When the Nippon Budokan was built in 1964, its architects probably never envisaged it one day resembling a massive nightclub filled with hundreds of laser beams in every shade of neon as three women in lightup minidresses danced like finely tuned robots to the sound of the bassiest bombast imaginable. But this is exactly what Tokyo witnessed last week when the venerable venue hosted four concerts by chart-topping J-pop trio Perfume.
Five hours before the May 11 show, Ayaka Nishiwaki (better known as A-Chan, pronounced “ah-chan”), Ayano Omoto (Nocchi) and Yuka Kashino (Kashiyuka) are giving The Japan Times their first ever — and so far only — sit-down interview with an English-language publication.
Though they are known for their pristinely crafted image, the three 23-year-olds greet me in casual wear, minimal makeup and, in A-chan’s case, one of those white surgical masks you wear if you have hay fever or a cold.
“I’d love to play a concert overseas,” muses Nocchi, the ice-cool one, who speaks the least during the interview. “I think our music is really cool, but we also take great pride in our live performance, so I’d love people to see our show, and I’d love for us to be able to meet those fans at the concert venue.”
This isn’t just a pipe dream; it’s actually on the cards. After five years of domestic chart domination, in February Perfume finally took its first steps toward going global, signing to Universal Japan and making its 2011 album “JPN” and recent single “Spring of Life” available on the iTunes Store in 50 countries around the world.
The catalyst for the group’s management company, Amuse, to break Perfume away from previous label Tokuma Japan Communications and sign up with the world’s largest major came last spring, when “Polyrhythm,” the group’s signature single, was used on the soundtrack for the Pixar movie “Cars 2.” The three young women and their staff attended the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles — and were astounded by the reception they received.
“As we were walking the red carpet, some American fans were screaming ‘Perfume! Perfume!’ ” recalls A-chan, with her eyes wide; she speaks the most in interviews and while there’s no officially acknowledged leader, she’s clearly the driving force. “I was like, ‘Why do you even know who we are?!’ One man — a large, older guy — gave me his bandana, which he said he’d worn constantly for eight years, and a DVD he’d made about his undying love for us. We’d never released anything outside of Japan and we were signed to a domestic label, so those fans could only have known us through the Internet.”
Ah yes, God bless the Internet. While preparing for this interview, I sent a message over Twitter to canvass Perfume’s fans for questions. An avalanche of responses came from all over the world — the United States, Europe, Brazil, Indonesia and so on. The Internet has helped spread Perfume’s fragrance far and wide — but the trio themselves say they had no idea of their impact.
“It’s such a strange feeling,” says Kashiyuka, speaking in a serene, calming manner, her eyes even wider than A-chan’s. “The idea that people are listening to us in countries we haven’t even visited ourselves … ”
“It’s giving me goosebumps,” A-chan adds.
So, now what? Yes, Perfume has successfully found fans around the globe, but that doesn’t yet make the group a global success. There’s still plenty of work to do.
Lucky, then, that A-chan, Nocchi and Kashiyuka don’t mind hard work. Since forming the group in 2000 while at Actor’s School Hiroshima (Nocchi joined later, replacing Yuka Kawashima), the girls’ own desire to become pop stars galvanized them long before they signed with Amuse, and the retro-futuristic choreography that has become their trademark is the result of a masochistic devotion to discipline.
“Some of the dance routines are really fiendish,” A-chan laughs. “But we’ve worked with the same choreographer (Mikiko Mizuno) for over a decade, and we have great faith in her, so I want to choose the more difficult routines — the ones that look really weird or unnatural. Regardless of how much it hurts, I want to push myself to the limit.”
In hooking up with producer Yasutaka Nakata in 2003, the lines were drawn clearly: He would create the music — an addictive multilayered concoction of J-pop with elements of electro-house, chiptune and Shibuya-kei — and they would handle the performance. Nakata is responsible for the acidic digital hooks of “Laser Beam,” the throbbing bitcrusher bass of “Chocolate Disco,” and the polyrhythms of “Polyrhythm.” It’s a tantalizing marriage of art and artifice.
Perfume is totally upfront about this arrangement. On stage at the Budokan last week, the members joked about how aloof studio boffin Nakata keeps all the “coolest” songs for his own band, capsule. And the audience was happy to indulge: I spotted at least two guys in the crowd dressed as Nakata, complete with bleach-blond wig and capsule T-shirt.
The sound Nakata perfected for Perfume with 2008’s breakthrough album “Game” caused a resurgence in demand for off-kilter electro-pop, at that time a niche genre, with labels rushing to release similar artists such as Immi, Sweet Vacation and Urbangarde. One, Pony Canyon, even signed Swedish bedroom producer Lain Trzaska to release music by his Perfume-esque virtual singer She. And Nakata himself has continued to work with capsule as well as singer Meg and, more recently, rising Harajuku fashion icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
“Sometimes I hear a song and I think it’s by us!” A-chan laughs. ” ‘Oh, is that us? Oops, it’s someone else.’ Sometimes I think it might be a song by Nakata, because he does work with lots of other artists. For example, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has suddenly exploded in popularity. But she’s very interesting and I enjoy listening to her music, so I don’t really have a problem with it. If something’s cool, I think it’s cool. If I like it, I like it.”
Of course, hard work and world-beating tunes are not necessarily enough to crack the global market, and Perfume faces a language barrier that could hobble its chances abroad. Also, an overseas push requires an investment of time and resources — an investment that few Japanese agencies have so far been willing to make. Putting the songs on the global iTunes Store is a step in the right direction, but if it isn’t followed by another step, Perfume’s overseas ramble could be cut short.
Kimitaka Kato, managing director at Universal Japan’s international division, says he is fully aware of the pitfalls.
“There aren’t many Japanese artists who’ve ever really made it abroad,” he admits, explaining that Perfume’s global strategy is currently still in the hands of his Japan team, rather than local Universal offices around the world. “We’re working to come up with creative ideas so that it is easier for the international territories to try to market Perfume. They don’t speak English, but their dance tunes and the way they perform could work abroad.
“I don’t intend to change the essential creative part of Perfume,” he says, noting that although he would like to eventually use overseas producers, he has no intention of sending Nakata packing. “I don’t want them to lose their Japan-ness.”
Consider the Koreans. K-pop as a genre has become a talking point in Japan and in the West, thanks largely to a concerted effort to adapt to target cultures. Working with international producers and singing in Japanese here and English over there, groups such as Kara, Girls’ Generation and Big Bang have managed to integrate and sell records — but does this mean they don’t sound Korean anymore?
A-chan doesn’t think so.
“The Korean language sounds really cool, and K-pop artists do that thing where they repeat one word over and over, which is really appealing,” she says. “I think the Japanese language has that sort of appeal, too. It has a particular sound, a cuteness and a femininity. So I hope that people can hear us as part of a wider Asian sound.”
Kashiyuka feels Perfume has a lot to learn from the K-pop contingent when it comes to global conquest.
“When a Korean artist comes to Japan they often speak (to fans and media) in Japanese, which is wonderful,” she says. “It makes me happy that they can communicate in my language, and of course it makes it easier for them to express themselves. I’m not sure whether we’d be able to sing in English, but if we go abroad, I hope to also learn at least a little bit of that country’s language.”
Kato suggests Perfume might not even need to do that; he has a suitably futuristic idea in mind.
“I’m trying to find a way to make it easier for them to express their feelings and emotions in different territories using Japanese but maybe using technology that can translate their language immediately,” he says. “This is something that we need to find ways to do.”
Language certainly didn’t matter to “Cars 2” director John Lasseter, who wanted to use a J-pop song — for the first time ever in a Pixar movie — for a scene set in Tokyo.
“The moment I listened to ‘Polyrhythm,’ I loved it. It was like falling in love,” Lasseter reportedly said at the film’s premiere.
“It wasn’t us asking them to use it, but them coming to us and asking if they could use it,” A-chan says. “What a surprise. It was like it fell from the sky. They told us that they’d had a long list of Japanese songs to check out but they chose our song without even listening to the rest. The song is in Japanese, but this made us realize that language is irrelevant. It taught me that cool music is cool wherever you are.”
Domestically, Amuse was canny to use product endorsements to help build Perfume’s fan base and to get the group on TV screens and billboards. In Japan, there’s less of a credibility problem surrounding advertising; and since there’s not much in the way of genuine music programming on TV, Perfume’s appearance in ads for everything from Pino ice cream to Kirin drinks has played a vital role in squishing them into the nation’s ears.
“It’s helped us to reach people who hadn’t heard of us, or who had heard our name but not listened to any of our music,” Kashiyuka says. “Recently we’ve noticed more women at our concerts and I think it’s because of the adverts we’ve appeared on.”
Audience participation is indeed another key part of the equation. The Budokan is a vast hall, but Perfume’s members have charisma in buckets and spades: Their engagement with the crowd, picking people out of the 9,000-strong audience to chat with from the stage, made it feel as intimate as a club venue.
On CD, their voices are chopped up, processed and used by Nakata as just another instrument, which might explain why the songs find such easy appeal among fans who don’t speak Japanese. But to really understand Perfume, you don’t need a CD. You don’t even need to sit across a table from them and ask them questions. You just need to see them on stage, with all the lasers, the clockwork dancing, the fan interaction and the bass.
And since neither A-chan nor Nocchi nor Kashiyuka expects everyone around the world to come to the Budokan, the only solution is to take their show to the world.
“We’ve always been about the live experience,” says A-chan, her surgical mask hiding what the twinkle in her eye betrays as a smile. “We used to play lots of street lives in Japan, so we’re ready to clamber onto any stage, any time.”
Perfume plays the Outdoor Theater at Ginowan Seaside Park, Okinawa, on May 26 (5:30 p.m.;  712-4221); and Summer Sonic 2012 (Osaka on Aug. 18; Tokyo on Aug. 19). For more information, visit www.perfume-global.com.