The first “Purikura” was launched in July 1995, and the stalls quickly became a popular feature with schoolgirls in previously male-dominated arcades. They have evolved since then
By Mathias Cena / AFP, TOKYO
A pair of Japanese school girls prep their hair in front of a long mirror, preparing for the perfect picture. However, you do not take a smartphone selfie, but use a Purikura photo booth.
Old-style photo booths have made a comeback in parts of the world in recent years due to their nostalgic smartphone-era value, but the Purikura – an abbreviation for the Japanese pronunciation of “Print Club” – is much more than a simple strip of passport photos.
With a dizzying array of retouches, enhancements, and embellishments, they remain hugely popular even 25 years after their debut in Japan, especially with teenage girls and young women who are delighted with their kawaii or cute output.
Despite the competition from smartphones and increasingly sophisticated retouching apps, at least one Japanese company is relying on the continued attractiveness of the Purikura and is bringing a new model onto the market this year.
Nonoka Yamada, 17, has been a purikura fan for nearly a decade and said that she and her friends use it several times a week.
“All the girls in my class take purikura,” she said as she prepared for her picture in a department store in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood.
“The first time I used one, I was eight years old and the camera lens was too tall so I had to stand on my tiptoe,” she said, adding that Purikura is more than a simple smartphone selfie.
“It makes you look cute, you can change your face,” she said. “I want to put the pictures on Instagram … the pictures are of good quality with good lighting.”
The first Purikura was the idea of the Japanese company Atlus Co Ltd, which launched the product in July 1995 in collaboration with Sega Corp.
The booths quickly became a popular feature in Japanese arcades, where long lines of schoolgirls waiting for their pictures to be taken transformed the previously male-dominated arcade customer base.
Other companies quickly entered the market, which was worth more than $ 950 million a year in 1997. However, the selfie era took its toll as users were increasingly able to take and retouch photos on their phones for free instead of paying around $ 400 (US $ 3.78) for a sheet of around 16 photos.
Some manufacturers went under while others gave up the Purikura business for more profitable endeavors.
Today there is only one manufacturer left: FuRyu Corp, a former subsidiary of the Japanese electronics company Omron Corp.
“In 1997 we launched our first machine with Omron technology that offers caricatures. It was a total flop, ”said FuRyu spokeswoman Yuki Hikita. “It had nothing to do with what young girls wanted, probably because it was developed by middle-aged men.”
The company has begun to consult customers directly and attributes the focus grouping to longevity.
In recent years the market has stabilized, with around 10,000 purikura across the country – after the 1997 high of 50,000.
Although the stalls are less common these days, they remain popular – a FuRyu phone app for receiving Purikura photos had 19 million registered users as of March.
Yuka Kubo, an independent researcher studying the purikura phenomenon, has followed the evolution of the booths over time.
Early models showed little more than cute borders around photos, and the first limited edition retouching tools were introduced around 1998.
Facial recognition technology, introduced in 2003, made it possible to change specific characteristics, particularly the eyes.
“That was the beginning of the giant eye fashion,” said Kubo, referring to a popular feature that gives customers the look of anime characters with the eyes of a deer.
“A competition between manufacturers began, driven by the demand from girls to see who could offer the biggest eyes,” she said.
Over the past few years, retouching options have become more sophisticated, offering hues and shades to create the appearance of perfect skin or a slimmer face. While smartphones and apps offer retouching functions, there is still room for Purikura, according to Hikita.
“Getting a good selfie on a phone takes a bit of skill,” she said.
With purikura “everything is automatic, with professional equipment and lighting, like a studio photo.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant new measures to keep customers safe, including disinfectants at every booth, but not keeping fans out.
“Customers are already coming back, much faster than we expected,” said Hikita.
As a sign of the sector’s continued appeal, Sega announced this month that – more than two decades after launching the first model – it would be introducing a new version later this year with the aim of “spreading the purikura culture”.
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