Perfume, The Biggest Girl Group in Japan, Can See The Future

Refinery29 spoke to the J-pop sensation about finding the humanity and beauty in technology, and having a strong, lifelong female support system.

Squiggly Line
The Shibuya crosswalk in Tokyo, Japan feels like the center of the universe. It’s Halloween weekend, and the iconic neighborhood is buzzing with electric energy. Giant screens advertising everything from TV shows to sports drinks wash the surrounding buildings in vibrant hues. A maelstrom of sound pours out from shops, restaurants, and the hundreds of costumed people crossing the busiest intersection in the world. 
Inside the Line Cube Shibuya, the newly re-opened and re-named performance space tucked a handful of blocks within the neighborhood, it’s easy to forget the chaos outside. In here, it’s Perfume’s world.
Formed in 2000, the multi-platinum electro-pop Japanese girl band composed of Nishiwaki Ayaka (A-chan), Kashino Yuka (Kashiyuka), and Omoto Ayano (Nocchi), is one of the most influential girl groups in Asia today. Only teenagers at the time of their official debut in 2005, the trio, who originally met in high school, went on to release their breakthrough techno-pop hit single "Polyrhythm" in 2007. In 2012, they signed with Universal Music Group Japan and set their sights on the rest of the world, and sold out tours around Asia, Europe, and the United States. In 2015, their captivating, futuristic set became one of the most buzzed-about highlights of South By Southwest, and earlier this year, Perfume became the first J-pop girl band to perform at Coachella. With nearly twenty years together, the band most recently released their best-of album Perfume The Best “P Cubed,” in September.
The intimate Shibuya performance is the penultimate of a special eight-show run called “Reframe,” an updated version of their Reframe series in 2018. In Perfume’s own words, this “dream-come-true of a show” aims to quantify and reflect on their past, as well as foresee what’s to come in the future.
Reframe 2019 finds itself somewhere in the spectrum between concert and performance art. The group serves their biggest high-energy electro-pop hits, but it’s the expertly choreographed visuals that truly captivate and elevate the show to the next level. A-chan, Kashiyuka, and Nocchi don frothy gowns as they dance in perfect synchronicity and interact with the advanced technology — powered by the same company behind the design of the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics — around them. It’s well-beyond lasers and flashing lights. In a meta moment, two of the women use handheld cameras on stage to film the third, her image projected on a large screen behind them; platforms with dynamic LEDs move by themselves around the stage to the beat of the music; sped-up footage of Perfume's 20-year journey plays at various intervals so that the band — and the audience — can see a real-life replay of their lives laid out before them. The entire production is so captivating that the audience is completely silent: as if clapping or announcing their presence would somehow ruin the futuristic magic, and yank them  back into the duller present.
After the closing song, the crowd finally bursts into applause. "Technology is ever-changing and growing, and in many ways, so is Perfume,” the bubbly A-chan concedes. “But there are parts of us that won’t change. I hope you will love us the way we are!"
On stage, Perfume carry themselves with an aura of such precision and other-worldliness that it’s often hard to tell human from machine. But offstage, Perfume is undeniably approachable. Kind-eyed Kashiyuka’s signature waist-length hair is draped over a frilly dress; A-chan, who usually sports a sleek ponytail, has her hair down, and is wrapped in a cozy sweater; Nocchi, a wry smile often playing on her lips, looks comfortable in a simple T-shirt. Seated in a small room backstage, as A-chan’s tiny puppy races around, Perfume look less like women teleported from the future, and more like three thirtysomething friends who share a passion for cutting-edge music and art.
Refinery29 spoke to the J-pop sensation about finding the humanity and beauty in technology, and having a strong, lifelong female support system.
Refinery29: In the span of your 20-year career, how have your dreams or goals changed? 
Kashiyuka: "When we started out, we were teenagers, so were really were just focused on becoming famous singers, which means basically to be on TV."
Nocchi: "But 20 years later, we now know that there's so much more to being a singer than what we had initially imagined. And more importantly, we aspire to so much more. Now, it’s less about how we’ve become singers and become well-known, but our uniqueness and originality that makes us really happy about where we are right now."
How would you characterize Perfume's relationship with technology?
A-chan: “In the beginning, we didn't understand technology very well at all — it was just so far out there. Now we feel so close to it. Every time we release a song, we try to think about the kind of tech we can utilize to elevate the performance. It used to be really, really difficult for us. But as we became more involved, we found that there are human hands involved with every piece of technology, and it's actually very warm."
How do you balance the human side and the technological side? 
Kashiyuka: “It happens naturally. The more we pursue technology, the more love and care we feel from the staff who help us put everything together. I also think it helps bring out certain elements of our individuality as a group, which is very interesting."
How would you say it brings out your individuality?
A-chan: "For one thing, it's our choreography. The more in-sync that we dance, the more it compliments the perfection of the technological elements around us."
Kashiyuka:  “We feel that just standing on stage — the three of us not even dancing —  is like a form of art."
You exude femininity in a very specific way in your performances. How would define it?
A-chan: “What you see in our performances is probably a very Japanese side of us. The strength and beauty in femininity. We don’t necessarily believe that you always have to put everything into words — our messages and our beauty comes out when we perform, and when we dance and sing our individual characters come out."
Nocchi: "The definition of femininity evolves every year for us. In Japan there are a lot of young idols [members of girl and boy J-pop bands] who just focus on being friendly and cute, like we did to a certain extent in the beginning of our careers. But as we grew older, we became more concerned with growing our art for ourselves, without relying on men to tell us how. There's so many role models around us that have that mentality, and we aspire to be like them."
Who are those role models?
A-chan: "Ringo Sheena, a Japanese artist. And also Mikiko, our choreographer. They continue to pursue what they love with a strong will. The fact that they can continue doing what they love is because they get support from all around them. They’re motivated by what they do and what they believe in."
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today coming up in the music industry here in Japan?
Kashiyuka:  “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the biggest difficulty, but something I’ve noticed is that if you start as an idol, I tend to see girls who are struggling to grow out of the ‘idolness' as they get older — the kinds of outfits, performance, and songs that they perform."
What is something that really excites you moving forward together as a group?
A-chan: "We want to stay together even when we become old grandmas. I can’t wait for us to live next door to each other and start sharing dinner. Like, 'Oh, I made too much of this. Do you want some?’” [Laughs.]
How would you describe your relationship?
Kashiyuka: "It's so hard to explain in words. We’re everything to each other: family, colleagues, friends, siblings. A mix. The other two are a part of me. I've actually been looking for that one word to explain our relationship, because our relationship has changed over the years. But there's probably no word to explain it. At least, I don't know it in Japanese."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

More from Music

R29 Original Series