Teenagers in Tokyo pose by a Japanese photo booth known as “Purikura”.

TOKYO – A pair of Japanese school girls prep their hair in front of a long mirror, preparing for the perfect shot. But they don’t take a smartphone selfie, but a “Purikura” photo booth.

Old style photo booths have made a comeback in parts of the world in recent years as they have a nostalgic value in the smartphone era. But the Purikura – an abbreviation for the Japanese pronunciation of “Print Club” – offers much more than a simple strip of passport photos.

With a dizzying array of retouches, enhancements, and embellishments, they remain hugely popular 25 years after their debut in Japan, especially with teenage girls and young women who are enthusiastic about their “kawaii” or cute output.

And 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 launching a new model this year.

Nonoka Yamada, 17, has been a Purikura fan for nearly a decade and told AFP 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 and the camera lens was too high so I had to stand on my tiptoe,” she laughed.

Purikura offers more than a simple smartphone selfie, she added.

“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.”

– Survive the selfie era –

The first Purikura was the idea of ​​the Japanese company Atlus, who launched the product in July 1995 in collaboration with Sega.

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 a toll as users were increasingly able to take and retouch photos on their phones for free instead of paying around 400 yen ($ 3.80) for a sheet of generally 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, a former subsidiary of the Japanese electronics company Omron.

“In 1997, we launched our first machine with Omron technology that featured cartoon faces. It was a total flop,” admitted 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.

And while 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.

– “Spreading the Purikura Culture” –

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 and more sophisticated, offering hues and shades to create the appearance of perfect skin or a slimmer face.

And while smartphones and apps offer retouching functions, Hikita stated that there is still space for Purikura.

“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 coronavirus 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.

And as a sign of the sector’s continued appeal, Sega announced this month that – more than two decades after the first model was launched – it would be introducing a new version later this year with the aim of “spreading the purikura culture”.

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