New York is not a city one automatically associates with the Japanese concept of kawaii — lovably, irresistibly, dependably cute. But if Sebastian Masuda, the so-called “king of kawaii,” has his way, the mean streets of “Goodfellas” may one day emanate a candy-colored glow.
Or at least his street will. Best known for founding the iconic Harajuku fashion shop-cum-global brand 6%Dokidoki in 1995, Masuda wears many hats, both career-wise and atop his head. Before becoming a fashion guru, he was an actor in Tokyo’s avant-garde theater scene, which is where he picked up the Western moniker for his persona, “Sebastian” (he keeps his Japanese birth name unpublished). In 2009, he led a tour to promote kawaii fashion in cities across Europe and the United States, hosting workshops, seminars and events to explain what he calls its “uniquely Japanese aesthetic appeal.” And since 2011, he has been the artistic and conceptual director for global pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, helping create the mega-hit YouTube video for her single “Ponponpon” (nearly 62 million views as I write).
Now he is debuting as an artist — albeit one who dresses like a diminutive Willy Wonka and sports an array of furry multicolored top hats. His first-ever solo show, “Colorful Rebellion — Seventh Nightmare,” opened at the end of February at Kianga Ellis Projects gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of Manhattan’s art world, and runs through March 29. When we met last week in the gallery’s reception space, Masuda underlined his current commitment to being an artist first. (His hat was a modest light gray, but still furry.)
“My goal now is to expand Harajuku appeal into the global art market,” he said. “Not just as fashion, but as a conceptual art form. And if that means I have to move to New York to make it happen, I will.”
“Colorful Rebellion” features a homey white bed positioned sideways in a single soft-lit room, whose walls and ceiling are festooned with luridly bright stuffed animal toys, feathers and other fluffy things. An enormous teddy bear or cat (I wasn’t sure which) with one eye missing and covered in a patchwork of colors sits on the floor, propped up against the foot of the bed. An assortment of old children’s storybooks is piled beside the pillow.
I was treated to the performance component of the exhibition, in which a Japanese actress with dyed auburn hair enters the room wearing a wispy nightgown. Masuda crouched next to me, DJing via his MacBook Air. A series of melancholic old torch songs, recorded from scratchy vinyl, accompany the actress as she sweeps through the room, pausing to look longingly at the walls and ceiling or to run her fingers through her hair. She takes her position on the bed, leafing through the books, stretching out and disrobing beneath the sheets. Eventually she rises again, clothed and looking refreshed, petting the single-eyed stuffed creature before she exits.
The mood is a mixture of forlorn loneliness and childlike desire, and Masuda explained afterward that it represents his artistic working process — with the colorless white bed signaling his own difficulties in rising from sleep to engage in the creative act, and the multicolored toy-story environs of the kawaii world he wishes to inhabit.
“Kawaii is not just ‘cute,’ ” he said, dismissing the commonly used English translation. “The meaning of cute is just superficial, about the appearance of surfaces. I would say its deeper meaning is more about the process of personality, about personal becoming and transformation. I spend so much time and work so hard on my colorless bed trying to create a kawaii world and bring it into being. It’s a struggle, and this exhibition is meant to draw the curtain back and show what’s behind the scenes of kawaii.”
One of the questions I’m often asked about kawaii at readings and lectures is: Why Japan? What is it in Japanese culture that produces a world of cute so intense and, for some at least, enticing that they want to possess and embody it in their clothing, cosplay or other forms of consumption?
“Maybe Japanese people are more depressed,” Masuda told me, “and so they needed the kawaii concept more. The colors of kawaii represent the power and joys of youth. They make people happier. You know, I created (works within) kawaii culture before the (March 11, 2011) disasters, but the interest in it really increased in Japan after they happened.”
Beyond Japan, Masuda counts pop stars Nicki Minaj, Katie Perry and “Harajuku Girls” singer Gwen Stefani among fans of his work. And he’s keenly aware that he wouldn’t be the first contemporary Japanese artist to use kawaii as a root concept and base himself in New York. “Takashi Murakami,” Masuda said, his eyes lighting up. “Yes, he is like a senpai (mentor) to me. He came here and found a way to spread his work to the world.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.