2010 marks the 1300th anniversary of the city of Nara so I thought I’d have an in depth look at Sento-kun. Sento can be translated as ‘moving the capital’ which is what happened 1300 years ago when Nara replaced Fujiwara as the nations capital. Sento-kun was unveiled to the public on the 12th of February 2008 and immediately drew criticism. Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famed for it’s many temples, shrines and ruins. The mascot references Nara’s Buddhist history with a representation of a young Buddha combined with a pair of antlers from the tame deer that are iconic to the area. The mascot was designed by Satoshi Yabuuchi a sculptor who normally works in wood or bronze. On the artists website it says
Born in 1953, the sculptor, YABUUCHI Satoshi, uses traditional techniques, acquired through his experience in the preservation and restoration of ancient cultural treasures, to create warm, tranquil, wooden sculptures that appeal to the hearts of the Japanese and the oriental view of nature.
However the character wasn’t so warmly accepted. Sento-kun offended local residents and Buddhist groups who objected to the design and the amount of money spent on the character. local residents angry at being excluded from the process subsequently organised their own competition to create a less offensive and more commercial character. The competition received 619 submissions with entries from all over Japan and even other countries. The entries were narrowed down to 30 designs and the final result was decided by an online ballot. The winner was Manto-kun; a short cute temple hat wearing creature who also has antlers. The large hat is modelled on the roof of Suzakumon Gate. According to his site the small antlers are in fact antennas that pick up peoples wishes. It also states that Manto-kun uses his magic cloak (manto is cape in Japanese) to time travel and appeared in Nara just before the start of the 1300th anniversary celebrations.
The two mascots were pitted against each other by the media who enjoyed the unusual pairing. The controversy surrounding Sento-kun helped propel the festival into the media and the supposed rivalry only extended the publicity for the event. Dentsu, Japan’s biggest advertising agency who had a hand in selecting Sento-kun no doubt realised the benefit of using such an unusual character and that the ensuing publicity would be beneficial in the long run. Personally I’m quite fond of Sento-kun. I’ve been researching 100’s of Japanese characters for my next book called Fuzz and Fur all about kigirumi (fur suit mascots) and I believe he is one of the most unique. One of the biggest criticisms (after its offensiveness to Buddhism) is the amount of tax money, 5 million yen to be exact which was spent on purchasing the copyright from the artist. I suspect however that it’s been a good investment as Sento-kun goods are extremely popular all over Japan. Its interesting to note that the two most successful yuru-kyara (weak characters or working characters as coined by Matt Alt) are Hikonyan and Sento-kun both designed by professional designers. The majority of Yurukyara are created in the same way as Manto-kun appealing to local residents to send in their ideas which are then put to the vote.
Interest in Sento-kun has been huge on the internet. Online community mixi had a group dedicated to the removal of the character while many others saw the potential for amusement and creativity. Illustrations based on the character can be seen here and here. I’ve also Included some of my favourites on the left.
The kimo-kawaii (scary but cute) character was made into a kigirumi and often travels all over Japan encouraging people to visit Nara. In late 2008 he met Manto-kun and Naamu-kun Naamu-kun another Nara mascot created by a Buddhist organization also unhappy with Sento-kun). The three seemed to get along well and obviously settled their differences. However, tension between the pair is likely to have increased after Renka-chan mascot for Taima-dera temple openly declared her feelings for Sento-kun. Renka-chan gave him a heart shaped chocolate cake on valentines day with the words ‘I love you’ written on it. Manto-kun on the other hand must have fealt a little jealous when all he received was a cake with the word ‘friend’ decorating the top.
In the three videos at the bottom of the post you’ll see all the mascots mentioned in this post. In the first video Sento-kun in Kamakura we see Sento-kun attacking a large Naamu-kun and launching Hikonyan across the ancient capital. To find out more about Hikonyan check out Matt Alts great write up on him. Hikonyan is the superstar of fursuit mascots or kigirumi and also appears in the next video as a wrestler ready to take on the scary Sento-kun. The last video is called Sento-kun THE MOVIE and has a surprise ending I won’t spoil.