Japanese pop culture is a multifaceted, complex amalgamation of Western imports and traditional Japanese aesthetics that, while maintaining aspects of both its constituent parts, achieves a unique synthesis unlike either of the traditions it draws from. This push and pull of Western and Japanese influences is perhaps most visible in the concept of kawaii, or cuteness, which, particularly during the last 10 years, has come to saturate Japanese TV, music, art and fashion.

Pikapika Fantajin

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Warner Japan

While different performers and characters have risen to cultural ascendancy in the context of kawaii, the reigning queen is without question Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The 21-year-old singer, blogger and model rose out of the fashion scene in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood with an aesthetic built on the usual kawaii tropes — pastel colors, rococo-style outfits and makeup and mannerisms designed to produce a child-like appearance — but with her own added touch of surrealist weirdness drawn from the palettes of American pop stars like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Her musical career began in earnest after teaming up with J-pop powerhouse Yasutaka Nakata — a producer and performer filling the same niche as Pharrell Williams, but on steroids — to release her first successful single, “PonPonPon,” in 2011.

As you might expect, Kyary’s musical persona is as preposterously exuberant as her fashion. Her songs, perhaps best showcased on 2013’s highly successful Nanda Collection, layer her vaguely childish singing over Nakata’s masterfully produced instrumentals featuring loud, bright synthesizers, baroque instrumentation and aggressive four-on-the-floor rhythms. Her off-the-wall music videos perfectly blend her music and fashion into eerily cute performances that push the boundaries of J-pop and kawaii culture to their logical, albeit bizarrely extravagant, extremes.

The singer collaborated with super-producer Nakata once again on her latest album Pikapika Fantajin (literally translated as “Sparkling Fantasy-Person”), which was released in Japan on Wednesday. This new record is largely a return to form after her last release, Nanda Collection, opening with “Pikapika Fantajin,” a fanfare reminiscent of “Final Fantasy” loading-screen music, before launching into a six track-long sensory onslaught of infectious, mind-blowingly upbeat J-pop masterpieces beginning with “Kira Kira Killer” and ending with “Family Party.” The pounding four-on-the-floor rhythms of singles “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring” and “Mottai Night Land” compel you to move your body while Nakata’s complex, lustrous melodies and masterful choruses work their way so deeply into your head that you literally can’t think of anything else. The cumulative effect is something like being beaten to death with a teddy bear or drowning in a pool of candy hearts — Kyary’s overbearing, vaguely menacing cuteness is simply inescapable.

After the last single “Family Party” comes to a close, however, Pikapika Fantajin takes a rather disappointing turn. The worst track on the album is the all-English “Ring a Bell,” featuring Kyary listlessly repeating “Let’s go to the studio / Let’s go to the music studio” over a ridiculously sweet instrumental that breaks the spell of the aggressive pop of the album’s first half. The break is so sudden that I wonder if this track is some kind of meta-commentary on the fake emotionality and creativity-crushing character of the music industry — Kyary sullenly chants “I’m happy today” throughout the second half of the song — but the effect is not a pleasing one. The four remaining tracks are a bit better than “Ring a Bell,” but similarly seem like half-finished ideas with very little of the energy of the album’s stellar first half.

While the album’s second half is a disappointment, the quality of Nakata’s production and songwriting, even on the weaker tracks, makes this record worth a close listen. His mixing is full to bursting, with powerful high ends, low ends and everything in between, his synthesizers are beautiful and his feel for song structure is impeccable. Whether on the dancehall-influenced cover of capsule’s “do do pi do,” the almost heavy metal “Serious Hitomi” or the melodic pop of “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring,” Nakata produces beautiful instrumentals that delicately straddle the border between J-pop glory and the looming chasm of campy sweetness, only falling over that edge on “Ring a Bell.” This is an album that I would say justifies the purchase of $200 headphones.

Nakata’s exceptional production doesn’t reduce Kyary ‘s presence to a superfluous addition, however. Pikapika Fantajin wouldn’t work as an instrumental album: it need’s Kyary’s creepy-kawaii aesthetic to give it direction and the energy necessary to justify its extravagance. This is not a Yasutaka Nakata album, it is a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album, and in spite of its failings it has secured her position as Queen of J-pop. Long live the queen.

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