Behind the scenes with Perfume, Japan’s most futuristic pop group

Perfume has been one of Japan's most ubiquitous and best selling artists for more than a decade, with a distinctive electro-pop sound backed by an elegant and futuristic image. But the musical production of the trio is only part of the equation. The live shows of Perfume are a dazzling collision of technology and choreography that turns the cavernous sands into places of science fiction wonder.

The world tour of Future Pop Perfume arrives tomorrow in North America with a show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. I went to the Yokohama date in December of last year, then I met with the group, as well as with the intellectual author of the group's live production, to find out what is behind Perfume's fusion of technology and pop culture.


behind the scenes with perfume japans most futuristic pop group

Perfume (from left to right): Kashiyuka, A-chan and Nocchi
Amuse Inc.

The perfume was formed at a talent school in Hiroshima at the turn of the millennium, but the popularity of the group was shot with the release of the 2008 album GAME that turned out to be one of the most influential records in the recent history of J-pop. Producer Yasutaka Nakata relied on the electronics influenced by Shibuya-kei from his own Capsule project to turn it into a compact collection of innovative techno-pop songs.

The perfume stood out long before the worldwide explosion of EDM, so the futuristic image felt like a natural fit for Nakata's electro productions. "When we were younger, we actually practiced singing like divas," says Ayaka "A-chan" Nishiwaki. "But when we met Nakata and started making electro music, that image was connected with robots and one thing led to the other," adds Ayano "Nocchi" Omoto.

Minimalist videos for early singles such as "Polyrhythm" set the tone, and high-profile collaborations with companies like Panasonic, NHK, and NTT Docomo followed later. "We have always felt a connection with our fans, but the use of technology actually makes it closer," says Yuka "Kashiyuka" Kashino. "For example, showing Twitter messages as part of the 3D images on the stage, allows fans to experience our program through technology." A-chan adds: "It's not like the technology defines the Perfume, but as the technology exists, the Perfume wants to take advantage of it to the fullest".

They certainly do that: Perfume's live shows do not look like anything you've seen before. Using advanced visual elements with motion capture and complex transparent screen arrangements, each song has an aggressive aesthetic that elevates choreography and music.


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Amuse Inc.

The avant-garde live production is largely the work of Rhizomatiks, an experimental art collective founded in 2006 by Daito Manabe, who also directed the music video "1mm" below. I met with Manabe for about an hour at his studio in Tokyo, and much of the interview led him to show me several work in progress on his MacBook Pro. Rhizomatiks has so many projects going on at the same time that Manabe has to keep track of how technology is shared between them with a flow chart that looks like the Tokyo metro map from 300 years in the future.

Rhizomatiks works closely with Mikiko Mizuno, choreographer of perfumes and director of the dance company Elevenplay. "First we do some very experimental projects with Elevenplay, then, if the technology works well, we use it with Perfume," says Manabe. "It's something like research and development with Elevenplay, and a bigger application with Perfume, we can not really miss a Perfume concert with so many people there, so we tried a lot first."

Much of Rhizomatiks technology is patented. For example, for an NHK broadcast of New Year 2014 at NHK, the collective went so far as to develop their own drones to fly nine flashing lanterns around the members of Perfume while performing "Cling Cling".

"No one sells drone safe enough"! "Explains Manabe. "We are worried that regular drones could cause an injury, if ours hits someone, the drone will be broken, but nobody will be hurt, the battery only lasts three minutes, so it is light enough, so you can not really sell it, but it's good for live performances, and many people have been affected during commercial drone performances. "

However, for the Future Pop tour, the Rhizomatiks are using consumer devices as part of production for the first time. The song "Tiny Baby" sees the three members perform in front of an iPhone X connected to a microphone stand; their faces are displayed on large screens on the stage, and the iPhone's TrueDepth camera is used to display various effects like words that come out of their mouths.

The software for visual effects was developed by two engineers in Rhizomatiks. "I think the iPhone is the most stable facial tracking technology at the moment," says Manabe. "It's easy to use and the API is very sophisticated, we also control a lot of lighting, so if we only used an RGB camera it might not be robust enough."


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Amuse Inc.

Surprisingly, Perfume members do not always know the full scale of what they are doing. performing. "We have not seen each other with the production yet, so we can not say it right now," Nocchi says when asked if they have a favorite song on the Future Pop tour. "I'm just imagining & # 39; Tiny Baby & # 39 because I have not seen it by myself, "says Kashiyuka," but the choreography is very simple with the text that comes out of our mouths, so it should be fun for the audience to see it. "

From the Perfume perspective , the hardest part comes long before they set foot on stage. "Daito [Manabe] makes it very easy for us. All we have to do is simply adjust the choreography to perfection, and then he takes care of the rest, "says Nocchi." But to make his production, we have to record 3D videos of the choreography so many times against a green screen, and that's the hard part. "

In addition to the Future Pop tour, the Perfume time in the USA. UU it also includes a couple of performances in Coachella, which of necessity will be a much smaller production. The first time I saw the Perfume at the Sonic summer festival in Osaka was in 2011, and as expected, it was a very different experience: there is only so much you can do in the light of day with limited times of change.

"Festivals are sometimes for people who are Knowing Perfume and seeing us for the first time, and we are only on stage, it's a challenge," says Kashiyuka. "With technology in real production, we can express more than music and choreography the way we want it, technology helps with that. "

"At festivals we are more aggressive, just to let people know who we are," says A-chan. "But with programs like [the Future Pop tour] we are responsible until the end to make people enjoy the program, so on the one hand, it's relaxing, but on the other hand we feel pressure, but there's a lot of satisfaction when we overcome the pressure, that we can not stop acting. "


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Amuse Inc.

Despite its fame and futuristic image, Perfume members have a relatively low profile public presence by the Japanese celebrity. standards, and not use social networks at the individual level. "It's an administration policy," laughs Nocchi, who says he did not receive a smartphone until the iPhone SE. "We're the first people who should be doing this kind of thing, but we can not, it's more about security for our private lives, we like to post about our albums and things on the official Perfume account, but not about ourselves."

However, the group started a TikTok account recently, and I should point out that they have all upgraded to the iPhone X. Kashiyuka also started with the iPhone 3G, which makes her an extreme adopter in Japan. slow to catch, so I'm surprised when things like 'uh, now the phone recognizes my face?!', says Nocchi. "But I try to accept it because that's how the world is moving". [19659027] As an album, Future Pop is not as innovative as some of Nakata's previous works, which may be inevitable given the overall global rise of EDM and electro-pop, but according to the group, Nakata see the record as the iteration inally Perfume. "Nakata-san came up with the title and has his own idea," says Kashiyuka. "But he said that at the beginning, when he started producing Perfume, people said that our music is" pop of the future. "At the time, I did not think it was exactly futuristic, there was a lot more to work on, but now, looking back to everything he's done with Perfume, he said that actually was future pop and this is like the end result as an album. "

The obvious question is, then, what is the future. of the future pop of perfume? "Only Nakata knows!" Says A-chan. "We believe in him, so we will continue where we are heading," Nocchi agrees.


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Amuse Inc.

Manabe, meanwhile, is constantly thinking about the new technology that can be used for live performances; He is particularly interested in the generation of images through FMRI brain scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging), although he recognizes that the idea is probably better suited to the home than the concert hall.

In the shorter term, 5G networks are more interesting for Rhizomatiks. "What I most expect is the ability to send videos from the audience phones to the stage," says Manabe. "We did an event called Sayonara Kokuritsu in the old national stadium where we asked the audience to take a picture and send it to a server, then we built a 3D model of the stadium using these photographs, but it was not in real time, they needed to send a image through Wi-Fi and it took a lot of time, if we had 5G, the camera could send images to the server in real time and we could use the 3D model instantly. "

This is something that Rhizomatiks is already working on. Manabe showed me a video that demonstrates the concept, although only with some telephones connected by cable It would be possible to use Wi-Fi for a small number of devices that transmit compressed video, he says, but the technology could not be implemented in a scenario full of people without 5G.

A few days before our interview I noticed that Manabe had posted a photo on Instagram of his meeting with Apple's vice president, Phil Schiller, so I had to ask him what they were talking about. "We just had a rough conversation about AR things," he says. "And also how when we get 5G networks, AR technology will change a lot, so we talk about that future."

Did Apple know about the "Tiny Baby" performance of the iPhone X? "Yes, I showed him, they loved it."

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