In the past few years there has been a global mania for both Japanese pop art and street fashion. Artists like Takashi Murakami and his Kaikai Kiki roster of talent, as well as painters Yoshitomo Nara and Junko Mizuno have had gallery shows around the world, while upscale malls to Paris runways have been the home to wacky Japanese inspired fashions epitomized by the fashion magazine Fruits. One artist who combines the gallery with couture is 35-year-old transgendered Tokyo artist Pyuupiru. Originally starting out in the club scene Pyuupiru (who got her/ his name from a fellow club kid) creates elaborate hand-knit, hand-sewn costumes inspired by planets, manga characters, and organic forms that go beyond fashion and into the realm of sculpture and installation art. Pyuupiru's various guises and disguises are a true revolution of beauty - strange, sometimes disturbing, often cartoon-like, but an arresting and revelatory beauty nonetheless. To capture the human being behind this art is hardly an easy task, but it's one that Pyuupiru's longtime friend and at one time fellow club kid Daishi Matsunaga took on in 2001. For seven years Matsunaga chronicled his friends creative and personal highs and lows, the result of which is the 2009 documentary "Pyuupiru 2001-2008", a loving portrait that goes well beyond the colourful knits, garish make-up, and surreal props that Pyuupiru adorns her/himself with.
When we first meet Pyuupiru in 2001 he's a tall, gawky gay man who, despite Matsunaga's insistence that he looks like a TV star, isn't particularly handsome or distinguished. Pyuupiru is also very lonely. Instead of just graciously taking Matsunaga's compliment he jokes with his friend, asking him if he wants to fool around. It turns out that Pyuupiru has never been in love, never dated anyone for an extended period of time, and isn't particularly happy in his own skin. He is possessed of an astounding imagination though, and fills notebooks with sketches for outrageous club kid costumes. It's obvious that these outfits function more than just fun Saturday night attire and as Matsunaga's documentary progresses we see Pyuupiru use costumes, make-up and eventually female hormone injections, plastic surgery and even elective castration to transform himself into an almost angelically beautiful asexual being. Throughout this seven year physical transformation Pyuupiru goes through dramatic emotional changes as well. (S)he must deal with her/ his parents who wish their son would just drop all the bizarre visuals, leave his job working in a manga cafe and get on with a normal life. Thankfully his brother becomes one of his biggest fans, supporters, and at times creative collaborators. Even this support can't protect Pyuupiru when (s)he finally falls in love with a straight man who is referred to only as "Papa". While things don't ultimately go as Pyuupiru had wished the heartbreaking fallout results in some truly jaw-dropping creations including a fiery installation piece made up of 15,000 origami cranes.
It's this last romantic arch in Pyuupiru's story that makes "Pyuupiru 2001-2008" so watchable. Instead of an artist caught up in the dry intellectual sexual and political dialectics of gender-treachery Pyuupiru's transformation seems to be motivated as much by his/ her desire to be a happy, loved and loving human being as it is by artistic ambition. We almost get a sense that even if (s)he had not been propelled into the international contemporary art scene that (s)he would have followed the same creative trajectory regardless. Yes her/ his attempts to transcend the duality of male and female puts him in the same context as such artists as former Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV member Genesis P. Orridge and French plastic surgery performance artist Orlan, and Japanese drag artist Yasumasa Morimura. (It also makes writing this review a pitched battle against gender specific pronouns.) Again though, there is a vulnerability, a longing for personal and romantic acceptance, and a whimsical sense of humour that, when combined with her/ his ferocious talent, makes Pyuupiru stand out from these other artists. The climax of the film which shows Pyuupiru performing atop a giant gallery installation is so deeply moving because it nakedly conveys her/ his continuing struggles and triumphs with her/ his own body and identity.
I dearly hope that with Viz Pictures now releasing their New People artist documentaries DVDs that Daishi Matsunaga's "Pyuupiru 2001-2008" ends up finding a home amongst the series. Like Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara and Hisashi Tenmyouya who are already inlcuded in the series Pyuupiru is an artist whose work encapsulates a truly unique Japanese pop culture aesthetic. More importantly, though, is that the concepts and message of personal transformation in Pyuupiru's work makes it totally universal.