TOKYO There's "Fear Factor," and there's "X Factor"... but if ever there was an "Awwwww Factor," few contenders could match the dollops of uber-cuteness served up by Japanese photo-blogger Aya Sakai.
The Tokyo housewife has obsessively documented the life of her snowy French bulldog, Muu, and his best friend Tasuku, Sakai's two-and-a-half-year-old son. Either member of the winsome pair - Muu, whose pillowy torso seems less dog than marshmallow on legs, or Tasuku, the adorable boy with a bowl haircut -- could easily qualify for super-cute greatness.
Together, the sweet sidekicks have become an eye-candy juggernaut, amassing over 180,000 awestruck followers worldwide.
"I never expected this level of popularity," Sakai said, in response to written questions. "It hasn't really sunk in."
While her online collection has expanded to more than 750 photos, viewable on Instagram and Facebook, Sakai is fiercely protective of her privacy, consenting to an interview only via e-mail. She and her husband Takeshi, a publicist for a men's apparel chain, occasionally play minor supporting roles in her snapshots, but almost exclusively as anonymous props; a hand holding Muu's leash, a lap for the two stars to nestle into, or the push behind their cart in Costco.
Sakai herself hails from the fashion industry. "I once handled magazine advertising, so perhaps I picked up a sense for visual expression and how to show photos."
But once she became a full-time mother, Sakai gave up her big camera for the simplicity of a smartphone and instant editing apps which allow her, between chores and childcare, to stay in touch with other time-starved moms.
While perky-eared Muu commands center stage nowadays, rabid fans may recall the brief appearance of a second bulldog, a mottled brother named Roche.
"Roche thought he was our son, and behaved like a boy," wrote Sakai. "But his canine instinct made him the top-dog around Muu and Tasuku."
When Tasuku was still an infant, and just after the blogger discovered Instagram in late 2011, the older dog came to an untimely end after suffering a brain hemorrhage. (Their don't-mess-with-me looks notwithstanding, French bulldogs have gentle dispositions and are physically frail, Sakai says. The animals are popular pets in Japan, where most homes are too small to accommodate the larger English bulldog breed.)
Until he was two, the white bulldog kept his distance from Tasuku, allowing the older dog Roche to be at the boy's side. But "with Roche gone, my son and Muu gradually bonded. I was absolutely thrilled, and started recording their friendship - and that's when I started gaining followers."
Now, when Tasuku starts to nod off at naptime, the pair have a set routine -- tot and dog snuggle up together on the couch, or cozily sink into Muu's round bed, swathed in old blankets. Alert observers will note the dog bed bears the embroidered initials "R&R," for the dearly departed Roche, and "Rhythme," Muu's (French) real name.
Sakai says her secret is to keep her phone ready for any sudden photo ops, and to focus on the subjects when they're holding still; at meals, in front of the TV, or quietly playing, for instance.
"Movement doesn't capture well (on a smartphone) so I try to snap them in repose," Sakai wrote. "And I always try to keep the living room tidy, because that's where most of the photos are taken!"
While her pet and toddler have became an internet sensation, Sakai said their days remain a quiet routine of trips to the playground and hanging around the house.
"Our life is the same as always - and I plan to keep taking pictures every day, recording Tasuku and Muu as they grow."
More than 180,000 people around the world hope she will.