Feathers fly: Kyary is making waves internationally.
The universe that Japanese entertainer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has created is a cute but complex one. She has become one of her native country's biggest musical acts, thanks to a mix of irresistible pop songs, unique fashion and her eye-popping music videos. Yet she is not following in Hello Kitty's cuddly path. The "Kawaii Ambassador" (a diplomat for Japanese cuteness) undercuts her image with dashes of creepiness and surrealism … and lots and lots of fake eyelashes. Now, she is spreading it to the world.
A growing number of people outside Japan are eager to venture in. She is on her second world tour, which will include a stop at the UNSW Roundhouse. That gig was originally to take place at the Metro Theatre, but demand was so great the show had to be moved to a larger venue.
"I've never been to Australia before," Kyary says. "I don't have much information about it. I want to see koalas, to see if they really exist there."
Kawaii kingdom: Kyary on stage in Seattle last month
Once upon a time, Takemura Kiriko lived a relatively normal life in Tokyo. In high school, however, she started frequenting the city's colourful fashion centre, Harajuku. She became interested in the area's ethos of mismatched style and rainbow hues. She also loved wigs, which is how she came by her nickname. When she wore a blonde wig, friends thought she looked non-Japanese, so they gave her a Western-sounding name (in Japanese, Kyary sounds like Carrie).
Her outfits caught the attention of street photographers working for Japanese fashion magazines, who started including snapshots of her in their publications. She became a regular in print. She had to hide her more flamboyant side from her ''Spartan'' parents, who disapproved of wigs and fake eyelashes. In a television interview in 2009, she said she would leave her house wearing regular clothes, then change in a bathroom.
In 2010, she started a blog, gaining fans for her photographs and tendency to invent words. Her foray into music started that year, too, with the release of her first digital single, Miracle Orange. But it was not until 2011 that her pop career really took off. She teamed up with Yasutaka Nakata, the Japanese producer behind genre-bending duo Capsule and chart-topping electro-pop trio Perfume.
Fans outside the concert.
That partnership resulted in PonPonPon, Kyary's first hit. The song featured sounds pulled straight from the playroom and a persistent dance floor-ready thump, all building to the dizzying hook. Even more attention was paid to the accompanying music video. The clip features Kyary, wearing an outfit decorated with eyeballs, dancing in front of a mish-mash of items (pieces of toast, a gummy-looking tank and trippy skulls). It is both "kawaii" and surreal. The PonPonPon video went viral, attracting more than 61 million hits.
That is how Jamaica dela Cruz, the host of SBS PopAsia on radio and television, first came across the singer. "Everyone at SBS PopAsia loved the song, and the wacky clip,'' she says. "I just thought it was so weird … I'm a big Japanese pop culture fan, so I was used to it … [but] Kyary is in a league of her own."
From PonPonPon, Kyary gained momentum via pop earworms and memorable videos. She tackled a subject close to her heart on Tsukema Tsukeru - fake eyelashes. (Kyary has produced her own line of falsies.) The song came with a video that was compared to Illuminati symbolism. She told the American music magazine The Fader that she added "grotesque, scary and even shocking material like eyeballs and brains to balance out the cuteness".
She flooded Japanese media, appearing in advertisements, television shows and live events. Her debut album, Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, came out in May 2012.
After the follow-up, Nanda Collection, debuted at No. 1 on the Japanese charts, the mayor of Shibuya declared her Harajuku's "Kawaii Ambassador". As her overseas fan base grew, she toured Asia, Europe and the United States.
"Japanese fans tend towards being shy. I can say all of my concerts outside Japan go more wild and crazy," she says. "The US audiences were really high-energy and fanatic. They made me so happy and I could really enjoy my concerts.'' Back then, she says, she did not have a strong grasp on English. She wants to continue her English studies on the coming tour.
"Um, actually my English hasn't improved at all. Usually my translator gives me a quick English lesson before the show and I repeat exactly what they taught me.''
Her international success has been interesting to watch. Kyary, who had no intention of reaching non-Japanese listeners when she started, accidentally achieved what many J-pop acts craved. Unlike the others, who refuse to upload full-length videos to sites such as YouTube, Kyary's management embraced the platform and overcame traditional roadblocks to foreign success (all-Japanese lyrics, for example) via a strong, GIF-ready image. She's the first J-pop performer to use the internet to her global advantage.
"On SBS PopAsia, we have a huge mix of listeners from all ages and backgrounds, but overwhelmingly she is the most popular Japanese pop soloist among our listeners," Cruz says. "She's unlike any other pop star in the world. When you watch her, she gives the impression that what she's showing you is her authentic self."
A lot of people have helped turn Kyary into a far-reaching presence. Besides producer Nakata, who makes all her music and writes her lyrics, she has a team that helps create her mind-melting videos. Art director Sebastian Masuda, who owns the influential Harajuku fashion store 6%DOKIDOKI, shapes her image.
Cruz says the diversity of her fan base will be on display at her Australian performance.
"I think the audience will be a mix of the hardcore Kyary fans, plus fans of J-pop in general, who rarely get to see their favourite J-pop artists in Australia. I think there will also be some curious onlookers who want to check out something new."
Says Kyary: "I'm a bit nervous, but I'll give you guys my best performance, so please come see me. I can't wait to see you!"
Kyary plays the University of NSW Roundhouse on March 23.