Next Stage with You: Perfume enters the virtual in Imaginary Museum "Time Warp"

Some thoughts on Perfume's online concert Imaginary Museum "Time Warp," now available to stream on Netflix

This feature is part of This Side of Japan issue #32. You can return to the main newsletter here.

A virtual Perfume concert was not a question of “if” but “when.” The trio’s visual theme has historically focused on futuristic technology. They latched on to it during the early days to present their electro-pop music in a more familiar context to an audience new in the genre: the group’s major-label debut, 2004’s “Linear Motor Girl,” practically introduced A-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi as androids. The aesthetic meshed well enough for the group to adopt it as their core visual identity and evolve it into something far greater. Perfume’s live shows have now reached a point where their breakthrough 2013 Cannes performance more resembles a draft to the later spectacles.

Considering the achievements of Perfume and longtime visual-media collaborator Rhizomatiks from the past decade, I couldn’t help but think that last September’s online concert Imaginary Museum “Time Warp” could’ve been more impressive had they’ve been given more ample time to flesh out the idea. The team didn’t necessarily settle on a virtual live set by choice with COVID-19 shutting down in-audience shows for the indefinite future. Perfume themselves had to cancel a promising tour behind their best-of triple disc, P Cubed. The shows didn’t last a month until they had to stop altogether, and from the looks of what’s recorded in their “P Cubed” in Dome DVD, it was a live show that topped the quality of the tours behind their past two studio albums.

Imaginary Museum “Time Warp” begins precisely when Perfume had to announce the tour cancellation, just hours before the show. After a flashback to the breaking news, the virtual set proceeds as P Cubed” in Dome does to show what could’ve been. The intro tune, “Opera,” mixes all of their singles into a seamless mash-up with a holographic pyramid shape-shifting to the beat, like it’s Perfume’s own jukebox machine from the future. Then enters the silhouette of A-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi, dramatically inhaling and exhaling before launching into the earth-shaking low-end of “Game.”

The teaser for Imaginary Museum “Time Warp”

While the whole scene of their “Game” set resembles a computer mock-up of the real thing, it’s more than a sincere gesture to offer consolation to the very audience who couldn’t make it out to the Dome tour. The intro sequence to Imaginary Museum was a must-see for me since I heard it teased as a do-over of the cancelled shows on Perfume old radio show, especially as the details were paired with fan-written comments about how this would’ve been their first-ever Perfume show for many. P Cubed in Dome DVD went on sale a few weeks before P.O.P. Fes, the group’s web festival that live-streamed Imaginary Museum as its main event, so they didn’t necessarily have to repeat themselves. Their decision to time warp, so to speak, feels more of an opportunity to provide closure as well as a moment to relive what people couldn’t before.

Perfume’s considerate gestures carried over to their next song, “Glitter.” The single stands as an emotional highlight in its home album, JPN, with lyrics that turn to the sentimental. “Inside a sparkly dream, we made a promise,” they begin the album mix of the song. “Until that day comes / I won’t cry, I’ll keep thinking of you / I’ll pray, laugh with you.” A bit reminiscent of how it echoed when it was released 10 years ago during the wake of the Tohoku earthquake, the song resonates poignantly in a post-COVID world as we try our best to feel a semblance of physical connection through the power of the internet. 

The realm of virtual reality provided an intimate space for fans to re-connect with Perfume, but it was another thing entirely to consider whether or not it functioned well as a medium that enhanced the group’s performances. Perfume’s technology-fusing sets and interludes are already spectacles on an actual stage IRL, so the hope would be for the online performances to be presented from a different perspective unique to its digital home—a Perfume show that’s only possible in this virtual-reality world.

The show is certainly full of visually stunning moments. The psychedelic “Chrome” interlude is a lot more engaging as a main stream than screened on a Jumbotron in between songs while the audience waits in their seats for Perfume to re-emerge. But some also reveal only a few tweaks from its live versions, calling to question whether or not this part of Imaginary Museum had been better experienced in person. “Edge” in this set loses a bit of its shine without a sense of scale. When performed live, the track is a moment for the three to command the stage, and part of its magic comes from how the three embodies power despite their size relative to the overall venue — they are but three singers, nobody else, dancing in a huge arena. For all they try to build dynamism with eye-catching visuals, their presence feels less imposing when they perform in what appears to be a vacuum. 

Their performance of “Electro World” also doesn’t differ much conceptually from its recent live iteration: much of its visuals are what appears behind the three as they dance to the song. But when the digital and analog details fuse, the product is a full realization of their vision. The Perfume team has long teased this dynamic, augmented digital-live hybrid for years, sharing it in pieces through their Kouhaku Utagassen performances. And the concept finally feels complete as Perfume meet in the direct halfway point of reality and the virtual in Imaginary Museum. Much of its futuristic stage also contains echoes of the original 2005 music video as though to hint at an arrival of what’s actually a decades-long vision.

The music video for “Electro World” (2005)

The best successes of Imaginary Museum had the advantage of having little to no precedent as live material. Perfume debuted their most recent single “Time Warp” for a concert set list, and they made full use of their online venue. After spending nearly an hour surrounded by dominantly white-and-black visuals, the stage suddenly burst with bright primary colors in reference to their music video. The three performed in a borderline vaporwave realm with angular props, checkerboard tiles and retro arcade-game booths popping up around them. It will be tough to live up to this “Time Warp” performance for future tours with a lot of its visual thrills only possible to recreate in a digital world.

Though the online show was put together more by necessity, the virtual set was entirely in character to Perfume as a performance act. It’s almost unfortunate if they shelf this idea entirely once society has returned to the old normal. I want to see the team build more original showcases exclusive to the virtual environment like “Time Warp” rather than adapting pre-existing routines to the platform. If one thing is for certain through Imaginary Museum, however, is that every seemingly new idea from Perfume turns out to be echoes of old ones. Whether or not their next move will see them return to an online venue, Perfume will likely bring an improved update to the ambitious ideas that they tried out here.

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