Sunday night. August 28th. I had the chance to see Japanese girl group, Perfume, perform live at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. I should preface this experience by explaining the exact location and neighborhood atmosphere of the Warfield. It’s smack dab in the middle of downtown San Francisco, across the street from a bunch of homeless people and next door to Crazy Horse, the apparently “world famous” gentlemen’s club. The walk to the theatre is along a vomit and feces stained sidewalk, strewn with homeless people who aren’t really asking for money, but aren’t exactly trying to have a nice conversation either. It’s the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t want to be walking alone at night. But when I arrived at the theater, there were colorful people wearing their Perfume t-shirts and towels, lined up down the block. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that much Japanese, both fluent and shitty, in the downtown area before.
The last time I was at the Warfield was my freshman year of high school, when a boy that I aggressively friendzoned bought me tickets to see Metro Station with him for my birthday. Funny enough, the crowd didn’t seem all that different. There were just twice as many Asians in the crowd is all. I guess maybe scene kids stay scene all their life or grow up to become J-Pop fans. The theater itself is actually a lot more majestic than I remember. The lobby is decorated with a grand staircase, one of those you might find in a rich person’s house that comes down from both sides and merges in the middle. I sat in the balcony because I’m 22 going on 65, and standing in a crowd of sweaty, mostly male super fans didn’t sound all that appealing to me.
Their stage set-up was the most elaborate of any show I’ve been to. There was a high platform set up on the back ⅔ of the stage, with six sets of stairs coming off of it. Two stairways on the furthest edges of the platform, two in the middle, and two stairways on the actual platform to ascend to space or heaven, or wherever Perfume is originally from. A huge screen that ran the length of the platform was displaying a cosmic scene with a message reading “Perfume 6th Tour: Cosmic Explorer” periodically appearing to remind audience members who they came to see. There weren’t any opening acts on the bill, so from the moment I entered the theater, I heard fans chanting from all corners of the room. “Perfume! Perfume! Perfume!” they all yelled, as if the group had already come and gone and they were waiting for an encore. I’ve never really understood why people chant for an artist to come out on the stage 30 mins before the show starts, when you know what time the show is supposed to start.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of non-stop chanting, the lights dimmed and an announcement came on over the speakers.The screen lit up and the instrumental intro track off their new album Cosmic Explorer, started rolling. An elaborate video sequence was playing, showing the three girls wearing Star Trek themed cosmic exploration gear The staircases on the platform started moving towards the center to form a big stairway to space as the intro was ending and everything went dark. Suddenly, the stairs parted to reveal KashiYuka, A-Chan, and Nocchi, who were hidden under the stairs the whole time! Then the intro to “Cosmic Explorer,” the title track off their new album, started blasting and the trio delved into their well-rehearsed routine of fast paced dance moves and perfectly executed jumps, while wearing 5-inch heels.
I had never seen Perfume live before, but I had an idea of what they were going to be like in my head. I’ve seen Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before, and though her performance seems like a novelty, after the second time seeing her, I realized that she just sticks to the script and does the same things every time. There wasn’t a whole lot of improv or ad-libbing or, well, originality in her performance, and that’s what I was expecting from Perfume too. But I was pleasantly surprised when they took the stage after a whirlwind of dancing, jumping, and singing, to just talk and interact with the audience for a solid 20 minutes or so. They started with their infamous “We are Perfume!” spiel then proved, once again, that they are the most likeable pop group from Japan. These girls are so incredibly cute. There’s no other way to explain it, really. Everything from the way Nocchi mistakenly said, “I wanted to see us too!”, to the way they looked around the theater for cosplayers dressed as them, and the way they recognized a young cosplaying couple from their last show, it was all just cute. And not a cheesy, try-hard kind of cute, but a genuine and endearing cute that came through in their honest and earnest desire to just interact with their audience.
At one point, they asked for a volunteer to translate their Japanese into English so they could talk to the audience beyond the few phrases they had prepared to speak. After scanning the crowd, they settled on John, a sweaty and bespectacled white guy who turned out to be a more competent interpreter than most bilingual people I have met in my life. They passed a mic back to him and started telling stories about what they’ve been up to in San Francisco since they arrived. If you ask me, they did the most cliché tourist activities, but that’s beside the point. They spent three hours shopping at WestField mall and each bought a large suitcase that they claimed was a huge size they had only ever seen in America. “It looks like I’m rolling around a dresser!” said an excited A-Chan. She also said that she wants to come back with her younger sister, so next time she’ll pack her sister in the suitcase to bring her to SF, as evidenced by this timely Instagram post.
They also confessed their newfound love for clam chowder bread bowls from Boudin. So much so that they decided to split up the crowd in two and have one side be “clam” and the other “chowder.” “When I say ‘clam’/’chowder’ you say ‘yay!’” was a common phrase revisited through the night. Following the chatty interlude, the ladies went into a segment that I think should be mandatory for any artist that puts on live shows. The medley. Specifically the “Perfume 2016 Medley,” a smorgasbord of all of Perfume’s biggest hits, but literally only the parts of the songs that you care about. It’s almost like a greatest hits album thrown together in one song, and give you the same kind of satisfaction in less than half the time. If all artists did this, people wouldn’t be walking away saying “God, I wish they played that song!” because if not the full song, at least you got to hear the part that you wanted to snapchat to your friends anyway.
After the medley, there was an explosive, beautiful instrumental dance break that featured strobes, galactic backdrops, and meticulously timed projection onto individual, moveable screens. Whoever is Perfume’s art director deserves a fucking award because the incredible projection mapping breakdown sequence was out of this WORLD. I mean, it is “Cosmic Explorer” after all. But it was so perfectly timed and executed, the whole crew behind this tour deserves a round of applause. Did I mention that during their first song there were DRONES flying around the stage in formation? You had to see this show to believe it, man.
They had another section of all talking in which they kind of tried to do a call and response with the audience. It started out with them calling out words and the audience woo-ing every time they identified. “Boys! Girls! Glasses! Contacts! Natural! T-Shirts? Perfume T-Shirts?” From there, it just devolved into them singing a song that I haven’t heard since I was maybe 5 years old. There was a Japanese children’s TV show I used to watch called “Okaasan To Issho” (“With Mother” and they had a segment called “Hamigaki Jyouzu Kana?” (“Are you good at brushing your teeth?”) Who would have thought that 17 years later, I would be hearing this jingle at a Perfume concert? More bizarre antics ensued, with an inevitable nod to Pokémon Go. Perfume went above and beyond and had their own “rare Pokémon” that everyone in the theater helped “catch” with a bright pink Perfume custom pokéball. Infringement lawsuit from Niantic pending, probably. What followed was the weirdest sequence of the girls dancing on the stage chanting “Apple!” “Banana!” “Cheeseburger!” over and over. I’m not really sure what was really going on here, but who even cared at this point? They were freaking cute while they were doing it.
What’s crazy to me is that Perfume plays venues like Budokan and Tokyo Dome in Japan. Huge 50,000+ cap venues. Meanwhile, we were sitting in a 2,250 cap theater, where even from the back of the theater you could make out their facial expressions. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Even though they kind of ruined my life by singing my favorite song off their new album, “Baby Face,” in English (I mean one of the lyrics translated as “The way you sound fool, always trying to be cool” smh) I still love Perfume with all my heart. Thank you, Perfume, for reminding me why I love J-Pop and that Japanese music still has something unique to offer that isn’t “kawaii.”
Their best song that they DIDN’T PLAY. #sin
They closed by saying, “We have a dream to play Madison Square Garden someday.” I would say I can die happy now that I’ve seen them play live, but I don’t think I want to die until I see them play MSG.