When MTV Iggy referred to the traumatic cuteness of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, they summed her up perfectly. The gonzo J-pop star’s videos are an all-out assault on the senses, bombarding the viewer with an overwhelming sense of cuteness (or kawaii — the notion that cuteness and innocence, usually non-threatening, is desirable in Japanese society).
Princess dresses, platform boots, multicolored farts, childish exclamations and dance movements, dancing blackberries, puppies, polar bears, manga imagery, fluorescent colors clashing, cutesy ghosts, floating brains: psychedelic as imagined by the makers of Hello Kitty.
“When you see little kids or animals you think they are kawaii,” the singer said from Tokyo, before heading to Sydney to play a live on March 23. “It pretty much depends on your sensitivity. Most of all I am attracted to a world of fantasy with a grotesque aspect to it.”
In this sense, Kyary is subversive. Her creations — and videos like the ones to her iconic (and insanely catchy) 2011 debut single Pon Pon Pon and unsettling Candy Candy (the opening sequence is a shot of her running down a grey suburban street in pink platform boots with a slice of dry toast in her mouth) — jolt the viewer out of the normalcy of everyday life. In this, she recalls Lady Gaga; but Gaga is overt in her desire to unsettle, her fondness for S&M imagery. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is scarier somehow, because her imagery is so surface unthreatening. Like when Dumbo breaks into that wonderful pink elephant on parades sequence, the endearing becomes threatening.
“Even with a Disney movie you cannot keep your eyes away from it,” agrees Kyary, “partly because there are some scary scenes. I like something like that very much, something unbalanced.”
“On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss Kyary’s music as irredeemably happy — it’s relentless and chirpy enough — but there’s much more to it than that. She’s like My Little Pony as reimagined by Tim Burton, as evinced by the video to her most recent single, 2013’s Mottai Night Land, which combines manga with garden demons and some really quite disturbing bikini-clad dancers in ghost masks.
“I love horror movies, and I do have lots of dark sides. It shows up on a daily basis,” she says. “Some ideas are from kind of my fun and dark side. I like eyeballs and blood. For my Pon Pon Pon costume, my stylist was kind enough to put a lot of eyeballs on my pants.”
Kyrary Pamyu Pamyu grew up as the only child of disciplinarian parents, in a house where she had to hide her fashion clothes and make-up before she went out. “My mother is very strict,” she recalls. “I had a 7pm curfew. When I go to Harajuku, I dressed normal when I went out and I changed in a public bathroom.”
Based in a trendy district of Tokyo, Harajuku fashion is characterized by its brashness and outlandish sense of color, where elements of the bizarre and the absurd mix in with fantastical Western pop star-inspired clothing. “Harajuku is a place where people enjoy their favorite fashion as they wish,” says Kyary. “Especially there is no rule when it comes to Harajuku fashion.”
Kyary, with her attraction towards kawaii and her sense of the grotesque, naturally pushed at its limits. “Very individualistic people gather in that place and you can easily find unique shops everywhere. The spirit is that I am not the same as others. I don’t want to be the same as Harajuku culture, I think.”
Her name came about while she was still in a high school because, “I often hung out wearing a blonde wig so my friends teased me and called me ‘Kyary’ like a foreigner. When I started my blog I thought my name should be something that sticks in people’s heads so I add ‘Pamyu’ because I just liked the sound of it.”
Kyary came to prominence as a fashion blogger while she was still in high school. She was scouted as a street fashion model, later writing a blog documenting her everyday looks and exploits for the Japanese Web site Ameba. This, in turn, led to guest spots as a DJ which eventually resulted in a chance meeting with producer Yasutaka Nakata, the man behind her debut album 2011’s Moshi Moshi Harajuku, and Pon Pon Pon, an immediate hit both in Japan and abroad. “One day [Yasutaka] was like ‘Do you want to sing?’ Then time passed and when I realized I am singing and dancing like I do now.”
There are indications of a Western pop influence upon Kyary’s videos — notably Lady Gaga (witness the mask and throne used in Tsukematsukeru) and Katy Perry, something which the singer is happy to acknowledge. “I always look up to artists who blend their music with fashion, and I want to be one,” she says. “I am not just trying to imitate what they are doing. I want to express my own version of music and fashion with a happy spirit.”
So how does Kyary view the attention she is receiving from Western audiences? (The Pon Pon Pon video alone has received 62 million views on YouTube.) She expresses surprise, but is “very glad there are people waiting for me far, far away over the ocean. When I was touring abroad I met fans crying in happiness to see me. I was genuinely moved. I see a lot of cosplay when I am touring overseas. They have a little bit of my influence, but each of them definitely has their own style so that is one other thing I am looking forward to.”