Sacred Sites and Screenic Figurines

Perfume at Love Japan Night, National Stadium Tokyo

published in Real Time No.124, Sydney, 2015

Zaha Hadid Architects’ New National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is declared to be “a piece of the city’s fabric, and urban connector which enhances and modulates people moving through the site from different directions and points of access”. Tokyoites are more concerned about the bulldozing of one of Japan’s most important psycho-cultural edifices of the post-war reconstruction. The original National Stadium is the ground zero of Japan’s rebirth for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It’s where Katsuhiro Otomo sites Neo-Tokyo thirty-one years after the Third Nuclear War in his allegory for Japan’s mid-Showa era of advanced industrialisation, Akira (serialised 1982-1990). He famously compared the stadium’s concave black hole to a convex white detonation, suggesting that Bubble-era Japan was doomed to karmic cycles of decimation.

In this sense, the National Stadium is a sacred site. ZHA’s New National Stadium misses this point: instead of accepting negative space as form, it negates space to construct form. It tolls the bell for a diminishing spatial respect for which Japan is renowned. A wake of sorts was held at the original National Stadium. But it wasn’t organised by city planners or architects, or even sports people. Over two days and nights, a stellar array of Japanese pop and rock artists staged a festival to honour one of the major venues for live music in Japan. Broadcast by BS-SPTV and NHK World in May and August this year, the stand-out performance was by Perfume: a trio of Idol singers from Hiroshima who in the later ‘00s became Japan’s most successful ‘Techno-Pop’ band, crossing over from being a pure Idol invention into a group produced by Yasutaka Nakata (originally from one of the key Shibuya Pop groups of the late ‘90s, Capsule). For Love Japan Night, Perfume performed a selection of their hits in modified presentation from their earlier tours, which cannily resonated with the significance of the event and its site.

Prior to their entrance, three giant screens stand spread across the stage. On the side screens, a circle is drawn in phosphorescent lines. It quickly becomes a pair of cross-hairs, rotating and tilting. From their centre, a teeming waterfall of light shoots upwards. Typical of anime physics, everything is reversed, as a zillion particles form an energy beam which distorts gravity. From this reconstructed zone, six stiletto shoes appear. The audience screams in delight; Perfume are in the house. Neither live nor living just yet, they’re being invented and constructed before our ears and eyes. In a vertically-rising reverse strip-tease, the stilettos grow feet, calves, thighs. The light intensifies, as does the cheering crowd. At crotch-height, a cloud of blinding light particles rises, then morphs into the glowing upper-body silhouettes of the three members of Perfume: Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A~chan. There they now stand, thin waifs of vaporous wire-frame form, each with hair resembling a perfect wig: short, medium, long. Molecular transporting in Star Trek was never this erotic.

The glow of the three formed bodies is reduced as they stand, silent and faceless. They’re transparent cellular creatures from the fathomless oceanic digitalia, born of light, now rendered as exo-shapes. Then, a red heart beats in each of them, recalling the red beating orb of Neo-Tokyo in Akira. In perfect synch to their joint pulse, a battalion of glow-sticks in the audience throb red (itself an amazing technical feat of wireless convergence). Everything glows red for flashing seconds with each heart beat. This isn’t just Perfume as a band: this is symbolic of life being created, stimulating the audience as part of the ritual. Their life-forms fade into black, leaving only the three red hearts.

After a second of silence, the side screens blast us with giant close-ups of the faces of Perfume. Head and shoulders like an ad for hair conditioner. Faces bleached and glowing white like the creation of the fake Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1925). In vocoded tones they chime: “Welcome To The New Arrival”. The audience knows the track well: “Edge” from their 2009 album Triangle. It was claimed to be their ‘80s’ inspired album, but like all such projects, it’s completely of its own era. A phalanx of bass-synths percolating in a mix of pseudo-analogue warbling and sharp digital grunting straddles three decades of synth programming in a recombinant DNA effect of what in Japan is called ‘Techno Pop’.

To this instrumental opening, the three screens create a wide panorama of tilting neon-tubes, like a Dan Flavin exhibition shot through a kaleidoscope. This is Perfume’s music visualised appropriately as a network of patterns – interlaced, braided, convolved, matrixed. It sounds like Kraftwerk put through an aural kaleidoscope. Then in the centre stage, three 6-metre tall light boxes are pushed out from the centre screen. They each show a life-size video image of Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A~chan, beautiful cyborgs striking a sassy but casual pose with arms folded. The music continues its dramatic ascent as their bodies slowly rise upwards, engulfed in a series of pulsing halos, again referencing Metropolis. From within these boxes, the three girls of Perfume emerge from rising platforms, perfectly synched to their projected images. The virtual becomes real; Perfume is now in the house. They launch into their Autotuned-vocals with low-key synchronised movement, somewhere between calisthenics, synchronized swimming, postmodern ‘anti-dance’, and plain preening in front of the mirror. Indeed, it’s the hybrid of these forms of movement which constitute Perfume’s choreographed charm. And they pull it off effortlessly, like glacial catwalk models liquefied into a series of poses as if they’re waiting to be served at a department store.

Beyonce’s amazing projection-mapped performance of "Run The World" at the 2011 Billboard Awards is a landmark for this type of integrated body-staging. The prowess of her integrated corporeality defines her stage presence as she literally controls the screenic space. Conversely, Perfume are ciphers, vessels, figurines that meld with the screenic space. They become indistinguishable from it. While Beyonce quotes military multiplication and self-empowerment, Perfume quote figurative phantasm and self-sublimation. Throughout their set, their physical bodies are treated as miniature figurines engulfed by their own supra-images and meta-forms. At one point, they even sit on the floor with their backs to the audience and sing along with their giant projected faces. Calmly, they ponder their own existence within the vortex of simulated data all around them. It’s like they’re not even there. Within the context of a celebratory mourning of a site about to be destroyed, they become sacrificial maidens offering up their audiovisual selves to the sacred site of the National Stadium. I hope their spirits haunt the New National Stadium.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © BS-SPTV/NHK World.