Kawaii champion Sebastian Masuda invites us in

The Japanese artist and designer behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s ‘PONPONPON’ opens up his treasure trove of cute overload

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“I am perpetually in a state of sensory overload, so nothing in this room seems weird to me anymore.” 43-year-old Japanese visionary Sebastian Masuda's mission is to encourage people to recall their childlike sense of wonder by transmitting kawaii culture from his headquarters in Harajuku. He redefined the word ‘psychedelic’ for long-time fan Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, lending her his own collection of colourful and weird objects to make her "PON PON PON" music video. The reaction to Kyary’s video overseas was shock, then love, with MTV calling it “one of the craziest videos ever.” The single was a huge hit in Japan, making Kyary the poster-girl of Harajuku. The 66 million plus views on YouTube prove that Sebastian’s style has found fans all over the world.

Masuda’s East Tokyo atelier is in an old printing studio, but looks more like a Chinese toy market. Kids toys fill every space, neatly organized by genre and colour. Even nets hang from the ceiling, bursting with balls and waterguns. “I know a lot about toys because my shop in Harajuku, 6%DOKIDOKI, started as a vintage shop back in 1995. I still get all my inspiration from children’s toys.” Inspired by parties at abandoned amusement parks in L.A. and San Francisco in the 90s, he opened up shop for the raver boys and girls in Tokyo, bringing them rare toys and clothing from overseas. His shop eventually garnered a cult-like following and has created one of the most iconic styles in Harajuku, helping shape the modern image of Tokyo street fashion.

Sebastian finds inspiration in candy wrappers and children's toys, which double as his medium. He creates mind-blowing assemblages, which form gradations of all visible colours; “Using things in the world, I want to express all the colours in the world.” His work is a neon virus that started on the streets of Tokyo and is now spreading globally with no sign of losing momentum. Earlier this year his first solo show Colorful Rebellion – seventh nightmare at the Kianga Ellis Project in New York City brought over 4,000 visitors, and he has some other surprises in the works.

Towa Tei’s “Wordy” Music Video Masks

It’s hard to look at Sebastian’s work and not hear music. “I really think that Towa Tei and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu make the music that matches my work, but I dream about making something for Bjork or Michel Gondry someday.” 

These are masks used for electronic music artist Towa Tei’s music video “Wordy”. “They asked us to make ‘a sketchy party room’, so we got some black lights, actresses, a bathtub, toilet, streamers and threw confetti everywhere. Also we brought in 20 live dogs. No one would let us do that in a rental studio so we did it here in our atelier.”

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Towa Tei masks for the "Wordy" video Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Mecha barbie

Sebastian first started collecting kids toys from American flea markets in the 90s, just around the time when people his age thought they were too old for them. The colours and textures of those 80s toys were exactly what he loved when he was a kid and stimulated memories of his visually-rich childhood. He was especially drawn to weird ones like this shiny, dreadlocked, thick-necked Mecha barbie. “I got her for a dollar from a flea market. She must have been someone’s favourite because she is a mess.”  

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Mecha Barbie Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

My Little Pony

Paying no heed to the gender specificity of marketing to children, Carebears and My Little Pony came to Japan for the first time in Sebastian’s suitcase. He has collected hundreds over the years, but has given most of them to Kyary, or used them as raw materials in his installations. Surrounding himself with these toys gives him a constant stream of inspiration. 

“I never get stuck on ideas. When I get an order I just close my eyes and I the idea comes to me right away. The most difficult thing is to actually make the things that I have in my head. There have been some things that were just too wild…”

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A few still-in-the-box My Little Ponies Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Fake Doraemon

Sebastian grew up on a busy local shopping street, surrounded by not only candy and toys, but their packaging as well – a little bit cheap and always colourful. 

“I love Doraemon!” On his buying trips overseas, the Chinese and Thai markets always produce rare finds – often fake, but valuable nonetheless. “I like the cheap, knock-off quality of these dolls because they aren’t perfectly made.” Who would have thought you could have a yellow-coloured or five-fingered Doraemon? These cheaply-made knock-offs are some of the weirdest in his collection and his favourites. 

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Fake Doraemon Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Mushrooms

“When I close my eyes I see psychedelic patterns and colours.” In every fairy tale, mushrooms are colourful, oddly shaped and often magical. “I like things that aren’t only cute, but also have a dark side, that have a little bit of the grotesque. I enjoy objects more after I have seen what is behind their cuteness.” Masuda's work pokes fun at the line between reality and fantasy.

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Psychedelic mushrooms and butterflies Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Kigurumi (mascot costumes)

Sebastian has always had an affinity for giant mascot costumes. In his 20s he worked in theatre and often ended up acting inside a mascot costume. A giant stuffed animal is made from scratch right here in the studio for every one Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s live shows. This one has some leaves on it because it was worn outside recently, but it was made for Kyary’s show at the Budokan.

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Kigurumi Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Unicycle

Infinitely talented Kyary Pamyu Pamyu can apparently ride both a pogo stick and a unicycle with confidence, so she requested Masuda and his staff to make her a pair. But not just any old object would do for a show at the Budokan or the Yokohama Arena. They needed fake fur, sparkles and all things 6%DOKIDOKI to release the objects from mundane reality. “In my work I make new colours by grouping coloured objects that are in the world. My work looks really fresh and unusual, but all the colors are already in the world, we just can’t see define them, so we can’t see them”. 

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Photography by Masaaki Sasaki

Blind Teddy Dogs

Masuda works in his warehouse, surrounded by fifty or so of the hundreds of massive teddy bears hanging in the back of the studio. Five of these eyeless dogs were made in different colors for a magazine cover shoot for an idol group called ‘℃-ute. “This is one of the ideas that I want people to remember from all this stuff we left behind in our childhoods.” That is Masuda's main message: he proffers an alternative path growing up, one that avoids the disappointing and drab adult life, one that still embraces the mementos of our burden-free childhoods. “In Japan, it’s okay to dress in a childlike way and enjoy things that are made for children.” 

“When I was a child I didn’t know about the existence of sound, so I didn’t know I was deaf.” It wasn’t until Masuda was seven years old that his hearing naturally came to him. Humans use all five of their senses to collect information and be aware of objects around them. "I was compensating for all the lost aural information with my eyes. This has affected me very much. I was strongest as an artist when I was in Elementary school, and I feel that I have spent my entire adult life trying to return to that time."

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