One fateful day in Poland, an unwitting customs agent at Warsaw Chopin Airport unlatched the suitcase of Kazutaka Sakagami to discover the skin of a human face, fileted like a slice of Swiss ham.
The spine-tingling episode quickly turned into a light-hearted misunderstanding as Sakagami, more well-known as the special effects makeup artist Amazing Jiro, revealed to custom agents that the face mask was nothing but a latex prop.
“They all had a good laugh while looking at my works,” says Amazing Jiro. “They all became very friendly and I was able to get out of there no problem.”
Called a “rare artist who can easily come and go between analog and digital” who can make the “impossible possible,” Amazing Jiro has collaborated on special effects makeup projects with entertainment luminaries like pop artist Takashi Murakami, Shin Godzilla director Shinji Higuchi and now Tokyo Weekender.
To create the makeup art for this month’s cover of TW, we meet Amazing Jiro across the Sumida River in eastern Tokyo’s Koto ward at the headquarters of JUR Co., Ltd., the special effects makeup and molding company Amazing Jiro founded nearly 20 years ago after graduating from Tokyo University of Arts.
Arriving fashionably late, Amazing Jiro welcomes us into the elevator, sliding open a corrugated metal door that looks like it belongs on an industrial warehouse. The walls of the elevator are painted with the kanji for sho, ha and ri. Jiro explains they mean that to be perfect, you must follow your teacher; to succeed you have to become better than your teacher; and then you must separate to become your own teacher.
The elevator ride takes us past the second floor, the location of the Amazing School Jur, a full-scale makeup and modeling technique school founded by Amazing Jiro. Here, professional artists and guest lecturers share lessons with the next generation, hence the inspirational artwork within the elevator.
On the third floor is the JUR Co. workshop, where amongst the paint and latex fumes employees busily scan 3D images of their faces for a future project. Shelves are lined with face masks made from silicon and resin, a museum showcasing the past decade of Amazing Jiro’s work for television, movies, amusement parks, you name it. There’s a bust of Yoda, Albert Einstein, a lion in a menacing roar, a grotesque version of an elderly Pinocchio, etc.
When we reach Amazing Jiro’s personal studio on the fourth floor, he whips out his iPhone to share his latest project. Without warning, we watch one of Jiro’s assistants gouge her fingers into the eye sockets of a latex mannequin head, and fake blood starts gushing out.
The head was built for a short film Amazing Jiro produced for his latest project – a haunted house built inside two container trucks that are currently touring Japan, bringing ghoulish entertainment to the masses who aren’t able to travel far from home due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Like the Cryptkeeper to the stars, Amazing Jiro giggles deliriously as he swipes through his phone. This time we watch the short film he created, “Mugan,” or “No Face,” which explains the backstory for the ghostly character featured at the haunted house.
Not unlike The Grudge, the lead character is a woman distraught over the end of a love affair. With long sewing shears, she snips off her nose so she can no longer smell the scent of her ex. Then she gouges out her eyes so she can no longer see him. Then she rips out her tongue, for no special reason, Amazing Jiro tells us. “She just wants to die.”
“I don’t think there’s anything really too disturbing,” says Amazing Jiro. “When it comes to doing special effects makeup, or any makeup in general, you’re making something from thin air. Keeping that in mind, if I’m making a scary character, I’ll add some beauty to it. If I’m making a cute character, I’ll add something sickening to it. I think that humans have duality and depth, and I put that into consideration when I make my characters.”
The man who is afraid of the sight of his own blood was born in Osaka but moved with his family to Pasadena, California where he lived until relocating to Chiba at age 5. He still considers the Los Angeles suburb as his hometown and is proud to return annually as a special guest at the International Make-up Artist Trade Show.
Recognized as a talented artist from a young age, in high school Jiro drew late into the night, sometimes sleeping through most of his classes in the nurses’ station. At university he studied metal carving. After his graduation exhibit he put the sheet metal away as he had become fascinated creating lifelike work.
A dissection scene from the movie Spiral inspired Jiro to study special effects makeup and he joined the Yoyogi Animation Academy. An early encounter with Etsumi Kawashima at HairMake UR in Aoyama inspired Amazing Jiro to launch his own special effects makeup company. Within his second year of business he won TV TOKYO’s “TV Champion” Special Effects Makeup Artists Championship.
While Kazutaka Sakagami is Amazing Jiro’s given name, for as long as he can remember people called him Jiro in recognition of the Showa Era entertainer Jiro Sakagami. Eight years ago when he started producing more full-body, fashion makeup, he launched an Instagram account. There were too many Jiros on Instagram, so he combined the name of his studio – Amazing Studio – with his nickname and the moniker Amazing Jiro was born.
“From then I got a lot of comments on my posts saying that I really was amazing, so I decided to use that as my name outside of Instagram too,” he says.
Like most companies, business slowed for Amazing Jiro during the Covid-19 pandemic and for two months he received no commissions. He started painting makeup on his left hand every day. This grew into the One Hand Monster project on YouTube.
“Up until then, I had jobs coming in all the time, but during the time I didn’t, I realized just how much I liked doing makeup,” he says. “I also realized that kids around the world were just as bored at home as I was, and in a way to help them beat their boredom and learn to wash their hands, I came up with the One Hand Monster idea. I had many parents send their kids’ One Hand Monsters to me.”
Not one to stay idle, Amazing Jiro launched his traveling haunted house with inaugural demonstrations held at Shibuya Crossing. He also has a large-scale, fiber-reinforced plastic piece on display at Diesel Art Gallery as part of the “immaten” group exhibition.
Once travel is allowed again, Amazing Jiro’s first stop will be his adopted hometown of LA, and he is anxious to work with international artists and present demonstrations abroad, continuing to break down barriers and collaborate with artists all over the world.
“I always focus on making people have simple, impulsive reactions,” says Amazing Jiro, who smiles as he talks, his cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ve never felt the need to make people disgusted or make them think hard, but merely surprise them.”
Amazing Jiro Video Interview
While visiting Amazing Jiro at his Tokyo studio, in addition to this interview we also filmed a quick Q&A. See the video below for more Amazing Jiro.
Interview and translation by Alex Shapiro