Ice Cream Bags

This is a collection of Japanese ice cream bags. Most are for ice cream monaka, a modern take on traditional monaka, which are sweets made from azuki bean paste sandwiched between two rice cake wafers. I didn’t know ice cream bags like these existed until E. shared the collection on Twitter. I don’t even like ice cream that much, it just makes me thirsty. But I like these ice cream bags, mostly because of their kitsch-like air, their gaudy colours and their innocent joyfulness. These last two things, innocence and joyfulness, also put many squarely in the world of kawaii, Japan’s culture of cuteness.

On one ice cream bag, for example, a smiling boy with a fur coat (a trite Inuit reference I’m sure) triumphantly holds up an ice cream. Here ice cream is equated with happiness in such a simple way that it feels almost naïve. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way; it is desirable because of this rose-tinted outlook. Ice cream, happiness. It is also, undeniably, a cute scene in the kawaii sense of the word with its youthful spirit and bright colours. I say “in the kawaii sense” because cute has different connotations in the west. It’s seen, I think, as infantile but often not in a flattering way. Cute is something you want to leave behind when you grow up. Or, sometimes, cute is used to belittle or patronise, said with a sarcastic undertone and meant to poke without seeming like a bad person.

Above the boy are the words “ice manjū” in Japanese (manjū is a traditional sweet). The font is a good example of kawaii typography with rounded letters and uniform thickness. In Japan, this is called marui-ji, literally meaning “round writing”. It first appeared in the 1970s, brought into existence by a group of teenage schoolgirls who started writing laterally instead of vertically, which is how Japanese is traditionally written. To this they would add illustrations, like stars or faces, to lend their words a new expressive weight and write with mechanical pencils that gave a thin uniformity. When seen as a whole though, marui-ji was both difficult to read and seen as subversive, leading to many schools banning it. Of course, as with any rebellious act wrapped in red tape, it simply flourished elsewhere and soon became the defining type of kawaii.

For all that I’ve just written, other ice cream bags fall far from the cuteness of kawaii. Amongst the collection I find jelly on a plate, pirate ships and fruit. One of my favourites is a red, white and yellow ice cream bag with an image of some fruit pasted in the middle. It makes me think of Mondrian with all its oppositions and primary colours and hard lines. Or perhaps if Mondrian had found work in the Japanese ice cream market, this is what he would have made. Other ice cream bags are delicate and restrained. I like them for this and others for their rigorous simplicity — red text on off-white paper.

A final reason I like these ice cream bags is their anonymity. They fall into that endless well of items designed by someone but no one. I like thinking about these invisible hands at work. Who decided that baseball was to be the cover of the next ice cream bag? Who made it look so beautiful? Where did they find all these images of bananas? What do their desks look like? Do they like bananas? I’ve always liked these types of thoughts and how they can spring from the most fleeting of things, including ice cream bags.