Film Review: WE ARE Perfume – WORLD TOUR 3rd DOCUMENT

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I can still recall the jitters I felt before seeing Perfume live for the first time in the summer of 2011. The Japanese pop trio were set to play the Summer Sonic music festival, an annual event held just outside of Tokyo in a convention center. Ten minutes before starting, I found a spot in the middle of the massive room, surrounded by thousands of other people. That included dudes sporting Perfume gear that marked them as veterans, teenage girls excitedly waiting with their friends and mohawked punks in the back dancing ironically to the pop songs coming out of the PA.

Perfume had been part of my life for two years at this point, having heard their song “Love The World” while wandering around the small town in central Japan I had just moved to. After that first chance brush, their maximalist electro-pop became a go-to on my iPod. Perfume helped me get through tough stretches, both as a way to connect with my new surroundings and just to deal with the emotional dips everyone goes through. They were important to who I was and who I became, and I was excited, in a way I hadn’t been since going to see concerts for the first time as a teenager, waiting for the lights to dim on an aircraft-sized room.

The most resonant scene in WE ARE Perfume, a new documentary focusing on the chart-topping J-Pop group’s 2014 world tour, captures the same release of pent-up excitement I remember so clearly from 2011. Hours before the group holds their first show in the United States at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Palladium, the film focuses on the fans lined up outside the venue. In brief interviews, a steady stream of people talk about how long they’ve waited for the chance to see this group live, and how much that means to them. One woman, while talking about how Perfume’s perpetually upbeat music got her through bad times, cries. It’s these moments, zeroing in on the emotional rush of being a fan of something, that stand out most on WE ARE Perfume, which at its best is a sweet celebration of fandom and a nice present for fans themselves.

Ostensibly, however, WE ARE Perfume sets out simply to document the group’s jaunt through Taiwan, Singapore, England and the U.S., with the latter getting a special amount of attention. It’s right there in the subtitle — WORLD TOUR 3rd DOCUMENT. Like many tour documentaries, viewers first see the trio of Kashiyuka, A-Chan and Nocchi (Yuka Kashino, Ayaka Nishikawa and Ayano Omoto respectively) prepping for their trip, and then follows them to each destination. Footage of the three taking in the cities they visit gets interspersed with concert footage, along with interviews and some biographical interludes.

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(Director Taketoshi Sado with Perfume)

Most of these vignettes offer a peek into the inner-workings of a band that, over the past decade, has become one of Japan’s biggest pop acts. The glances at the inner mechanic of their third tour — post-show evaluation meetings where future set lists get tinkered with, rehearsals, the trio’s routine for getting pumped up — are interesting, though footage of Perfume exploring cities on day offs will probably be the real treat for fans both domestic and international. Like any music-focused documentary, it’s a chance to see a side of the band rarely shown, and in WE ARE Perfume sequences where Perfume visit local landmarks or geek out about Southern California’s In-N-Out burger chain are particularly endearing.

These are all details fans go crazy for, but imagining what watching WE ARE Perfume from the perspective of someone who has zero idea what Perfume’s deal is reveals some flaws. The interview segments scattered throughout offer a brief outline of the trio’s history, but feel brief and a bit lacking, the film never really giving non-fans a reason why they should care about this tour. Which is a bit of a missed opportunity, as Perfume boast one of the more compelling stories of any J-Pop act in recent memory. The group formed in Hiroshima at the turn of the century, and spent several years working in obscurity, nearly breaking up due to lackluster sales. Before calling it quits, though, they released one last single — which earned radio play from influential DJs, and lead to greater exposure, which lead to Perfume blossoming into one of the nation’s top pop acts. This is all touched on, but in a we-had-to-include-this way.

But then again, fans already know the details, and WE ARE Perfume ultimately shines when viewed as a memento for those already onboard. I watched this documentary during the Tokyo International Film Festival, but the crowd filing into the theater on a blustery Saturday morning were Perfume supporters, some of them even bringing in towels featuring the trio’s logo. The two people I sat between cried multiple times during the screening, as did others. WE ARE Perfume might not be a compelling introduction to the group, but it works well as an exploration of the connection between fan and artist.

Fandom of any sorts always looks weird from the outside. In recent years, documentaries focused on artists who inspire such devotion — such as One Direction, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber — have found their way to theaters, mixing biography together with behind-the-scenes shots and concert footage. These are performers who also inspire as much derision as they do praise, and these films rarely do anything to sway naysayers. The best parts of these movies, however, are always the moments when attention falls on what the performer means to the fans — and when the situation is reversed, and the performer feels moved by their supporters.

WE ARE Perfume definitely sits under the same umbrella as One Direction: This Is Us and Justin Bieber’s Believe in this regard. Despite spending time in every stop on Perfume’s third world tour, the bulk of the film focuses on the group’s trip to the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and New York, the only two cities Perfume had not played in before (with the inclusion of their visually dizzying performance at this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival, which functions more as a bonus tacked on as the intro). And, subsequently, the places where fans are most excited to see them.

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The interviews with fans — who oftentimes line up at the doors extremely early — are brief but memorable, as these snippets reveal the importance of Perfume to them personally, while also capturing that special giddiness one feels before seeing a beloved music act for the first time ever. These instances also highlight the ability for fans from all sorts of backgrounds to come together for one shared interest, a vital aspect of fandom.

And it goes the other way, too. The off-day footage of Perfume doing various goofy activities is good fan service, but also carries the unease that comes with any documentary of this sorts. I mean, does anybody really act totally themselves when a camera is following them around? Yet when the trio interact with fans — whether that be at a special pre-show meet-and-greet event, or hearing the crowd sing Perfume songs back at them after their performance – the group seems to let their guard down, and the bigness of the moment overtakes them. Additional context could have helped drive this home for the more casual viewer, particularly how J-Pop outfit rarely plays shows in America and how Perfume somehow built up a U.S. fanbase despite never actively trying to do so. But for fans, simply seeing them achieve something few Japanese artists have in front of people just like them is moving enough.

WE ARE Perfume is, as it promises, a document, capturing one of the most memorable moments in their career. It’s not going to bring any new fans into the fold – they would be better off just diving into the music anyway – but as a movie for fans, it works well. At its best, though, it’s a reminder of the electric feelings seeing our favorite artists in person brings, and the importance of just being a fan.

WE ARE Perfume: World Tour 3rd Document is released in theatres in Japan and the US on Oct 31st.

For more information: Perfume

Photos courtesy of Universal Music Japan  

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