Earlier this year, researchers discovered that our ability to perform critical tasks is heightened when we’ve been “primed” by exposure to cuteness. That’s because we experience significant psychobiological changes when we encounter cute things — our heartrate drops, we become more attentive, more focused. Cuteness is addictive. And therapeutic.
Naturally, the authors of the study — Hiroshi Nittono, Michiko Fukushima, Akihiro Yano, Hiroki Moriya — are residents of the global capital of cute: Japan. No place in the world is more obsessed with cute, and no culture has woven cuteness more deeply into its social fabric. Cute images and mascots are everywhere, from police kiosks and public libraries to bathrooms and ballparks. The standard of female beauty (and, it must be said, male good looks too) is focused on “cute” rather than “sexy” or “beautiful,” with most top idols being small, slender, round-faced and wide-eyed; they look like schoolgirls, and many of them are.
Cute and Japan are synonymous, which is why the Japanese business and government establishment has also chosen cuteness as a key tool its attempts to boost tourism and exports. In June, Japan’s Diet approved the creation of a 50 billion yen grants fund dedicated to investing in the promotion of everything from anime to cosplay to Gothic Lolita fashion. All Nippon Airways, Japan’s biggest airline, just renewed its sponsorship of a massive marketing campaign, “Cool Japan,” that highlights Japan’s multifaceted pop culture attractions — with an entire tab devoted to “kawaii,” the Japanese word for cute.
If you click into that tab, and it’s almost impossible to resist doing so, the first thing you’re likely to see is the smiling visage of the officially designated “Kawaii Ambassador of Harajuku,” a waifish young woman with an impossible name: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. (“To tell the truth, even Japanese people can’t pronounce it,” says Chika Anyoji, a representative from Kyary’s record label, Warner Music Japan.)
Twenty-year-old Kyary, née Kiriko Takemura, is the hottest thing in Japanese pop music — perhaps in all of Japanese pop culture — today. Her fresh face graces the covers of fashion and lifestyle magazines targeting demographics from street kids to housewives. She wallpapers television and radio, and she’s an inescapable presence on billboards and standup displays all across Tokyo. But it’s on the Internet where Kyary’s dominance is most evident: She has over 1.6 million followers, making her Japan’s most popular celebrity on Twitter, and her music videos on YouTube regularly top 10 million views, with one of them — for her debut single “PonPonPon” — crossing over into global viral status with over 52 million views.
Kyary’s success is both a testament to the power of cute, and a subversive response to it. At first glance, she seems virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other young, pretty pop icons that the Japanese celebrity machine stamps out like clockwork. (The “idol army” AKB48, perhaps Kyary’s biggest rival for pop mindshare, consists of close to a hundred teenaged performers, organized into subunits that train and entertain with near-military precision, 365 days a year.)
“Something that makes her particularly easy to like, is that she isn’t the prettiest girl you will see in Tokyo — she is actually quite plain,” says Manami Okazaki, author of “Kawaii!: Japan’s Culture of Cute.” “She isn’t too cute, she isn’t too talented, she isn’t too pretty. So the regular girl can relate to her.”
At the same time, Kyary is anything but a “regular” girl. Look again, and it rapidly becomes obvious that something’s a bit…off: The sweet-looking portrait of her in a frilly dress is marred by the fact that a stream of thick, red blood is bubbling out of one of her nostrils. The cover of her new album, “Nanda Collection,” has her in a feathery throw, wearing a Chinese-cut dress and blonde wig — with the lower half of her face obscured by giant, oversized lips and Chiclet teeth, while a gape-mouthed puppet doppelganger snakes its way over one of her shoulders. And then there’s the lovely photo of her that’s marred only by the fact that it features her severed head being served up on a plate.
I met Kyary at the offices of her production company, Asobi System — a collective of young, beautiful people overseen by “Harajuku godfather” Yusuke Nakagawa — on the eve of her trip to the United States, where she’ll be performing a free live concert this Sunday at 3:30, in San Francisco’s Union Square, as part of the city’s annual J-Pop Summit.
In person, Kyary is tiny and effusive, speaking at a pace rapid enough to push my friend and volunteer translator Misako Kitaoka into simultaneous-translation overdrive.
“I want to spread the word of kawaii to the rest of the world — I want to see it embraced by everybody,” says Kyary. “And by kawaii, I don’t just mean cute. There’s a difference between lovely, cute and kawaii. Kawaii, to me, is a state of mind.”
To Kyary, kawaii is anything that jars you out of your sense of balance and normalcy, and prompts an involuntary response of pleasure. It could be an object, a gesture, an image, a person. It could be something sweet and heartwarming, or something weird and bizarre. As long as it gets you to say ooh, aah or awwww, in Kyary’s eyes, it has the “dimension” of kawaii.
“Everything can be kawaii,” she asserts. “In fact, there’s no such thing to me as ‘not kawaii,’ even if you try to tell me so — because I can make anything kawaii.”
That sense of agency and control is at the core of Kyary’s identity. Growing up, Kyary had little interest in school. By the time she got to high school, her poor grades led to constant fights with her mother, who Kyary describes as a “spartan” disciplinarian, and a burning desire on her part for escape and self-expression. She ended up releasing her frustrations through fashion, joining the tribes of fantastically dressed Harajuku teens who’ve become a wellspring of global streetwear inspiration through blogs like TokyoFashion and photobooks like “FRUiTS.”
It was a pursuit that Kyary’s mother discouraged, frequently stopping her daughter before she left the house to demand that she put on clothes that didn’t make her look insane. To evade her, Kyary began carrying changes of clothes in a rollaboard suitcase, wearing plain outfits until she was out of sight of home, then ducking into a public restroom to change into her Harajuku look.
Her persistence and inventiveness paid off: She was scouted by KERA, one of the top periodicals tracking street youth fashion, and quickly became a fixture in the magazine as an amateur “reader’s model.” That in turn led to booming popularity for her blog on the popular Japanese site Ameba, tracking her daily looks and adventures. And when Kyary ended up as a guest DJ at an event being hosted by producer Yasutaka Nakata, their chance meeting led to a collaboration that spawned Moshimoshi Harajuku, Kyary’s debut album, and the song that would put her on the global map, “PonPonPon.”
But, as Nakata is careful to say, “music is merely one part of Kyary’s output….she’s fun because you can see parts of her other than her music,” in things like her blog, her social media feed, and, of course, her “extravagant” videos.
Extravagant is an insufficient word. “PonPonPon” begins like a fairly standard J-pop video, with Kyary in a kooky manga-inspired outfit, surrounded by candy-colored props and garish CGI. Then things get…odd. A microphone and stand extrudes itself from Kyary’s ear. A pair of fat backup dancers with raspberries for heads begin prancing in lockstep with Kyary’s cutesy movements. A floating skull, a disembodied heart, and a giant femur bone make appearances, popping out of various orifices in the set. Kyary opens her mouth and a flock of ravens flies out. And then a cascade of eyeballs. And there are the floating donuts…and a flying shark. The combination of sweet and shocking is somehow even more unsettling than a straight horror video might be. It looks like a candy-colored Instagram taken from the inside of a psychotic break.
“Grotesque is my counterreaction to conventional kawaii,” says Kyary. “My room growing up was pink, but I had shelves of manga that had ugly and creepy themes. Those are my two sides. Thinking about it now, I was always a pretty weird kid, I’ve always been surrounded by grotesque, so it’s a part of my worldview now!”
And the shark? “In third grade, I saw the movie Jaws, and I fell in love with sharks,” she says. (In her memoir, “Oh! My! God! Harajuku Girl!,” she goes into swooning detail about sharks: “A huge mouth lined densely with sharp teeth. Panic as the ocean is stained the color of human blood….Sharks are super cool! Vicious animals are so neat!”)
Kyary admits that her interests set her apart in high school. “None of my friends could understand me — they couldn’t see what I was all about,” she says. “But I am who I am, and I’m excited and happy to be able to promote my identity and image of kawaii to the public now. And I don’t care if you agree or don’t agree with it, my whole definition of kawaii is that it depends on the individual. Your kawaii is not my kawaii. And kawaii evolves, over time the way we do.”
That pretty much explodes the conventional definition of cute in Japan, which is all about the flattening of individual differences. It’s kawaii as exemplified by Sanrio’s billion-dollar cartoon character Hello Kitty — cuteness as a series of poses and expressions. Use this voice, this face, these ways of dressing and acting, tropes and standards that are endlessly replicated in anime and manga, in TV dramas, among schoolgirls conversing in restaurants — and you will attain the state of kawaii. It’s cuteness as recipe. As algorithm. As dogma.
Visiting a maid café — a lounge where waitresses dressed in servant’s cosplay act out cutesy, nurturing fantasies — you’ll see this “templated” version of cute distilled into an elixir that drunk businessmen and nervous nerds will pay to be dosed with on an hourly basis.
I dropped by the café MaiDreamin’ in Tokyo’s geektopia, Akihabara, and was assigned the restaurant’s only English-speaking maid — who talked in a high-pitched voice and made floating heart gestures with her hands, until I introduced myself as a journalist. The, dropping the kawaii drag act, she admitted that she’d gone to college in Los Angeles, and was actually sent to undergo “maid training” at Akiba’s MaiDreamin’ because she’d been hired to help launch the chain’s first U.S. location, in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. “So I have to learn what it’s like to do“ — she waved a lace-covered hand at the girls fussing over their customers — “all this.”
On the wall at MaiDreamin’, there are pictures of celebrities who’ve dropped by. One of them is familiar: Kyary, surrounded by MaiDreamin’s equally cute and colorfully dressed staff. You wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from a photo alone. You’d have to hear her talk, and see the strange fruits of her inventive Harajuku mind, to understand how she’s cutting traditional ideas of cute at the root, and replanting them with something wild and brilliant.
“For me, ‘traumatic’ is the key word,” she says. “I want to traumatize people out of the way they think. I want to get different reactions. So some people think I’m crazy. But soon they find I’m also addictive. And then they can’t get enough of what I do.”
Through her music and videos, Kyary says she wants to give kawaii a voice and vision that the whole world can hear. Hello Kitty, the avatar of the old cute, has no mouth. Kyary’s mouth is large and full of teeth, like a shark — and she’s not afraid to scream. Or bite.
“I think Hello Kitty and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are opposite to the extreme,” she says, with emphasis. “I’m happy to say, the image I am pursuing is a new kind of cute.”
Kawaii is dead. Long live Kyary. Long live Neo-Kawaii.
It's nice to read an article that takes Kyary seriously for once. She's so much smarter than she gets credit for. And LOL! at her shark obsession~ if they take Sharknado to Japan, Kyary should do a song for the soundtrack.