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

The ‘Future Pop’ tour is a dazzling collision of technology and choreography

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Perfume has been one of the most ubiquitous and highest-selling artists in Japan for more than a decade, with a distinctive electro-pop sound backed by a stylish, futuristic image. But the trio’s musical output is only one part of the equation. Perfume’s live shows are a dazzling collision of technology and choreography that turn cavernous arenas into sci-fi wonderlands. 

Perfume’s Future Pop world tour hits North America tomorrow with a show at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom. I went along to the Yokohama date in December last year, then met with the group — as well as the mastermind behind its live production — to find out what’s behind Perfume’s fusion of tech and pop culture.

Perfume (from left): Kashiyuka, A-chan, and Nocchi
Perfume (from left): Kashiyuka, A-chan, and Nocchi
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Perfume formed at a talent academy in Hiroshima around the turn of the millennium, but the group’s popularity skyrocketed with the release of 2008 album GAME, which turned out to be one of the more influential records in recent J-pop history. Producer Yasutaka Nakata built upon the Shibuya-kei-influenced electronica of his own Capsule project to turn in a tight collection of innovative techno-pop songs.

Perfume rose to prominence well before the global EDM explosion, so the futuristic image felt like a natural fit for Nakata’s electro productions. “When we were younger, we actually practised singing like divas,” says Ayaka “A-chan” Nishiwaki. “But when we first met Nakata and started to do electro music, that image was connected with robots and one thing led to another,” adds Ayano “Nocchi” Omoto. 

“We’ve always felt a connection to our fans, but using technology actually makes it closer.”

Minimalist videos for early singles like “Polyrhythm” set the tone, and high-profile collaborations with companies like Panasonic, NHK, and NTT Docomo later followed. “We’ve always felt a connection to our fans, but using technology actually makes it closer,” says Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino. “For example, showing messages from Twitter as part of the 3D images on stage — it makes the fans able to experience our show through technology.” A-chan adds “It’s not like technology defines Perfume, but since technology exists, Perfume wants to make the most of it.”

They certainly do that — Perfume’s live shows are like nothing you’ve seen before. Using advanced 3D-scanned visuals and complex transparent screen arrangements, each song has an aggressively stark aesthetic that elevates the choreography and the music itself.

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The cutting-edge live production is largely the work of Rhizomatiks, an experimental art collective founded in 2006 by Daito Manabe, who was also responsible for the interaction design and programming for the “1mm” music video below. I met with Manabe for about an hour at his Tokyo studio, and much of the interview involved him showing me various mind-blowing 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 the technology is shared between them with a flow chart that looks like Tokyo’s subway map from 300 years in the future.

Rhizomatiks works closely with Mikiko Mizuno, Perfume’s choreographer and director of the dance troupe Elevenplay. “First we do some very experimental projects with Elevenplay, then if the technology works well we use it with Perfume,” Manabe says. “It’s kind of like research and development with Elevenplay, and a bigger application with Perfume. We really can’t fail at a Perfume concert with so many people there, so we test a lot first.” 

Much of Rhizomatiks’ technology is proprietary. For a 2014 New Years’ Eve NHK broadcast, for example, the collective went as far as developing its own drones to fly nine flashing lanterns around Perfume’s members as they performed “Cling Cling.” 

“No-one sells safe enough drones!” Manabe explains. “We’re worried that regular drones might cause an injury. If ours hit someone, the drone itself will break but no-one will be hurt. The battery only lasts three minutes, to make it light enough, so you couldn’t really sell it — but it’s good for live performances. Lots of people have been hurt during performances using commercial drones.”

For the Future Pop tour, however, Rhizomatiks are using consumer gadgets as part of the production for the first time. The song “Tiny Baby” sees the three members each perform in front of an iPhone X attached to a microphone stand; their faces are displayed on large screens above the stage, and the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera is used to show various effects like words popping from their mouths. 

The software for the visual effects was developed by two engineers at Rhizomatiks. “I think the iPhone is the most stable face-tracking technology right now,” Manabe says. “It’s easy to use and the API is very sophisticated. We also control a lot of lighting, so if we just used an RGB camera it might not be robust enough.”

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Surprisingly, Perfume’s members don’t always know the full scale of what they’re performing. “We actually haven’t seen ourselves with the production yet, so we can’t really tell at this point,” Nocchi says when I ask the group if they have a particular favorite song from the Future Pop tour. “I’m just imagining ‘Tiny Baby’ because I haven’t seen it for myself,” Kashiyuka says, “but the choreography is very simple with the text coming out of our mouths, so it must be fun for the audience to watch.”

From Perfume’s perspective, the hardest part comes well before they ever set foot on stage. “Daito [Manabe] makes it really easy for us — all we have to do is just nail the choreography perfectly, and then he handles the rest,” Nocchi says. “But to realize his production, we have to record 3D videos of the choreography [with 32 cameras] so many times against a green screen, and that’s the difficult part.”

“With the technology on a real production, we get to express more of the music and choreography the way that we want to.”

Apart from the Future Pop tour, Perfume’s time in the US also takes in a couple of performances at Coachella, which by necessity will be a far more stripped-down production. I first saw Perfume at Osaka’s Summer Sonic festival in 2011, and as you’d expect it was a very different experience — there’s only so much you can do in daylight with limited changeover times.

“Festivals are sometimes for people who are just getting to know Perfume and seeing us for the first time, and it’s just ourselves on stage — it’s a challenge,” says Kashiyuka. “With the technology on a real production, we get to express more of the music and choreography the way that we want to. The technology helps with that.”

“At festivals we’re more aggressive, just to let people know who we are,” A-chan says. “But with shows like [the Future Pop tour], we’re responsible until the very end to make people enjoy the show. So on one hand it’s relaxing, but on the other we feel pressure. There’s so much satisfaction when we overcome the pressure, though, so we can’t stop performing.”

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Despite their fame and futuristic image, Perfume’s members have a relatively low-key public presence by Japanese celebrity standards, and don’t use social media on an individual level. “It’s management policy,” laughs Nocchi, who says she didn’t get a smartphone until the iPhone SE. “We’re the first people who should be doing this kind of thing, but we can’t. It’s more about security for our private lives. We like to post about our albums and stuff on the official Perfume account, but not about ourselves.” 

The group did recently start a TikTok account, however, and I should note that they have all upgraded to the iPhone XS. Kashiyuka started with the iPhone 3G, too, which makes her an extreme early adopter in Japan. “I’m pretty slow to catch on, so I’m surprised when things happen like ‘uh, now the phone recognizes my face?!’” Nocchi says. “But I try to go along with it because that’s how the world is moving.”

As an album, Future Pop isn’t as sonically groundbreaking as some of Nakata’s earlier work, which is perhaps inevitable given the general global rise of EDM and electro-pop. But according to the group, Nakata views the record as the definitive iteration of Perfume. “Nakata-san came up with the title and has his own idea,” Kashiyuka says. “But he said at the beginning when he started producing Perfume, people said that our music is ‘future pop.’ At the time he didn’t think it was exactly futuristic — there was so much more to work on. But now, looking back at everything he’s done with Perfume, he said actually it was future pop and this is like the final result as an album.”

The obvious question, then, is what’s the future of Perfume’s future pop? “Only Nakata knows!” says A-chan. “We believe in him so we’ll follow wherever he’s leading us to,” agrees Nocchi.

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Manabe, meanwhile, is constantly thinking about new technology that can be used for art projects and live performances — he’s particularly interested in generating visuals through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain-scans, although he concedes the idea is probably better suited to the home than the concert hall. 

In the shorter term, 5G networking is more immediately exciting to Rhizomatiks. “The thing I’m looking forward to most is the ability to send video from the audience’s phones to the stage,” Manabe says. “We did an event called Sayonara Kokuritsu at the old national stadium where we asked the audience to take a photo and send to a server [from a special website], then we re-constructed a 3D model of the stadium by using these pictures. But it wasn’t real-time — they needed to send a picture over Wi-Fi [or 4G] and it took too much 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 Rhizomatiks is already working on. Manabe showed me a video demonstrating the concept, albeit only with a few phones connected over a cable. It would be possible to use Wi-Fi for a small number of devices transmitting compressed video, he says, but the tech couldn’t be deployed in a crowded arena without 5G.

A few days before our interview I noticed that Manabe had posted a picture to Instagram of him meeting with Apple SVP Phil Schiller, so I had to ask him what they talked about. “We just had a rough conversation about AR stuff,” he says. “And also how when we get 5G networks, AR technology will change a lot, so we discussed that future.”

Did Apple know about the iPhone X-powered “Tiny Baby” performance? “Yeah, I showed him. They loved it.”