In late 2008, a YouTube video began to circulate online of a bespectacled man with electrodes attached to his face, short bursts of electricity making his muscles twitch in time to a soundtrack of glitchy electronica. Titled “electric stimulus to face -test3“, the clip would eventually rack up more than 1.7 million views. Its creator, Daito Manabe, has posted 150 such videos, charting his ongoing experiments to forge a tighter, happier relationship between man and machine — even if it requires some obvious discomfort on his part.
Anyone who caught J-pop trio Perfume on their European tour during the summer will have seen Manabe’s work in action. The group performed their futuristic electro wearing elaborate white dresses that acted as a canvas for a constantly morphing kaleidoscope of digital graphics, which in turn interacted with the images being projected on screens behind them. Manabe may insist that he’s “not doing anything complicated” with the stage show — a combination of motion capture, visual programming and projection mapping technology — but the effect is dazzling.
A man of multiple talents — programmer, composer, designer, DJ, VJ — Manabe had been bugging Perfume’s people for three years before finally getting a chance to work with them. “I was a big fan,” he says. “Eventually, [Perfume choreographer] Mikiko got in touch, saying that they wanted to do something interesting at their Tokyo Dome show, and asking if I’d be able to help them out.” That was 2010, and Manabe has since become a pillar of the group’s creative team, using his programming nous to transform their gigs into immersive tech fantasias.
While the grandiose concert setups of many contemporary pop acts can end up diminishing the performers, reducing them to mere specks amid so much bombast, Manabe’s work has the opposite effect. In his meticulously programmed environments — achieved with technical support from members of his company, Rhizomatiks — the players on stage are able to mesh with the visuals around them, becoming somehow magnified and transfigured in the process.
“If you’re just projecting images, it’s not all that interesting,” he says of his work. “But if those images are interacting with people, it gets more engaging.”
The audience at this month’s all-night Electraglide party at Makuhari Messe will be able to see another example of Manabe’s visual magic, as he reunites with Los Angeles-based producer Nosaj Thing. In the promo video for the latter’s lush, melancholy “Eclipse/Blue”, Manabe worked with Perfume’s Mikiko and regular collaborators Takcom and Satoru Higa to create a hypnotic short that was both technically complex and disarmingly simple in its execution. Filmed in a single take, it showed two dancers performing on either side of a screen, their bodies glistening and fading away as stellar clouds and swirls of light billowed and erupted around them.
“With most DJs and VJs, there isn’t such a close relationship between the music and the visuals, but we’re using programming to create a much tighter bond between the two,” Manabe says. Mikiko’s intricate choreography for the video — devised prior to the imagery — also gave him plenty to work with.
“Sometimes the technology comes first, but this time the music was the starting point,” he says. “There’s an artist called Nosaj Thing, and my job is to think of the best way of representing his music to the audience. I use technology for that, but it’s not the most important thing.”
Perhaps that’s what separates Manabe from many of his programmer-geek contemporaries: a sensitivity to the fact that there’s more to life — and art — than the latest technical innovations. And as a guy who attaches electrodes to his face can probably tell you, a little sensitivity goes a long way.