Towards the beginning of Patrick St. Michel’s 33 1/3 series entry on Perfume’s Game, there’s a section where he discusses the impact on him personally of hearing their music for the first time while living in a quiet town in rural Mie. He talks about how J-pop was really the only domestic music available, and how discovering this strikingly different act appearing right in the heart of the mainstream gave him a way to connect with people he knew and worked with.
This was interesting partly because it reminded me a throwaway line in my own book about the Japanese music scene, Quit Your Band!, about how music had been partly a way to connect with the alien culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t something I’d thought of much at the time, but a lot of readers picked up on it as a significant insight.
It’s also an interesting piece of context for someone like me, whose experience of life in Japan has always been at the opposite extreme, having been embedded in the Technicolor blur of Tokyo from the very start. As a result, the appearance of Perfume impacted us both in different ways. To St. Michel it gave a foothold in mainstream culture and a way to connect with students and coworkers. For me, it injected a plastic-electric speedball of icy pop cool into an underground music scene that could often be drearily earnest.
That difference in how we both received Perfume may go part of the way towards explaining the pains that St. Michel goes to to emphasise the humanity and emotion at the heart of Perfume’s music on Game, which is an aspect I’ve tended to skim over or dismiss in my own interactions with their music. More than that, his willingness to engage seriously with their music on that level is important in ensuring this book is a rounded discussion of the group.
After these personal reminiscences, the book kicks off in earnest with a brief history and analysis of synth- and electronic-based music in Japan, from Isao Tomita through YMO and new wave groups like P-Model and the Plastics. Crucially, it also draws explicit parallels between Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata (of post-Shibuya-kei duo Capsule) and ’90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who did similar work in introducing overseas dance music ideas into mainstream Japanese pop, albeit on an even larger scale. St. Michel makes the good point that for all that Perfume were trailed as a “technopop group”, their music was never really technopop in the historical sense. To interject my own thoughts here, what Perfume really inherited was a curious sense of nostalgia for the future that acts like YMO seemed to promise, and perhaps for the future that technology promised more broadly in postwar Japan. It’s partly from this nostalgia for lost futures that the melancholy that St. Michel astutely identifies in Perfume’s music derives.
The book also takes some time to put Perfume themselves in the context of Japan’s idol tradition, noting how pop singers would on occasion intersect with electronic pioneers like Haruomi Hosono of YMO in their careers. I think the Candies are a particularly important group to bring up in relation to Perfume, not only for the visual similarities between the two trios (a lot of people I know remarked at the time that Perfume seemed like “an electro Candies”), but also because of how the founder and chairman of Perfume’s talent agency, Amuse, had actually been the Candies’ manager back in the 1970s when working for their agency, Watanabe Productions. One key parallel not mentioned in the book might also have been the late-’80s/early ’90s duo Wink, whose flat emotional delivery and synthpop-based arrangements contain further early echoes of Perfume’s style and aesthetic.
St. Michel goes beyond the historical idol parallels, though, and lays out in some detail the extent to which Perfume were, especially in their early days, deeply embedded in the machinery of post-millennium idol production. Their origins in a stage school bootcamp, the handshake greeting events, handing out flyers on the street in Akihabara, the live video messages to fans from the basement of a shared house – all these gimmicks the group went through mark their early career as having been managed along typical idol lines.
All of which makes the distinctive form the group ended up taking the more striking. Two key points St. Michel brings up underscore this. The first is how he remarks on Nakata’s use of the word “cool” to describe the musical aesthetic he is reaching for. This is important in differentiating Perfume from other idols, because “cool” as a concept is largely non-existent in idol culture; icy reserve has no place in a world where all emotions must be on display to the maximum level. The other point is the extent to which Nakata’s decision to use an actual polyrhythm in the song Polyrhythm was considered controversial. So-called “underground idol” acts nowadays occasionally play around with ideas from indie or experimental music, but for a group in 2008 aiming for a big hit, the idea of including something so radical in a song gave record industry execs palpitations.
In discussing Perfume’s influence, St. Michel makes further good points, noting the way the copycat acts they inspired all failed to replicate their success and noting the way Nakata’s career as a producer was perhaps the most striking immediate domestic result of Perfume’s rise to fame, with the group’s lingering influence on the Vocaloid scene perhaps its most enduring. The subsequent appearance of AKB48 (and we could perhaps add K-pop, with the electro influences that coloured much of it) carved a path for pop music in Japan to follow in a way that ensured Perfume remained a one-off. What the book doesn’t discuss is the way Nakata’s success with Perfume may have helped open the door for more indie and indie-adjacent songwriters and producers wo be given more or less free rein with idol groups, with the success of Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada with groups like Momoiro Clover (Z) and Dempagumi inc. a notable example.
St. Michel’s discussion of Perfume’s (and in particular Nakata’s) overseas influence feels a bit overstated, but it’s nevertheless interesting. One part that stands out in particular is his discussion of Perfume’s much-touted performance at South By Southwest in 2015 from the perspective of someone in the hall at the time. The contrast the way parts of the performance were clearly designed for consumption on video outside of the venue (and presumably also in part for re-consumption back home in Japan) set against the more intimate experience of the audience of mostly hardcore fans inside the room felt like something worthy of more discussion.
In fact, if this slim volume (it’s a single comfortable afternoon’s read) is lacking, it’s that it raises interesting ideas that St. Michel doesn’t always pursue. There are many legitimate reasons why he may not have wanted to bore readers by spiralling into esoteric discussions of semiotics, but it nevertheless feels like he holds back at points. While the book analyses the music and lyrical themes of the album in an often illuminating way, the approach is never really critical. St. Michel acknowledges the influence, that Nakata typically elides, of Daft Punk (themselves pretty free with their influences) on Perfume’s sound, but not the extent to which some of their music directly references them (pre-Game songs like Linear Motor Girl and Electro World have direct parallels with Digital Love, while Nakata cribs liberally from One More Time all over the place). St. Michel alludes to but doesn’t deeply interrogate the relationship between Perfume’s music and commercials – in particular the way songs are written specifically for the commercials rather than simply being licensed for them post-fact. Meanwhile, his praise of the emotional complexity of Perfume’s songs perhaps overstates their sophistication, or else it understates the sophistication of a lot of other contemporary J-pop and idol songwriting.
The flipside of these criticisms, however, is that St. Michel writes about Perfume with a lot of affection, and it’s often infectious. Opening with a personal anecdote about his introduction to the group and the impact they had on him contextualises this affection and gives him a license to discuss the band in his own way, which he does all the while taking in a lot of broader context about the group’s origins and the history and environment of the Japanese music scene as a whole.