Your Favorite Anime Mascotby The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
Though their relative ubiquity has declined somewhat since the 90s, mascot characters have been a staple of anime forever; your first piece of anime merchandise might've likely been a Kuroneko keychain or a Keroberos plush doll. Typically the most recognizable character from any given show, mascots are usually designed with maximum cuteness to push merchandise and help popularize the show, but sometimes - sometimes - they find their way into your heart. Here are our critics' favorite mascot characters - don't forget to hop over to the forums and tell us yours!
Most mascot characters are limited by mortality. Only Haro is eternal.
A round robot with innocent Hello Kitty eyes, Haro is not only the mascot character for Mobile Suit Gundam, the first Gundam anime ever in 1979, but for almost every show in the Gundam canon after that. And like Hello Kitty, this expressionless ball has been used to project all sorts of personalities, from childish to downright psychotic. In what are otherwise serious space opera plots, this tiny bouncing ball injects ebullience and a touch of the bizarre into every series.
Haro's origin story goes something like this: teenage ace pilot (and mechanical genius) Amuro Ray invented it to serve as a virtual assistant. Haro can parrot back names or commands in a cutesy robot voice, and even fly a little by flapping the “wings” that flip up from the sides of its head. It's quickly apparent to both Amuro and viewers that this bouncing ball is more of a nuisance than anything else, and Haro's position in the rest of Mobile Suit Gundam is as a toy for children, a role which carries on to sequel Zeta Gundam and beyond. Haro branches out color-wise in Gundam 00, in which a heroic pilot works with an assisting orange Haro to do good, (and his nemesis works with her purple “Psycho Haro” to foil his plans). From there, the appearances get weird. In comedy show Superior Defender Gundam Force, an official with Haro as a head barks matter-of-fact orders from behind his blank mask. In the video game Gundam SEED: Never Ending Tomorrow, giant Haros with guileless expressions are the most difficult enemies in the entire game. In gag show Gundam San, Haro is portrayed as a down-on-his-luck actor crammed into a ball, hiding his personal troubles behind a chirpy robot voice. No other character in the franchise is this versatile, this capable of serving any number of roles.
Probably Haro is the most frequently recurring character in the entire Gundam franchise because it has served as a canvas for whatever might best serve the mood at hand—from a peppy helper, to a goofy companion, to a formidable adversary. Haro's charm lies in its ability to project anything from behind those blank dot eyes and to convey so many often contradictory things to so many different Gundam characters, directors, and viewers. For an entity that isn't even alive, who only speaks by mimicking others, Haro has left a lasting impression.
Adorable mascot characters are all well and good, but it takes more than a surplus of cuteness to make a really memorable mascot. One way to stand out is to go for sheer absurdity, as Azumanga Daioh did with the bizarre, yellowish cat creature commonly referred to as “Chiyo's dad.” He can talk, he can fly, and he can haunt your dreams at will. Now that's my kind of mascot.
Chiyo's dad initially appears in a dream sequence, where he introduces himself to Sakaki before flying away. We next see him as a stuffed animal, which Osaka gives to Chiyo as a birthday present. Stunned by the sudden blending of dreams and reality, Sakaki declares that the plush monster is, in fact, Chiyo's dad. After that, he serves as a visual stand-in any time a character imagines Chiyo's actual father in addition to making regular appearances in people's dreams. The series never makes a serious attempt to explain what Chiyo's dad really is, and that deliberate vagueness makes him all the more entertaining. Such is the power of this delightfully odd critter that he even crosses fictional universes to appear on a character's T-shirt in Yotsuba&!, Kiyohiko Azuma's other manga series.
Here's my not-so-dirty little secret: I really don't like mascot characters. I don't know why, but as a rule, they annoy me to the point of gnashing my teeth and muttering imprecations under my breath. It makes no sense, really, especially since I still have most of my childhood stuffed animals. But there you have it, so when this prompt came up, I decided to go with the one mascot character I've seen who gets what he deserves: Miton from Mahō Shōjo Nante Mō Ii Desu Kara. Miton embodies and makes fun of everything that irks me in a mascot character: he's just shy of cute while leaning towards creepy, he tries to dictate his reluctant magical girl's every move, almost everything that comes out of his mouth is irritating, and he's a totally unsubtle parody of Kyubey, the evilest of all mascots. He also spends his series getting beaten on and reprimanded by Yuzuka, his magical girl, while murmuring unflattering comments about her under his breath. Miton plays with all of the mascot tropes that make me want to scream, all without making any dumb noises like “nyoopi” or “pyun.” I don't normally go in for mean comedy, but Miton made Mahō Shōjo Nante Mō Ii Desu Kara for me. Maybe I should be worried.
I'm generally not a big fan of mascot characters - I tend to feel their silliness detracts from shows, and prefer my tonal counterpoints in a less random and fuzzy package. But the fairies of Humanity Has Declined aren't really a deviation from the rest of the show - they're ridiculous, but they're ridiculous in the exact way the show is ridiculous. They're creative and simple-minded and highly destructive, and that's why they've replaced humanity - they are everything we are, except faster and smaller and with bigger, more triangular smiles.
The fairies lurk around the edges of Humanity Has Declined, always finding new ways to put their creative spirit to work in building things that probably shouldn't be built. In this, they echo the attitudes that likely lead to the series’ post-apocalyptic world, where the few remaining humans live out agrarian lives in the ruins of their decayed civilization. The fairies are simple creatures - they want sweets and attention, and in order to get those things, they are very ready to create reality-warping time machines or destroy entire environments or maybe break the fabric of the universe. That's okay, though. They'll do it with a smile and then wander off to the next thing.
Normally I despise mascot characters in anime, as I find them to be irritating distractions. However, there are a handful of exceptions that I'll make, and my all-time favorite of those is Ryo-Ohki, the fuzzy little furball who appears in most iterations of the Tenchi Muyo! franchise. She is an alien creature called a cabbit, which combines the cutest characteristics of a cat and a rabbit into a floppy-eared, carrot-loving creature who meows like a cat and oh, yeah, can also transform into a giant, super-powerful spacecraft in some parts of the franchise. (In the magical girl parts of the franchise she is instead Pretty Sammy's companion/coach and does talk.) I found Ryo-Ohki so adorable that when I came across a plushie rendition of her at a convention back in the late ‘90s, I snapped it up immediately, something that I have only done for one other anime character. To this day she has a prominent place in my living room, where she sits on the back of my couch and watches anime over my shoulder. Sadly, though, Ryo-Ohki doesn't purr or turn into a giant spacecraft.
Adorable mascot characters are designed to elicit “d'awwwws,” and Sakata Gintoki's gargantuan canine companion Sadaharu often does just that. While the supersized Inugami is undeniably adorable, Elizabeth, the pet/life partner of Katsura Kotaro, is my non-human anime character of choice. Despite being prominently featured on copious amounts of Gintama merchandise, she's not particularly cute. She's not even the duck-like alien her space-case owner believes her to be. In fact, she's not even a “she.” It's clear to everyone besides the perpetually-oblivious Katsura that the entity known as “Elizabeth” is a hairy middle-aged human man in an obvious costume. (On several occasions, it's been implied that her true identity is longtime Gintama producer/director Shinji Takamatsu, though this may not be canon. She may also be two men working in shifts.)
Although she appears to genuinely care about her owner, Elizabeth possesses far more common sense than Katsura and is able to valiantly hold her own in own in a fight. While Elizabeth has been known to speak on rare occasion with a deep and scary voice, she generally communicates through adorable squawks and text written on sign-boards. Whether she's hanging out with Katsura, spending time with her secret family, or kicking butt in battle, “Elly” is always good for a laugh.
I've met a lot of fun series mascots in my time as an anime fan, but my "favorites" are the ones that turn out to be something more: the secret protagonist, or villain, or otherwise major key to the plot. There have been many examples of these in anime in recent years: Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica is probably the most famous one. Still, no one quite does the "mascot-plus" quite like Kunihiko Ikuhara.
Like Revolutionary Girl Utena's Chu-Chu before them, the penguins of Penguindrum serve as the emotional keys to their respective owners. Each penguin has its owner's basic personality: angry Penguin #1 (Kanba), overwhelmed Penguin #2 (Shouma), sweet Penguin #3 (Himari), snooty Esmeralda (Masako). Beyond that, though, what the penguins do in each scene can be keys to how their respective "human" secretly feels. All of the main characters have hidden, forbidden desires and motivations that they take time to acknowledge and reveal across the series. The penguins show us what they're thinking before they're ready to, if you're looking closely.
I think the reason I really like Penguindrum's penguins, though, is because they combine that thoughtful aspect with the cuddliness and fun you want in any good mascot. Just look at them: who wouldn't want a cute, goofy blue penguin as a pet? Plus, they'd do the housework for you! The penguins are constantly dusting things or spraying bugs. I'm pretty lazy at cleaning my apartment, and all I could think in the early episodes of Penguindrum was how much I wanted one of those guys around. If they help me get better at speaking up for myself, all the better.
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