In Gangnam-gu of southern Seoul, there is a unique cafe decorated with a character named Pucca. Countless Pucca dolls are placed in the cafe and framed paintings of Pucca hang on the walls.
But the cafe isn’t bright and pastel-hued. The light is dim, the walls are black and the menu may not appeal to those with a sweet tooth. Puccafe, set to open mid-May, will serve vegetarian dishes along with healthy juices. By night, the cafe will be transformed into a jazz bar.
The cafe reflects the values and preferences of Pucca, in other words, of the creator behind it. Art director Kim Boo-kyung, the man who gave birth to Pucca, has projected his thoughts onto the character.
“Pucca is a messenger of love. She expresses her affections for her boyfriend without hesitance. I came up with the idea as love is universal,” Kim told The Korea Herald during an interview at Puccafe on Wednesday.
Art Director Kim Boo-kyoung poses with a Pucca doll at Puccafe in southern Seoul. (By Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)
Puccafe is located on the basement floor of the headquarters of Vooz, a character design company of which Kim is the head. It aims to be the first place ever to share Pucca’s value on healthy eating.
Though the character might look Chinese with her double bun hairstyle and red-and-black outfit, Pucca was created in Korea. According to Kim, she was greatly loved in China for her seemingly local look.
“The colors reflect the character’s personality. She is bold and powerful,” he said. “Korean characters don’t have to be donned with ‘Korean-ness.’ If a character can elicit empathy from a large public, it can become the nation’s culture.”
Launched in 2001, Pucca gained popularity around the globe, especially in South America and Europe. Rather than pursuing localization, the character with a big grin stuck to its own identity, maintaining its personality and visual, regardless of the country where it was marketed.
The quirky character is making a big return this year after five years, charged with energy and new idea, joining hands with local entertainment powerhouse CJ E&M. A new season of TV animation series “New Pucca” is slated to air beginning December.
The series will indirectly argue the importance of healthy eating, featuring Pucca as a vegetarian. Pucca’s family, who owns a health-conscious restaurant, is to compete with a rival fast food chain. Kim was greatly influenced by the concept of healthy eating after watching a documentary film a few years ago.
“Popeye encouraged children to eat spinach, showing the power of cartoons and characters,” the art director said. “Pucca can do the same thing, promoting values indirectly.”
The character’s facial features bear a striking resemblance to racist drawings depicting Asians. The drawing has been repeatedly spotted on Starbucks cups served to Asian customers in Germany, for example. Starbucks employees typically write customers‘ names on the cups but in several instances, racist drawings have been spotted on cups served to Asian customers.
Kim, who was unaware of the issue before this interview, wished Pucca could serve as a turning point. “We can show that the character -- with the facial features that were mocked -- can be bold and ambitious, being the lead character of an animation,” he said.
Though confident, the character designer cannot fully shed his worries. Even after 18 years of working with Pucca, making the audience laugh is the hardest parts of the job for Kim.
“Entertaining the people is the first part. Laughter creates fans, fans lead to manufacturers and manufacturers create royalty profit. To make people laugh, one may need the insight of the God,” he said.
In recent years, Korea’s cartoon character market has greatly changed. Kakao Friends and Line Friends have come to rule the market, garnering consumers from all age groups. Adult customers line up in front of the retail stores to purchase products related to the characters.
Kim is supportive of the new environment, regarding it as a barometer of how much the local character market has grown. When he started out, it seemed unlikely that a character creation would be a lucrative business model.
“People like character-related merchandises as they can touch, feel virtual ideas in their hands,” he said. “Pucca will take the same approach in a different way, promoting the use of environmentally-friendly materials.”
Showing a Pucca-style drawing of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim expressed his desire to make Pucca an ambassador of world peace, especially on the Korean Peninsula.
Character designer Kim Boo-kyoung’s drawing of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. (Vooz)
“It would be better if a Korean character company could participate in promoting peace between the South and the North, rather than Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse,” he said.
He also predicted that the peace between two Koreas could lead to the development of Korean animation market. Through the joint venture for animated TV series “Pororo the Little Penguin” in 2002, the North has proven its potential, he said.
“Maybe we can have a Pucca theme park near the Demilitarized Zone. Unlike Disneyland, which strives for an imaginary space in fairytales, the park can reflect local characteristics, making use of the well-preserved environment.”
By Im Eun-byel (email@example.com)