NHK pushes to define culture ahead of 2020 with some help from Perfume

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

With the Pyeongchang Olympics wrapped up, the spotlight has shifted to Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Games. The build up to the sporting spectacular is already well under way.

Much of the focus so far, however, has been on culture. The games are just as much an opportunity to showcase soft power as they are sporting prowess. The Pyeongchang Olympics highlighted this perfectly, with international media delving into South Korean cuisine and pop music. Japan is getting an early start on showcasing what it has to offer as well.

One of the first big events in the country’s cultural push comes via electro-pop act Perfume. Last month, the trio performed a show titled “Perfume × Technology” (also called “Reframe”) at NHK Hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. The dazzling performance meshed an array of high-tech innovations — augmented reality, projection mapping, drones — with the group’s own maximalist songs, and it was the first prominent post-Pyeongchang installment of the national broadcaster’s “Tokyo 2020” initiative, whose live performances are also branded “This Is Nippon Premium Theater.”

“NHK will domestically and internationally broadcast examples of Japanese culture and technology leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games,” says Takashi Yamashita, deputy general manager at the NHK Business Center. “It’s also attempting to show young people in Japan the wonder of Japanese culture and technology.”

NHK is making sure “Reframe” can be seen. The finale of the March 21 show was livestreamed, and the whole thing will air in Japan on NHK’s BS Premium channel on April 29, and then four times on NHK World in May. It’s just the start of a push that is bound to get bigger as the months move on.

Alongside questions like “What will the mascots look like?” and “Wait, this costs how much?!” one of the key concerns of locals has been how the country will present itself at the 2020 Games. Almost immediately after Japan landed the event, commentators began fantasy-booking the opening ceremony. A rumor that an AKB48-like idol group would be assembled for it drew a lot of heat, including from TV personality Matsuko Deluxe who asked that we “please use somebody for the opening and closing ceremonies that wouldn’t be an embarrassment.” One website recently ran a poll to find out which personalities people don’t want to see at the 2020 opening — Akiko Wada and Becky top the list.

NHK is exploring different areas of culture with its approach.

“I would like to integrate traditional arts that receive international attention, subcultures, pop music and things like that with the latest technology,” NHK’s Yamashita says, “and to disseminate it as a new culture that has never existed before.”

In that respect, “Perfume × Technology” imagines an ideal look for 2020. For one, it highlights a J-pop group that has made inroads overseas without turning into a curious oddity. Perfume’s concerts have become essential experiences for music fans thanks to the members’ tight dancing skills and the way they integrate technology into their performances, and the NHK show features some of their most ambitious efforts regarding the latter. Notes shared by NHK after “Reframe” debuted reveal the utilization of lasers, lighting controlled by voice analysis software and even sounds controlled by the speed of the members’ heartbeats.

“I think technology is something warm created by humans with love. We couldn’t stand on this stage and create a piece of art with everyone here without technology,” Perfume member Yuka Kashino, aka Kashiyuka, said from the stage following the March 21 show in Shibuya.

It helps Tokyo 2020 that two of the main architects behind “Perfume × Technology” — choreographer Mikiko Mizuno and art-meets-tech production company Rhizomatiks — both played a central role in the Tokyo segment of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro closing ceremony, which was received well and even made Prime Minister Shinzo Abe look cool for a minute. Part of that program’s success can also be seen in this Perfume production — both ignore the typical gift shop trappings of cliche Japan imagery (samurai, Mount Fuji, geisha) for something different.

“‘Reframe’ was not made with the idea of it being ‘Japan-like,” Yamashita says. “A high-level creative team in Japan made it, so it would be nice to simply accept it as a ‘universal good’ without being conscious of the fact that the Japanese are doing it. I think this is the only way to show the potential of Japan to the world.”

NHK’s next big shows in their Olympic programming both lean heavily on music, first with a show starring Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku at NHK Hall on June 2 and 3 that finds her collaborating with taiko drummers (so, a little more clearly Japanese), while later in the summer they’ll spotlight the band Radwimps.

And that’s just the start. It’s likely other artists and TV stations will start rolling out material aimed at positioning themselves better for the 2020 Games. Already, talent agency Johnny & Associates have created a YouTube channel geared at least partially toward international viewers, while AKB48 is rapidly expanding in Asia and has become a major player in shaping Japanese pop culture in the region.

It’s only going to get more crowded in the months to come. So for now, just appreciate a time when high-tech laser technology and two dozen drones zipping around a music venue is like nothing you’ve seen before.

“Perfume × Technology presents Reframe” airs on NHK BS Premium on April 29 at 11:30 p.m. and is set to air on NHK World Japan on May 20 and 21. For more information, visit www.nhk.or.jp/tokyo2020.