The maze of hallways inside Japan national broadcaster NHK’s TV studios often feel like the backstage area of a concert hall — but at no time more so, perhaps, than during pre-recording sessions for regular TV show “Music Japan.” For while the show introduces some of the country’s leading rock and pop acts, it is the presenters that have become one of the nation’s biggest sensations in the last few years.
Ayaka Nishiwaki, Ayano Omoto and Yuka Kashino, better known as “A-chan,” “Nocchi” and “Kashiyuka” to their fans, make up J-Pop dance unit Perfume. All in their mid-twenties, the usually technicolor-dressed trio formed some 13 years ago in Hiroshima, starting life as an Akihabara idol group, but quickly emerging as an electronic dance unit, thanks to the knob-twiddling wizardry of producer Yasutaka Nakata.
As their live shows grew in both ambition and size – next month they will play at Tokyo and Osaka Dome, each with an estimated capacity of 50,000 – so did their reputation as pioneers of performance in the live arena, with clever choreography, dynamic visuals and high-tech tricks, leading to growing attention from international fans.
BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan caught up with the group at NHK's studios to discuss a burgeoning career that has seen them tour worldwide this year, encounter new fan bases, and release their first new studio album in two years through a recent worldwide deal on Universal Music.
Pristinely dressed, polished, and polite, the girls step out of their dressing rooms, initially excited to discuss their new release that sees their faces adorning billboards and the sides of buildings across the nation. Nearly two years after their last release “JPN” on Japanese domestic label Tokuma, “LEVEL3” is the trio’s fourth studio album. “I just feel like, finally, it’s out!” says A-Chan. “We decided to delay the release date because of our performance schedule, [but] there are many cool songs, so I'm delighted to have people finally listen to them.”
The group is conscious of the feedback and admit to reading their own reviews, but also claim to feel somewhat embarrassed by them on occasions. “They write things that are really unexpected, like ‘the album released by Perfume is soaring across the globe,’ and I actually feel bad when they put it like that. But I guess it’s considered very honorable to become known around the world. Japan is an island, so you need a strong will to want to go out there into the world. So people praise us, saying things like ‘good job on making it out there!’” says A-Chan.
Nocchi, though, reveals her honesty very quickly, showing a dislike for the promotion cycle that surrounds a new record. “We get to hear the interviewers’ take on our new album, so it’s inspirational, but as you repeat the same story over and over again, you kind of lose the true feeling behind that story.”
Now on an international label, the group says that they would like to try a lot of new and different things, but their intense work schedule through 2013 has limited the possibility for experimentation so far. “Even though the core of our music never changes, I try to say the same thing in different ways,” says A-Chan. “But sometimes I find myself feeling frustrated when I don’t do such a good job.”
Earlier this year, the trio embarked on a world tour, covering the U.K., France, and Germany (Read: J-Pop Sensation Perfume Takes Paris by Storm). For Japanese pop acts used to polite crowds who listen attentively, the crowd's reaction in other countries came as something of a surprise to Perfume. “In Japan, we usually would start hearing people shout right before the performance, but in the U.K., people started shouting out passionately, ‘Per-fu-me!’ while clapping forty minutes before the show started, as if it were a soccer game!” says A-Chan.
“Also, when we met about ten fans from each country at the autograph sessions, there was a person who had ‘Perfume’ tattooed on his wrist. That was pretty shocking. He had tattoos on all sorts of places. I asked him, ‘didn’t it hurt to get a tattoo there?’ and he replied, ‘not really,’ then he started taking his pants off and we were like, ‘what is he going to do?’”
“He had another tattoo that said, ‘Love the World,’ which is an album that we released worldwide. He seemed so proud of it. I don’t have any tattoos so I’m not sure how deep a love that signifies, but I think it’s pretty incredible. And there were people who made gifts for us — tissue cases made from Japanese paper, for example. One particular fan said, ‘a Japanese friend gave it to me, but I want you to have it.’ I was like, ‘isn’t it a reverse import!?’ I can buy something like that anytime, but I guess for that person it was something very special. I answered a bit awkwardly, ‘tha…thank you,’” says A-Chan.
The group also discovered that their fan base demographic in European countries was somewhat different to Japan, where the ratio of male and female fans is almost equal. “Overseas, there were more men than women, and also people who were neither!” says A-Chan. “A gay couple came to our singing session and one of the guys introduced to us his ‘girlfriend.’ But the guy gave me a huge rose saying, ‘I love you so much! – I also love him (a guy), which means I like guys, but because I love you so much he doesn’t believe I like guys! Tell him something to convince him that I like guys!’ and I was like, ‘what in the world am I supposed to say to that!’ A lot of extraordinary things happened.”
Perfume have previously described themselves principally as performers, since they leave the music making to their longtime producer Yasutaka Nakata. “I think we are unlike any other group,” says Kashiyuka. “Of course the singing comes first, but we incorporate many aspects including dance and technology into our performances.”
The technology aspect of Perfume is developed by Rhizomatiks, a collective led by Daito Manabe and Motoi Ishibashi, whose work with new media technologies has added a “surreal, otherworldly sheen to the live onstage performances of Perfume” according to art critic Darryl Jingwen Wee.
Yet while one aspect of their live performance seems ultra-modern, the trio seem ironically behind the times when it comes to female empowerment, choosing to present themselves like most Japanese female pop groups — as submissive, docile, doll-like women.
A-Chan explains that their choice of onstage character is influenced by how they actually record. “We record our songs sitting down, because it’s our producer’s belief that a rather cold voice goes better with the techno sound, and I think that’s what contributes to our image of being expressionless. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re Japanese, but I think maybe this explains why we come across as reserved.”
“Foreigners tend to categorize Japanese idol groups (like AKB48) and us as belonging to the same ‘female’ group of acts, but in Japan we are in a completely different genre. We’ve been singing techno and dancing as Perfume for over ten years now, spending most of our younger days devoted to it, but now we are finally being introduced in more mature magazines. We have no intention of comparing ourselves to other groups. We (only) think about how me can make things interesting,” says A-Chan.
A common complaint from fans of all J-Pop acts is about their reluctance to embrace social media and connect directly with their fans, a result of the power of artist management agencies in Japan that prefer to take no risks. Despite the high-tech production values of Perfume’s live shows, the group says they have no plans to keep up with modern trends in terms of fan-to-artist interaction.
“Our music was just recently made available on iTunes. I feel that we need to keep up with the latest trends, but we prefer the analog way. We have a rather Showa-era mentality — we prefer our fans to buy our records and listen to our songs while looking at the lyrics,” says A-Chan. “I don’t really understand the rules of Twitter, but I’ve come to understand recently that it’s an easy way of connecting with others.”
Meanwhile, fan fears as expressed in forums and on Twitter are twofold. While many admirers hope to see the girls become more creative and experimental in the music-making process, they also wonder whether competing personal ambitions in such a scenario might cause turmoil. “It’s impossible for one of us to leave the group, and it’s not like someone can come in and take their place. So I don’t think that’ll change,” says A-Chan.
As with many Japanese and Asian artists of the pop idol variety, the main concern is over the strict restrictions that are often placed on the artist’s private lives. Not only is this something that Perfume don’t deny — they see these restrictions as having been beneficial.
“We don’t feel it that much [now],” says Kashiyuka. We’ve been in this industry since we were very young, when we didn’t know anything. I think the rules helped to keep us safe and provided us with a secure environment that enabled us to do what we really wanted to do. I think if we had been given too much freedom, everybody would have gone their own way, or done something that we weren’t supposed to, not knowing better.”
“Maybe it’s because of a rumor that ‘we aren’t suppose to be in a relationship’, which had caused quite a stir, but this is a restriction that's applied to a very small percentage of artists, I think,” says A-Chan. “It's an image that was required for idols, like the one that says that we never even go to the bathroom… we’ve been in this industry for a long time now and we are doing what we want to do, so we’re allowed to fall in love.”