Perfume: Lost in Translation?

[We] would like to make music that crosses all country borders, and just perform music that all people can enjoy.

Perfume are a powerhouse electro-pop group that have dominated the Japanese music scene for over a decade, selling upwards of four million records domestically. Defined by their signature hairstyles, architectural costuming and heavily processed synth vocals, Perfume are a rare musical beast, imbued with a level of creativity and a singular mission that is exceptional in the oversaturated vocation of pop music.

Hailing from Hiroshima, Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A~chan, as they are affectionately known, are J-pop trailblazers. Their objet d’art music videos, clockwork choreography and uncanny rhythmic beats have intensely influenced the genre, vaulting them into the echelons of legends in their native Japan. Routinely packing out giant stadiums, their high-tech performances, resplendent with lasers and light shows, have delighted crowds for years. However, while home-grown success has been plenty, their atypical style unfortunately hasn’t been able to fully translate across the pond.

Unlike K-pop bands Girls Generation, Twice and Wonder Girls, who have managed to find a modicum of Western success by adapting themselves and altering their original presentations to suit convention, Perfume have remained resolute in their image and sound, not wanting to wholly forsake their Japanese-ness. Kimitaka Kato, the managing director of Universal International, stated that they wanted “to sell the package as they are now.” Commendable as this attitude is though, not having a command of English has inevitably hindered their chances of achieving true global renown — if this is indeed the goal.

While touring America and Europe over the years, they have found rather inventive ways to interact with the audience, picking out interpreters from the crowds to playfully translate stories while also employing the use of simple English greetings, even though they feel “a bit shy when [they] do.” In the end however, talent can fundamentally transcend a language barrier when on a stage, but in an industry that is so warped and defined by marketing and how you present yourself to the fans at all times, mainstream acceptance will remain elusive without a secure handle on this.

Interestingly enough, despite not yet breaking through entirely and achieving large chart success, Perfume have nonetheless caught the attention of many notable Western names organically. They collaborated with Ok Go on a track called I Don’t Understand You, their song Polyrhythm featured in Pixar’s Cars 2 and Grammy Award winning Pentatonix even released a medley of the band’s most iconic singles.

Rolling Stone also included their sixth studio album Cosmic Explorer in their “20 Best Pop Albums of 2016” list, praising Perfume’s “indelible hooks,” and describing their work as a “dance-pop mini symphony.” While these may only be small dents into the market, the trio are continually proving that their inimitable genius can certainly overcome a roadblock like language when they are given a chance. In an interview with NYLON, A~chan spoke of how proud she is that they have managed to make an impact across the world despite not fitting a prescribed mould: “It gave us so much confidence as Japanese artists.

While it seems improbable that they will reach the heady heights of global success now, it is refreshing to see how pockets of devoted fans have continued to sprout up around the world nonetheless. Limited media hype abroad has meant that Perfume have relied almost entirely on their craft to achieve this feat.

It was always going to be difficult for the group to really crack the international markets, and not just because of the difficulties with language. The creation and consumption of pop music differs wildly in Asia and for Perfume to remain authentic to their aesthetic, they potentially would have to forsake the very attributes that contribute to their uniqueness. Personally, I don’t understand a word of Japanese, yet what makes Perfume so intoxicating is not necessarily their lyrics, but the whole sound and visual presentation they offer. Their music and artistry is a vibe that can joyfully eclipse language if you let it.