Portrait of a Shadow: An Interview with Kazuhiro Tsuji

You might not yet know the name Kazuhiro Tsuji (Kazu), but you probably know his work. He is the hand behind over twenty-five years of special effects makeup characters that include recent movies such as How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Looper. A self-taught artist and protégé of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, Kazu attained such awards as the 2001 BAFTA Award for the How the Grinch Stole Christmas and was nominated for the Academy Awards for Norbit and Click. Prior to moving to Los Angeles on invitation by Rick Baker to work on Men In Black, Kazu had started one of Japan’s first special effects makeup companies and worked with such directors as Akira Kurosawa. He is an example of how focus, determination and passion lead to success, a level of success that most of us will only witness the fruits of such on the silver screen.

Despite this success, Kazu has retired from the film industry with decades of work still ahead of him as a full-time independent artist. He has launched his art career with a continuing series of mega hyperreal portrait sculptures that so far include Dick Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol. These portrait sculptures are eight times the size of a human head and are created by a multitude of materials including resin, silicone, paint, and hair. Over two decades of refining his skill in sculpting and painting in special effects makeup has culminated in the execution of these portrait sculptures.

kazu, kazuhiro tsuji

My original conversation with Kazu was at the LA Art Show 2015 where his Andy Warhol and Dali portraits were on display for five consecutive days, receiving a constant crowd of onlookers. During that time Kazu stood apart from the crowd, humbly observing them observing the sculptures, as well as talking with patrons and fellow artists. I’ve known about his work for years but at that time I wasn’t aware that he had left the film industry. I approached him and we had a conversation in which he revealed this narrative of transitioning from a commercial job into a career in which he has complete control over his creativity. It was a moment that redefined my perspective of success. This was someone I’ve admired for years, and now I’ve discovered the pains and trials that he has endured to achieve what is meaningful to him. How many people would kill to have the makeup gigs he had? But through our conversation I understood he saw something more important than what society deems successful.

I had a chance to visit Kazu at his studio and continue our discussion about what he was going through when he decided to transition careers, and what has inspired him as an artist. I teamed up with photographer Drew Pluta to capture the artist from two lenses, one from the interview to see into the artist’s mind through his words, and the other from a camera to see into the artist’s mind through his environment. What we captured in our chosen mediums was a master on his journey to continue his greater conversation with humanity.


Men or monsters, which do you prefer to create?

I’m not really interested in monsters. The most fascinating thing for me is a real human or a real animal. I’m more interested in the inside rather than the outside.

So you connect with those internal human qualities of a person.

It’s amazing to know the anatomy and what they are made of and how complex and beautiful they are.

I would imagine that to actually depict the images as real as you do that you can’t just study the surface. You really do need to know the human at its core. And so is that your approach on how you get these hyperreal depictions?

When I’m sculpting someone I always try to figure out what they were thinking at the moment I am creating, and what kind of person they were. When I make shapes or the details on surface, I always try to put in my mind, “Why is this happening? What’s going on underneath?” But at the same time on the other side of my mind, I try not to think too much of them. There’s always a beautiful line on their face that is very complex to duplicate. So those lines I would sculpt them based on what I studied and what I want to express and I also put emotional meaning in them. So I negotiate between what I know and what I don’t know and what I try to do and what I’m doing unconsciously. There’s a balance of the whole thing. Of course it’s a portrait, it’s important to have a likeness, but at the same time I put my translation of who they are, how I feel about this person and how I want to present this person.

kazu, kazuhiro tsuji

The way you portray these personalities everything has to be so precise. And so I was wondering, if everything is so precise then where’s the chaos in the creation?

Yeah, I’m not a copy machine.

And that’s what some people might think. Oh, this person just has extreme observation and they just know how to translate it through their hand. But there really is a process of actually building up these lifeforms.

If I am just copying what I see, I would be bored and it would be just a tedious process.

You worked 25 years in the film industry. I would imagine there was a large part of that where you were just doing other people’s designs, other people’s intentions, their creations. Was that one of the reasons why you transitioned into becoming an independent artist?

Yes, that is part of the reason. I didn’t enjoy the process of filmmaking much. There were too many people involved. I respect the directors like, Akira Kurosawa and Kubrick, because they have very strong vision that can carry thousands of people to one goal. Their intentions or reasons are so strong and to the point. Many times, those ideas are very hard and complex to come up but make sense to anyone as an outcome. They know what they want very clearly. But most of the time, that is not the case. Producers and studio want to make money. It became very commercial. As soon as they put the commercial over the art into the movie making, things fall apart. And I got tired of hearing complaining from those involved in the film industry, including myself. Of course there are many great people in the film industry. I met great actors and other artists, but for a long time I felt it’s not for me.

kazu, kazuhiro tsuji

You are a very calm and collected individual. I imagine that film environment almost being a culture shock.

When I grew up in Kyoto, and Kyoto especially in their nature have a pretentious or a superficial side. There is a big city next to Kyoto, Osaka, and when people explain that city, they would die for eating. Because their joy is eating. People say, Kyoto they would die for clothing, because they really care what people would think about them. I used to visit my uncle’s house, they were talking to one person, they acted really nice, but right after that person left their house, they started bad mouthing them. I became sensitive about it when I was a kid. I became introvert, really severe case of introvert. I hated crowded places. My father wasn’t there much when I grew up. My mother judged me a lot. I think a lot of Asian parents do—intimidate their children in public, or give some really harsh comment in front of many people. So who would I trust? The only person I could have a connection was my grandfather who didn’t give a shit. [laughing] I was always hanging with him or spending time by myself making something in my house.

Is being an introvert how you got involved with special effects makeup?

I was the youngest in the whole family and I had to prove myself some way. That was the drive for me to excel in something. I tried many things and tried to find out what I really wanted to do when I grew up. I was always looking for my future job because I hated school. I didn’t like the concept of conformity and teachers. I could tell who was good and who was bad teacher. Most of the teachers were just repeating the same thing every year. Especially Japanese education, they don’t teach the joy of learning. They just teach to memorize for the examination to go to college. I tried many different things, and then I found about Dick Smith when I started having interest in special effects make up.


If special effects was a childhood passion why did you retire from being in a top position in Hollywood?

So after doing this job and coming to this country, everything was going well as anyone would hope to be. But I always had a struggle inside thinking, is this really right? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? At that time everything was going well, but in the process I was struggling and there’s some hint of unhappiness in my mind. I was thinking something was wrong. When I was working on The Grinch, Jim Carrey was giving me quite a hard time on set and that sent me to the psychotherapist. I was really depressed after that whole on-set experience. It should make anyone feel special but why am I so unhappy? I have never got suicidal thoughts or anything like that, but after several major films I started to think I’m not living my life fully. I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do rather than what I really wanted to do.

Life became mechanical.

It’s very easy to go into that for anyone. I think it’s because of school education and religious belief. They try to put everybody on the rail. They teach to live certain way and eventually in the twenties you’ll do this, in the thirties and forties you’ll do this, and this is the way you’ll die. I thought I had a kind of special, unique way of life, but I wasn’t living my own way. It was simply idealized concept I was following.

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When was that moment when you decided to take that leap of faith?

I made the portrait of Dick Smith in 2002. When I showed it to people, I got an amazing sense of connection with the people who were watching and experiencing it. And I enjoyed looking at them very much. That was the moment I felt that I was living and did something very meaningful for myself and the people looking at my work. And I got the desire to do this kind of art but I couldn’t get started for ten years. I thought it was impossible to live as an artist. I was talking to my boss at that time Rick Baker, who I really respected, I told him “I want to do this kind of art instead of film makeup,” and he said, “Art doesn’t make money.” So I believed in it but I just couldn’t get rid of that desire. Around 2011 I thought, since I didn’t feel like living, I should live the rest of my life in a way that I feel right. My future didn’t matter because I felt like I was dead already. That was the turning point.

So you’ve come out of this transformation and it’s these heads, these portraits that bridged you to the art world. Could you explain to me why Dali, why Warhol?

Warhol himself interested me more than his art works. After I watched his documentary, I was really inspired by who he was. Why he become like that. What kind of person he was. What was going on inside. What was real or fake about him. What was going on in his mind and what was happening around him. He had the transition from commercial artist to fine art artist. That part also inspired me since I was going through the same kind of process. Dali was … Dick Smith passed away last year around July and before he passed away I saw him gradually become like an empty shell until I saw him a day before passing. By seeing him in that progress I was thinking about life of the artist.

I went to London for installing Paul McCarthy’s pieces and I stopped by Spain and I visited Dali museum. I was contemplating a lot, I have probably thirty years or forty years left in my life to create something. What can I do? Dick was passing away, and I was also looking at Dali’s life. Thinking about what’s going on with artist’s mind around the end of their life. When they start to realize not much time was left in their life, what’s going to happen in their mind? Dick told me he had lots of regret. He said he should have done this and that. His family relationship, and lots of things. Dali also had same kind of struggle toward the end of his life, he was not totally content.

When I make portrait, I think about life and death often, how people were trying to live and how they died.

kazu, kazuhiro tsuji

Is death something you’re afraid of that you’re trying to cope with it through your art?

I’m not afraid of death. I don’t like pain though [laughing]. I think life and death are major themes in my pieces. I think about fear of death and insecurity often, because people make those the reason for their decisions, even unconsciously, and make mistakes because of that. I catch myself when a feeling of fear happens in my mind, and I ask myself what is going on in my mind. I think the art is kind of a spiritual rite given to humans. Activity of art is really tied with our empathy and fear. Our work really shows what kind of human we are. Art makes people confront themselves and also save their life. I think art is essential desire like sleeping, eating, and sex.

Would you ever sculpt yourself?

[laughs] Maybe, eventually.

What do you think that process would be?

I think that would happen when I get close to the end of my life. That would be the last piece I make and I put myself in the piece, maybe. I consider my portraits are my gravestones.

That’s interesting, so each of these sculptures you’re facing your own death through them.

Not really. More like proof of some moment of my life.

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Dick Smith taught you a lot about art, but what did he teach you about life?

What he taught me was that no one has the answer for your life. You are the only one who knows the answer. He showed me that he was not perfect. I think in human nature people are eager to get the approval or prove themselves who they are. That’s when conflict happens inside and outside, because nobody needs to be approved by anyone. People try to get approval from people who don’t care about them. And those who care just embrace who you are. He had lots of ups and downs. I think I had that too. That’s something he showed to me to teach me. That portrait I made for his 80th birthday and I considered that was his present to me rather than it was for him. That piece taught me a lot, and still does. When I was sculpting it I was thinking about him and going through different moments I spent with him, that process was like reading back the diary and it was a therapeutic process.

I want to ask this because it’s something that a lot of artists go through-everyone goes through-but especially artists. You’re self-taught, which means that you spent a considerable amount of time alone figuring it out and basically failing—to learn your craft. So even now I’m wondering if there’s fear that you deal with. But also how do you actually utilize the fear and failure to your advantage?

The moment I notice the fear occurs in my mind I use that as a warning sign to switch my mind. Because I know fear of failure is an idea that other people gave to you. That’s something implanted by others, it’s not something came from here [points to heart]. Someone taught you that you shouldn’t fail and you have to be careful or someone is going to judge you and you shouldn’t make mistake. Your parent or teacher taught you when you’re kid. They taught you so they won’t get embarrassed by you or they won’t feel they failed or be judged. For example, my mother, she told me—the one thing she said that really hurt me— in the yearbook when I was in elementary school, she looked at one picture and she pointed at my face and said, “Don’t smile like that. It embarrasses me.” I was really shocked. She told me stuff like that sometimes. That’s why I don’t like to get photographed … I’m kind of over it now though. But that memory was embedded really strongly. Parents and teacher taught you a concept of succeed and failure. Right answer comes from within each of us and that is the best answer for you no matter what anyone thinks. You don’t have to fear. No one should be judging you. I think that’s why art exists, to make people realize that you’re fine. By doing art, it will teach you who you are and make you live your true life.

kazu, kazuhiro

About Author

I am Decadence Darling. I am a trans* mystic, gender rights advocate, and student of esoteric philosophy. When I’m not writing I am likely studying Vedic or Western occult philosophy, meditating, or dropping in on one of Southern California’s esoteric societies. I have also worked with LA’s transgender community and continue to conduct interviews with its members to explore the social issues regarding gender equality and expression. Inspired by 19th century fin-de-siecle decadent artists, I am a purveyor of decadent philosophy. Whether it’s through art and culture commentary, philosophy, or transgender advocacy, I want to transform people’s consciousness when experiencing the unknown so that instead of fearing the dark, they will seek out beauty.


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