be considered semiotic figures of in-betweenness, key symbolic mediators in the Japanese mediascape. Their anthropomorphic face design mediates the cultural boundaries between the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate, nature and culture. Furthermore, their post-modern narratives mix inspiration from the past and the present, from myths to science fiction. Lastly, they involve an encyclopedic reworking between fiction and reality, mythical references and secularization, between the domains of seriousness and playful make-believe. The article aims to explore the semiotic dimensions of kyara in contemporary Japan, with emphasis on their logic of representation and cultural outcomes. These will be investigated through the analysis of the Pokémon franchise, which will make it possible to describe the emergence of new semiotic patterns of ‘playful visual animism’ in the process of media facialization of everyday life.