Inside the squat temple of banality that is the Mall of America lies one guilty pleasure, made possible not by resisting consumerism, but by perfecting it: the Sanrio Gift Gate. Asian teenage girls and white twentysomething fashion victims wander among familiar icons, from the rosy-cheeked frog Keroppi to the perennially scowling penguin Bad Batzs-Maru to the company's flagship character, Hello Kitty. Patrons have to summon all their reserves of cool not to be overwhelmed by the selection: Sanrio offers a thousand ways to accessorize your life, from notebooks to cameras to pencil cases to mylar stickers to backpacks to planner cases to stamp pads. In Sanrio, the Japanese have one-upped the American skill of merchandising into a heady, asemiotic nothingness. Pochacco and Picke Bicke and the rest are references without referents, unanchored by TV shows, cartoon strips, or even the crazed spin of the Nike swoosh. Sanrio is a bottomless smile that never speaks, and if its characters--with their eyes bugged open, their limbs splayed out in gestures of feverish innocence--look harmless, their company represents a gleeful meaninglessness that may one day devour the world.


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