A bizarre-looking Japanese character with a cult following becomes a corporate mascot - and the geeks go wild.
This is going to sound stupid, but here goes: Domo was mine first. Mine, mine, mine. That's what geeks like me are telling ourselves, anyway. Domo-kun, as he was first called in Japan, is a bizarre, furry brown critter with giant teeth and a mouth that never closes. He's a monster that's cuter than Hello Kitty.
Savvy, geeky Internet surfers who covet Japanese plush and vinyl toys (i.e. "stuff") discovered him several years ago and began buying imported toys, stickers and key chains fashioned in Domo's liking (my favorite: Domo fridge magnet). He was their thing, and mine, too.
So imagine my surprise when on a recent trip to Target for toilet paper, I strolled into the retail giant's Halloween section and discovered posters and cardboard cutouts of my furry little friend, Domo.
There he was, licensed out as a mascot to sell pumpkin pails, piñatas and candy corn. Kinda cool, but kinda weird. One thing was undeniable: Domo had gone mainstream.
When underground sensations like Domo hit the mainstream -- he also has a deal with Nickelodeon -- it can render the original uncool, or even result in cries of "sellout."
Eric Nakamura, publisher of the L.A.-based magazine Giant Robot, is an expert on all things Asian and trendy. For more than a decade, his magazine has been a tastemaker for Asian pop-culture in this country, Domo being an early find.
While Nakamura didn't find Target's Domo candy merchandise up to snuff (his exact comment: "Appalling"), he's not mad at them for trying.
"It's an honor anytime a Japanese character that no one really knows catches fire here," Nakamura said.
Dad of Domo
Recently, I talked about Domo's peculiar rise with Tsuneo Goda, who created Domo. The 41-year-old commercial director from Tokyo was in Minneapolis to meet with Target and Domo's U.S. licenser.
As it turns out, Domo's road from cult figure to Target (in 1,600-plus stores) is a little complicated. Speaking through an interpreter, Goda verified what Domo's American fans already suspected: Domo was a commercial product to begin with. Ten years ago, Goda was commissioned to create a mascot for Japan's popular public TV station, NHK, and Domo was born. Since Domo's debut, he's been featured in hundreds of stop-motion spots for the channel.
In the clips, Domo lives a strange existence where he's either getting into trouble with other cute critters or watching TV with an old rabbit. Domo's name comes from the only Japanese word he speaks: "domo," which Goda said can mean "hello," "goodbye," "thank you" or "sorry."
Around the turn of the century, Domo struck a chord with that Internet-savvy American audience -- especially users of the funny news aggregator site fark.com -- who mined the character's image in various Internet jokes. (The most infamous: A photoshopped image of Domo chasing a kitten with the tagline "Every time you masturbate ... God kills a kitten." A Target spokesperson laughed off the idea of their kid-friendly new mascot being used for such poppycock.)
In 2003, an American licensing company named Big Tent approached Goda and NHK about bringing Domo to the United States in a bigger way, a deal that eventually led to the Target campaign.
"No, no, no," Goda remembered saying at the time, hesitant about Domo's American fate. Goda was unaware that Domo already had a following outside of Japan.
Today, Goda said he's excited about Domo going mainstream in this country. But he understands why some of the character's cult followers might be perturbed.
"It's really difficult to balance the popularity and keeping the core fans," he said.
But after Goda finally saw Domo in his new American setting, he was pleased.
"When we saw the Target store in Portland and saw Domo surrounded by all that American stuff, I was so happy," he said.
In fact, Goda has been a fan of American pop-culture since he was a kid. His favorite character? That would be Snoopy, created by Minnesota's own Charles Schulz.
Like Domo, Snoopy is a cuddly troublemaker and a man of few words. He's also been a mainstream icon for decades, one that even anti-mass-market geeks like myself have loved.
If that's the future Goda wants for Domo, then who can blame him? In the end, Domo was never my creation. He was Goda's. And if Domo's own creator can let him go, can't we all?
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909