Every story's gotta start somewhere. This one starts in Hiroshima, with three girls who had the same kanji character in their names, 香. The character means "fragrance", and the group was Perfume.
Formed in 2000, Perfume was Ayaka Nishiwaki, Yuka Kashino, and Yuka Kawashima, who soon left the group and was replaced by Ayano Omoto. The trio would go on to tap Tokyo's gaming and otaku culture as they became one of the country's biggest groups.
The group's early singles, like "Sweet Donuts" and "Vitamin Drop" were influenced by Shibuya-kei. Shibuya-kei was a style of music and fashion popular during the 1990s. Wearing French pop on its sleeve, groups like Pizzicato Five epitomized Shibuya-kei. The group's Shibuya-kei influences were no accident. Perfume was being produced by Yasutaka Nakata, who also wrote their lyrics. Nakata was behind late 90s neo Shibuya-kei group Capsule.
An early, 2004 single, "Monochrome Effect"—famously featured on American Dad—wasn't a hit in Japan and didn't even break the top 100 on the sales chart, but it would provide a blueprint of sorts for Perfume's geeky, techno-infused pop. The song came out just as chiptune music was being commercialised.
Later that year, the group retrenched and relocated to Akihabara. Perfume began performing on the Akiba sidewalks as street idols and hanging out with voice actress and singer Haruko Momoi. It was during this time that Perfume began accumulating the nerd cred it needed.
Singles like "Computer City" and "Electro World" showed Akihabara's influence. Perfume was no longer a post-Shibuya-kei group, but a technopop group.
Nerd cred builds a loyal base, but the group still need something to push it over the edge to nationwide success.
Nerd cred builds a loyal base, but the group still need something to push it over the edge to nationwide success. Their breakthrough came in 2007 when they began appearing in TV commercials and at the Summer Sonic music festival. Their single "Polyrhythm", which is being featured in Cars 2, broke the top ten in 2007 and Japanese music games like DDR and Taiko no Tatsujin. Their next single, a double A-side called "Baby Cruising Love/Macaroni", broke the top five. Their music was catchy and poppy. The trio wasn't gooey idols, they weren't overly sexualized. They were cool girls singing about computers and electronics.
Perfume had arrived. They were the Candies of their generation. Their debut album, 2008's Game, hit number one on the Japanese music charts. Since then, Perfume has followed up with a second album, Triangle, which also debuted at number one. They now appear in commercial ad campaigns for ice cream and cola—one of the true measures for success in the Japanese entertainment business. They've reached the top. That's not only a long way from growing up in Hiroshima, it's a long way from Akihabara, too.
Click through the gallery to have a listen to Perfume through the years.
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(Top photo: Tokuma Shoten)