face mask Kamenya Omote
All photos courtesy of 

Shuhei Okawara / Kamenya Omote

Culture

This Man is ‘Buying’ Faces to Make Creepily Realistic Masks, and People Want In

Japanese mask shop Kamenya Omote is paying people close to $400 to use their face to 3D-print lifelike masks.
December 1, 2020, 1:35pm

There is something quite creepy about the idea of looking at someone with the same face as you. No one knows for sure how they would react if the situation were to arise. Some people believe if you were cloned, you probably wouldn’t recognise yourself. But Japanese mask shop Kamenya Omote is now giving people the chance to experience this. Not just that, the mask shop is also paying people to “sell” their faces, which would go on to become masks that anyone around the world can buy.

Started by 30-year-old Shuhei Okawara in 2014, Kamenya Omote aims to create a new mask culture. For their recent project “That Face”, they’re using a special technology to make lifelike masks modelled on the faces of real people. Each mask is sized at 105 percent of the actual face, so as to fit anyone who tries it on. As bizarre as this sounds, it seems the masks have found many takers. After the first sample of masks based on Okawara’s own face sold out, they invited applications from Tokyo residents interested in “selling” their faces in exchange for a sum of 40,000 yen (approx. $383).

We spoke to Okawara about how these super-realistic masks came about, what makes them so attractive to both buyers and sellers, and what’d happen if one of the buyers were to wear it while committing a crime.

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VICE: Hi Shuhei, what was the idea behind this project? 
Shuhei Okawara: I enjoy creating and shifting the image of what people imagine a "mask shop" to be like. Since it is a mask shop, I thought it was inevitable that I would buy and sell people's faces.

How do you get them to look so detailed and realistic?
We use a special technology to print high-precision photos on a plastic base made of 3D-scanned facial data. The details of the process are a trade secret.

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What’s the current price of these masks? Are there any specific types of people who’ve shown interest in buying them?
The first mask is 78,000 yen ($747). This is because it is clear that this is my face. The next face I will be selling is 98,000 yen ($939). I will sell the face of someone that lives in Tokyo. I believe that anonymous faces have value. I'm interested in the changing value of faces, and it's a variable thing. I recently received an order from an interesting person. They are very common people. People who buy masks in our store don't have any common characteristics, and that’s not just for this one. They just want it. Sometimes a masquerade ball is coming up the next day, but those are in the minority. As long as people have faces, the orders will continue. 

Your website mentions that this mask will make it difficult for people to see and breathe? Why do you think people would like to buy them despite the inconvenience?
My background is that of a theatre mask teacher. The basic structure of the mask narrows the vision and makes breathing difficult. But embracing that difficulty creates new movements and characters. People don't necessarily want their ideal face, they just want a transformation. People can accept the pain of transformation. Just like a tattoo. 

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Wearing a mask makes you feel bigger and freer than usual. It's no exception, even with the hygiene masks you wear every day. But just like in the movie The Mask, people don't just put on a mask to be able to do things they couldn't do before. The magic of a mask is limited. I dare to describe it as a curse.

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Are people interested in selling their faces to be used for the mask? Why would they want to do that?
There are already more than 100 applicants. It's very interesting. Have you ever fantasized about what it would be like to have twins? Humans still do not have the opportunity to look at their faces without a mirror. It’s about the possibility that there is another self somewhere, leading a completely different life. The story of the doppelganger is born of such human desires.

Face buying is limited and we are not going to buy all the faces. I don't want to sell people's faces, I want to buy them, but in order to buy them, I have to sell them. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of people who don't want money but want to donate their faces. But I pay for them just because I enjoy buying them outright.

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Why do you say you don’t want to sell the faces, but only buy them?
Buying is more exciting than selling. As an art dealer, I price artists' works in various forms, but it is to help people to "buy" the work. It's the people who buy, not the sellers, who create the market. Buying something that you feel strongly about and value is more creative than selling something that you think will sell.

There is value in anonymous faces, but it is a fluctuating value. There may be value in celebrity faces, and there may be faces that you wouldn't want even if you were paid for them. Why it has value is not for me to decide, but for the buyer to. If I had to look for a reason, I'd venture to say that I don't think it's interesting, although I'm sure a lot of presidential faces have been replicated and actually sold around the world.

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Does this have anything to do with the increasing and scary use of facial recognition surveillance? 
The technology to duplicate faces has been around for a long time. Our technology is being used to increase the accuracy of facial recognition systems. A developer of a facial recognition system had tested the mask to see if it could be used to get past authentication. That was a few years ago, but the facial recognition system was breached.

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In that case, if someone were to misuse these masks and get caught, would Kamenya Omote take the responsibility?
Let me know if there is a way to exploit this. I think if you abuse it, you will be caught immediately. Crime is only creative in movies. Would you regulate the sale of balaclavas because of the image of bank robbers? The social responsibility of the people who make the clothes may be related to the issue of environmental pollution, but it would be nonsensical if the producers of the clothes were accused of the possibility of the wearer committing a crime.

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Seeing the demand, do you plan to take face applications from people outside of Tokyo?
There are already a lot of requests and technically, it is possible. If the project in Tokyo goes well, I'd like to do it elsewhere too.

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