BEST PLACE TO SATISFY YOUR JAPANESE CULTURE JONES (1998)

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.